End of the Year Listening

This week we take a half-step east of audiobooks per se to listen to recordings of live performances by a poet and a comedian. Both expressive forms are intended for auditory consumption and, in these selected cases, offer a shot of wry retrospective to go with current day events.

First up, Allen Ginsberg—Beat poet, comfortable performance artist, and more truthsayer than the provocateur he was accused of being—reads America. From atom bomb talk to TIME Magazine obsessing, this over-60-year-old invocation of the United States as hazard zone currently requires no historical explanation even to those a quarter of the poem’s age.

George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine, here as recorded in “Occupation Foole,” recorded in 1973, tracks the words involved in what became a First Amendment case arising when Carlin was arrested the previous year for speaking seven particular words aloud to an audience during his comedy performance. Last week’s news about a demand made of the Centers for Disease Control by Executive Office policy analysts included a different set of words, and yet the number of them—seven—puts a nearly biblical twist on US government suppression of vocabulary choices.

Among the delights of listening to such recordings is hearing the speaker’s actual delivery. This is a far cry from being left to read what a student wrote down as he heard Plato speak. We hear the places that matter to the speaker, even under the audience’s responding laughter. The leverage of direct access to intonation and pacing proves to be more than extra; in these two cases, the speakers’ good humor can give us some hope in light-heartedness itself.