Christmastime, my mom's living room, visiting relatives, small talk, blah. People I don't know that well were talking about things I don't know much about, like the Eagles and High Definition TV. I just smiled and let my mind drift. Ha ha, I thought. H.D. Like the poet. They should make that. All Hilda Doolittle, all the time, like those radio stations you hear about that play nothing but Led Zeppelin, or the stores that open up in September to sell only Halloween stuff. Every channel would have a free-verse story about the Greeks gods or a perfect, striking image of the rain. Yeah, that'd be awesome.
Everyone kept talking and eventually I realized that I have H.D.TV, sort of. I may be a person with a 12-inch TV and no cable hook-up, but I'm also a person who received the Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work for Christmas. And let me tell you, the major entertainment around here lately has been listening to poets of the 19th, 20th, and 21st century read their work.
And yes, I said 19th. When I opened the lovely 4-CD set I saw that the first readers were Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Walt Whitman. I was like, That can't be right. It must be someone else reading their stuff. But no, it's really them, in recordings made in the 1890s by Thomas Edison on a wax cylinder. Amazing, but you have to be familiar with the poems for your ear to find the contours of their voices in the warbly, dim recordings.
H.D. is also on Disc One, but Disc Two is my favorite, full of the mid-20th-century poets with their big bright personalities. There's Muriel Rukeyser, whose blunt reading of the wonderful "The Ballad of Orange and Grape" reminds me of my no-nonsense 88-year-old next-door neighbor. There's Dylan Thomas, who I laughingly described as pompous to my friend Frank, a poet and my editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Frank has the same collection, and he defined Thomas' reading style as formal, like an Anglican divine, chanting the verse as if it were part of the liturgy. Anne Sexton is on there too, spooking me by reading "All My Pretty Ones" and "For My Lover, Returning To His Wife" in her husky, been-there voice.
Ah, but then there's Disc Three, with Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Ted Hughes, and Sylvia Plath. About her, Frank said: Listen to that reading of "Daddy" and tell me it isn't distinctly seductive — sexually-charged, even. Sure enough, it's kittenish, coy, electrifying. The fourth CD features the newest poets, including Kevin Young, whose poetry already feels like bebop on the page — you should hear him do it, all jazzy syncopation, so much like music.
And indeed, you could make the argument that poetry is always better heard than read, that you need to feel the rhythms and hear the intonations to really get the intent. But there's something else besides that I found useful about listening to these people read their poems, hearing their surprising voices, their occasional chuckles, their very human breathing, throat clearing, nervousness. Poems I already knew have new life, now, because their authors are known to me in a whole new way — as people.
Katie lives outside of Philadelphia where she writes and makes zines. Address love letters to email@example.com.