The Voice Behind the Voice

I suppose it might be a vice, but I think its intoxicating to listen to recordings of poets and writers I already love. This is odd, because I don't like it in reverse - for instance, reading song lyrics that I heard first makes them feel somehow less - maybe I've just never had the right experience, but removing a spoken word to the page feels like translation and reduction. Taking a poem on the other hand, and having the poet read it, feels like a different, entirely separate work of art, particularly if I already know the written work well enough.

I was reminded of this, this week, when I listened to Madeleine L'Engle read an audiobook of "A Wrinkle in Time" (by the way, whichever of my friends knew this existed, and failed to notify me, I'm very disappointed in you (j/k)). When I first read this book as a kid, I believed Ms L'Engle was British, actually - I imagine it was simply that where I lived, people did not have lovely, romantic names that must be spelled with apostrophes, and that are difficult to alphabetize properly. And though I did learn better, this manufactured voice is what I heard the book read in, pretty much my whole life. Listening to Ms L'Engle changed this entirely, for me, made m understand the book in a slightly lisping, cranny-filled Northeast accent in a way that made the book even more beautiful than it had been.

It also reminded me of two New Yorkers I've heard the voice of: Jack Kerouac and Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman, who was recorded so early we're lucky to have him at all, positively shocked me the first time I heard it - his poetry is all fire and boldness, and I pictured it being read like a sermon, the way that Dylan Thomas (hilariously, to me) reads his poetry (no, seriously, listen to him read, its like the 'Death Comes Unexpectedly' scene from Pollyanna, and was WITHOUT A DOUBT imitated (poorly) by me in the golden days of Death and Baby Death if you've wondered). Mr. Whitman, though, first of all has an accent that we tend to resere now for movie characters (the closest analog in terms of dialect in my mind is the masterfully researched performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York (warning for content on that one - I'm just saying it was well researched, I've never been able to stomach the film well enough to tell if I like it). Only, instead of the accent being in a continuous snarl, You hear this strain of almost fragile love through everything - all that poetry about the wide, expansive united states, poetry we often asscoiate with empty fields and rural imagery (also his voice, and a strange, strange commercial on top of it all) suddenly compressed into a little garret anda drinking hall in Greenwich.

In other poets one hears something else - Plath and Woolf and Sexton are all recorded reading their work, and each one, in my mind has this edge of something almost like hatred in thier tone, almost like they are daring you to listen, the cycnic trying to hope. Sylvia Plath recordings keep me awake at night.  Or in a James Joyce recording, one hears how fully he inhabits what he's writing, how much his writing really was simply a voice in his many-voiced head. Or with Yeats, you hear his fragility, his tottering air of almost continuous shock at the world he's in.

Anyway, it's December, and I thought about these all this morning, and I thought I would collect links to listen, in case you've never heard them. If you know any other revealingly recorded poets and writers, I'd love to hear about them.

Madeleine L'Engle reads from "A Wrinkle in Time"

Sylvia Plath reads "Lady Lazarus" or "Daddy"

Virginia Woolf reads an essay entitled "Craftsmanship"

Anne Sexton reads "The Truth the Dead Know"

Dylan Thomas reads "And Death Shall Have No Dominion"

Jack Kerouac reads "Charlie Parker"

WB Yeats reads "The Lake of Inisfree"

James Joyce reads from "Finnegan's Wake"

Walt Whitman reads "America"


Lu @ Regular Rumination said...

Dear Jason,

Please please please please please sign this post up for December's Poetry Project. Because it is an excellent, wonderful, awesome post.

Thank you,

Jason Gignac said...

I'm really glad you enjoyed it, I didn't think it matched the questions on your mid-year reflection?