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.
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.
For the past few weeks, The Oddest Inkling has hosted a guest post for each poem in Charles Williams’s 1938 collection Taliessin through Logres. In case you missed them, here’s the whole list of posts.
Speaking of Arthurian literature, here’s a great post by David Russell Mosley on why the King Arthur legends have been such a fascination for writers and readers for so long.
Since April is National Poetry Month, I decided that this post would focus solely on poetry-related links. But, because this month also saw the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (and the 452nd anniversary of his birth, although no one knows exactly when it was), I threw in some Shakespeare links too.
Last week, the first full-length biography of novelist, poet, and Inkling Charles Williams sprung on the literary world (in Great Britain; the US release date is scheduled for December 29). Leading up to the book’s release, its author Grevel Lindop tweeted a fact about Charles Williams every day for 100 days. Because I know a good many of you are Charles Williams fans, and an even bigger number of you love The Inklings, I’m posting the full list here, complete as of October 28. (I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the ones I find most interesting. :))
#1 – In 1942, Charles Williams was called in by the Oxford University Press to exorcise a haunted building (now the OUP shop) in Oxford High Street.
#2 – Charles Williams attended the same school as the only English pope, Nicholas Breakspear, Pope Adrian IV.
#3 – Charles Williams’s favorite novel was Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe (“Baron Corvo”). [Editor’s note: An interesting little summary of that novel can be found here.]
#4 – CW’s [paternal] grandfather was a militant atheist & republican who named one of his sons Cromwell.
#5 – Charles Williams won a bronze medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics—for poetry.
#6 – CW’s Rosicrucian motto “Qui Sitit Veniat,” “Let him who is athirst come,” is from the Bible’s very last verse apart from St John’s colophon.
This week’s prompt is “Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught X 101 (examples: YA fantasy 101, feminist literature 101, magic in YA 101, classic YA lit 101, world-building 101).”
Well, I’m not interested in YA, I’ve never read anything approximating “feminist literature,” and I just barely know what “world-building” is. Really, poetry is one of the few literary topics on which I feel semi-confident. So here we are.
Of course, I’ve never really tried to teach poetry to anyone else, so all I can go by is which poems helped me to understand poetry the best.
I think I can safely say that this poem, Milton’s 23rd sonnet, is what got me to start caring about poetry in the first place. For once, I was able to get a sense of what the poet was feeling as he wrote, something I had thought largely impossible in a form as strict and arbitrary as the sonnet. The paradox Milton poses in the last line also amazed me quite a bit, to the point where I began to wonder if there was something to this poetry business after all. I know there are better sonnets out there, but none have affected me as much as this one.
If Milton was my introduction to traditional verse, it was Auden who gave me an appreciation for more modern forms of verse. This poem is written in a very informal free verse style, but when you pay attention what Auden is saying and how he says it, it’s actually pretty clever, despite its lack of formal structure.
Like Milton’s poem, this one showed me what poetry can do. Something about the way Chesterton waits until the last line to reveal his main subject–and until then, builds a whimsical-sounding riddle around it–made me eager to read more from him and from all of the other poets I had been neglecting.
No one less than a poetic god could write something like this. Since the rhythm of the poem adds so much to the spooky atmosphere, this one is perfect for demonstrating what a careful meter can do. Plus, it’s tremendously fun to read.
These days, Dorothy Sayers is known best as a mystery writer, and sometimes as an essayist, but nevertheless, her poems are breathtaking. Like “The Destruction of Sennacherib” and “The Raven,” this poem has a fun, musical sort of rhythm to it, one that showcases the beauty and artistry that goes into writing old-style poems.
Simple, true, and beautiful, just as a poem should be. Since half the power of poetry is its ability to say much in a few words, I think this one is perfect for bringing the evocative nature of poetry to the fore.
Since this is a poem about poetry, I found it very useful for understanding the rationale behind writing poems, as well as the way poets find the balance between the hubris of Percy Shelley (who said that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”) on one side and the pessimism of W. H. Auden (who said that “Poetry makes nothing happen”) on the other.
Once, after being assigned to write a free verse poem in school, it occurred to me that I had read almost no free verse poetry in my life. I then followed my teacher’s advice and looked up some free verse poems to give me an idea of what I was working toward. I downloaded Pound’s first published book Personae from Project Gutenberg and not only did it make free verse click for me, but I also found this little gem which I have loved ever since. The metaphors, the imagery, and the brief but beautiful language of this poem make it a wonderful introduction to free verse.
