Time travel with the ancient aural art

Among the literary arts, poetry almost always needs oral performance to bring even the solitary reader close to the text. In efforts to record poetry, too its authors almost always are the best choices for performing their own works. This week, take a poetry break and learn about lives and dreams from the mouths of the poets giving their literary art immediacy, whether you are generations away or remember seeing their lines in print.

Amiri Baraka read at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Decker Library, 14 September 1992, an occasion and performance preserved in its entirety. The MICA Archives include more than 100 readings and lectures by poets and artists. Many of the recordings here were made at local performances in Decker Library, including this 1973 reading by Allen Ginsberg. Listening to Baraka and Ginsberg across a quarter- and nearly a half-century offers something more compelling than nostalgia: these poets committed vestiges of their immediate social and political contexts to sounds that resonate with listeners in the here and now.

Recording of William Carlos Williams are preserved at the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound Center. These tiny, literally seconds-long audios offer him reading his “The Red Wheelbarrow,” on three different occasions, spanning 1942 to 1952. One poet, one poem, and three different pacings give listeners the opportunity to appreciate how each time we express ourselves, the expression is just a bit different, perhaps easier—or more difficult—for the listener to access. PennSound also contains a treasure trove of Adrienne Rich reading her works on a great number of occasions, including this 1988 poem, “Divisions of Labor,” that speaks of matters that continue to be trenchant nearly 30 years on. Also available at PennSound, Francisco X. Alarcón’s “Letter to America”, published first in 1991, is indeed an anthem for today, both in word and performance.

Gwendolyn Brooks‘ recording of her 1983 “The Lovers of the Poor,” available at the Poetry Foundation, rings clear in meaning and voice. Hearing this with 2017 ears occasions images of protests that have included majority co-opting of minority voices. In addition to such prize-winning poets as Brooks, the Poetry Foundation’s recordings also offer new poets, including Hannah Sangee Park, heard here reading “And a Lie,” in a feature providing a poem a day for listeners who want to explore contemporary poets at the cost of a moment of two’s daily attention.

The Internet Poetry Archive offers a diverse handful of poets, including Nobelists Seamus Heaney and Czeslaw Milosz, the latter reading in both Polish,“Rozmowa Z Jeanne,” and English, “A Conversation with Jeanne.” At this source, too, is a Vietnam War veteran and American poet who writes with an accessible honesty that may surprise those who believe they don’t like poetry. Start with Yusef Komunuakaa’s reading of his “My Father’s Love Letters.”

There is good reason for the Muses of Poetry to be considered the eldest of the Greek personifications of human wisdom. Poetry has been with us always and, thanks to a vast array of open culture archives, we can now hear poets who have been recorded since voice preservation has facilitated access for listeners. Take the time to travel back on these sound waves, and take another listener with you.