Six Poets Who Actually Give Good Readings

There’s a long-standing stereotype in the poetry world that says that poets always give terrible readings of their own work. And while this generalization does bear out for some poets (looking at you, Eliot), this is by no means the rule for all. On the contrary, I’ve found quite a few poets who not only give pleasant readings, but sometimes actually add something to their poems by the way they read them. I’ve compiled a small list of these poets below.

1: Seamus Heaney

My favorite poetry reader. His speaking voice, of course, was beautiful, but this is merely a complement to his real strengths: an impeccable sense of timing, perfect rhythm, and a willingness to let the poem occupy its own space, which is surprisingly rare. Another part of the reason I enjoy Heaney’s readings so much has to do with the man himself: his quiet, unassuming demeanor belies the power, even the brutality, of some of his work.

Harvard has a large collection of Heaney’s readings online, but there are plenty of them elsewhere as well.

2: Sylvia Plath

Between that Mid-Atlantic accent and her skill as a voice actress, Plath was quite a unique reader. Listen here to how she hits the beats in this very sound-heavy poem. Notice those little dramatic flourishes too, like the mock pity on the line, “Daddy, I’ve had to kill you.”

3: Anne Sexton

Ms. Sexton was also quite the performer: the rolling of her eyes, the dramatic toss of the head punctuating certain lines. Admittedly, both her voice and her manner can seem a little overwrought at times. Still, I’ve found that, on a good day, her readings can be captivating things.

4: W. H. Auden

A matter of taste, perhaps: I happen to like Auden’s readings very much, though some people have called them flat and stilted. See for yourself:

5: Dana Gioia

A staunch believer that poetry is just as much for the ear as for the eye, Gioia is careful to give his poems time to hang in the air. He leaves you time to take in what he’s saying, as he says it. Plus, as he mentioned during the reading I’ve linked below, he usually recites his poems from memory, which is cool.

6: Philip Larkin

Personally, one of the things I like about Larkin’s poetry is his droll and somewhat dark sense of humor. So it helps that his voice too has a droll, depressive sound to it. I especially enjoy his reading of “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” where, I think, he transitions perfectly from the sardonic to the heartfelt.

Are there any poets (or actors, teachers, whoever) whose readings you especially like? Let me know in the comments.

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