Here’s the thing about this poem: unlike most of the ones on this list, it’s terribly modern. Meaning, it was first published this year. Normally, I have little interest in such poems, but this one is actually wonderful. Since a poetry class would have to cover the latest trends in poetry as well, I would hold up this poem as an example of what ought to be done in modern poetry.
Most book geeks are well-acquainted with the name of The Inklings, the Oxford-based writers’ club founded by C. S. Lewis and attended by J. R. R. Tolkien which served as a crucible for some of the twentieth century’s greatest works of fantasy literature. Throughout its long history, The Inklings had dozens of members, however, the majority of them have been forgotten by most readers. Recently, I began reading my first novel by one of these more obscure members and today, I intend to introduce him to you.
His name was Charles Walter Stansby Williams and he was born in London, England on September 20, 1886. Growing up in a lower-middle class family, Williams was not brought up in prestigious schools and universities like many of his contemporaries: he attended London University for two years on a scholarship, however when the scholarship money ran out, he was forced to quit school, as his parents could no longer afford his tuition. Instead of finishing his degree, Williams went to work, first in a Methodist book room, then as an all-purpose office boy at the Oxford University Press.
Today, I am participating in the “Top Ten Tuesday” meme, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is “Top Ten All Time Favorite Authors,” and since I love bragging on my favorite authors, I decided to avail myself of this opportunity to do just that.
(Keep in mind that these authors are listed in no particular order. I love them all too much to rank them.)
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’ve only been slightly obsessed with To Kill a Mockingbird for the past two years and have been eagerly awaiting the release of Go Set a Watchman for most of this year. (Only eighty-four days left!)
Not only is To Kill a Mockingbird easily one of the greatest novels in the history of mankind, but also, I’ve found that I enjoy Lee’s writing style more than that of most authors. She is perfectly clear and concise while still being eloquent and eloquent without seeming pretentious. Even though the second book is on its way, I still can’t help wishing there were enough Harper Lees to fill a shelf.
I don’t think this really needs explanation, does it?
I’m not going to lie: I couldn’t love this man any more if he was my own grandfather. Not only are his stories works of genius in and of themselves, but the passion that Bradbury showed for writing and stories is infectious; it adds an extra layer of brilliance to anything he writes. He has probably impacted me more as a reader, a writer, and a person than any other author I’ve ever read. As the man himself said, if you lifted my skull, you’d see his thumbprint on my brain.
L. M. Montgomery
Montgomery was probably my first “favorite author.” Growing up, I read all of the Anne books and was never let down once. (Except when I read Anne of Windy Poplars. I recall that book being insufferable.) It’s been a long time since I’ve read the Anne books, but looking back on them, I think they might be the reason why I love poetry now, as well as the reason why I gravitate toward flowery, dramatic prose. L. M. Montgomery has marked me for life.
Edgar Allan Poe
I’ve only recently starting reading Poe’s work and most of that has been poems, but already, he has become one of my favorite poets. I cannot even imagine the amount of skill it took to write something like “For Annie.”
C. S. Lewis
Come now, who doesn’t like C. S. Lewis? (Besides the usual suspects.)
Honestly, there have been a few times when I’ve thought that Lewis was a bit overrated, but other times, I’ve read things of his that I’ve loved so much, I wanted to kiss him. He’s certainly one of the most brilliant men to ever put pen to page, as well as marvelous human being independent of his work.
Tennyson was my first favorite poet. When I was about eleven, I came across some of his poems in a quotations anthology and thought they were wonderful. Even now, I’m a bit in awe of Tennyson. Take for example these lines from “Locksley Hall”:
Love took up the glass of Time, and turn’d it in his glowing hands;
Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.
Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;
Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass’d in music out of sight.
Doesn’t that break your brain just a little bit?
Spurgeon is better remembered as a preacher than as a writer, but nevertheless, his books and articles are gold mines. In addition, his writing style has a sort of Victorian flourish to it that I love.
Donne is another recent discovery of mine. I’ve already said that I was staggered by Edgar Allan Poe’s talent, but Donne makes him look like Shel Silverstein. I’ve particularly enjoyed his “The Canonization” and “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” There’s something about those old sonnets that makes you feel a little better about humanity.
W. H. Auden
I tend not to take kindly to modern poetry, but for Auden, I make an exception. The man is a genius, one who rules the English language with an iron fist. In addition, I find his “pervasive, sardonic angst” as one person termed it refreshing in a realm of poets who seem to be filled with angst but have no readable way of expressing it.
There are ten of my favorite authors. Who are your favorites?