Poetry Speaks Expanded is an overview of recorded poetry from the beginning of sound recording to the later years of the 20th Century. The first CD begins with recordings of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Walt Whitman. These recordings were originally made on very early technology and the sound quality isn't good, but there is a palpable sense of history being made in the readings and its a privilege to hear them now. The CDs also include what may be the only recordings of HD (Hilda Doolittle) and Melvin B Tolson, as well as a wealth of poetry from many of the most influential poets of the 20th Century.
The CDs give a fascinating insight into the development of performance styles in poetry. Earlier poets were more inclined towards chanting or declaming their words whereas later poets give more intimate, more nuanced performances. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Robert Hadyen struck me as having particularly appealing reading voices. Jack Kerouac performs with accompaniment from jazz musicians, while Gwendolyn Brooks delivers her poetry in an engaging conversational tone that I had heard in the poems as I read them before listening to the CD. Other poets, like Ted Hughes and Dylan Thomas sounded just as I had imagined them to, while some like Denise Levertov sounded totally other than I had expected. It's interesting in the case of Elizabeth Bishop to note the changes in her reading style in the thirty years between the original recording of The Fish and that of Crusoe in England. Some of the poets are recorded giving introductions to their poems, TS Eliot for example apologises for taking time to warm up, while Langston Hughes gives some important background information behind his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
The CDs demonstrate very clearly the importance of poetry as a spoken art form. The poems are felt differently when they are heard read by the original poet. William Carlos Williams is a real case in point for me. I have only recently really learnt to really enjoy his poetry but hearing him read Queen Annes Lace in particular gave me a much fuller appreciation of his work. The rhythm and music of the words become so much clearer. As much as anything it is totally amazing to hear all these famous poets actually reading their own work.
The book and CDs together are a great resource to act as an introduction or overview of English language poetry over the period. I think they could be particularly useful for anyone who teaches literature.
You can read my review of the book here.