For the past 10 years, I have been walking 3-4 miles every day, most days plugged into a podcast or an audiobook. Listening with my feet, walking with my ears, I have wended my way through most of Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, through some Trollope and Austen and modern works by Nick Hornby, Toni Morrison, and others. But much as I love poetry, I have not heard much poetry on those miles, though it would be perfect for my walks through Sippo Park, past the lake, into the woods, past the library. There just aren’t many full-length audiobooks of poetry available.
So I totally agree with David Orr’s proposal in his recent New York Times essay, “Toward an Oral Art” that we should have more audiobooks of poetry. Orr outlines problems with producing them and offers some good solutions. However, the immediate response in the letters to the editor involved why this wasn’t necessary and why his ideas wouldn’t work.
It’s so like poets to immediately squabble about any new(ish) idea for poetry. Hell, I love Natasha Tretheway’s new poetry column in the Sunday NYT Magazine, and yet the first thing I did was write a complaint about the cartoons that accompany them. The cartoons are horrid, but Tretheway’s choices and intros are wonderful. The column has been a terrific addition to the new magazine format. To me. Several poets have complained about Tretheway’s intros. Why can't we say something nice? Why can't I?
Here I go: Yay David Orr. Several of my own life experiences suggest to me that Orr is onto something, and I hope against hope that an audiobook poetry series comes of it.
First is my own lifetime experience with the orality of poetry, beginning with my parents reading to me from my Better Homes and Gardens Storybook and a tiny 1951 book titled Mother Goose: Her Best Known Rhymes. I come from a family that can (and does) recite “The Owl and the Pussycat” and all five verses of many church hymns and any number of other long poems in unison from the sheer pleasure of reciting. I like the visual component of poetry, too, but I tend toward its sound component most. Some nature, some nurture there.
Then I when I was 20, I attended my first poetry reading: William Stafford at Ohio Wesleyan College in 1971. Wow, I felt like I was experiencing poetry in a so many more dimensions than I had ever known: the poem embodied in the body of the poet that made the poem. The voice of the voice of the poem. The backstory behind what isn’t a story. I went back to my own college campus, found some funds, and hosted Stafford there two nights later during an opening he had in his schedule.
And I have been trying to bring poets to people ever since, on campuses, in the prison program I taught in, at a national park I worked in as visiting artist. Somehow, a poetry reading by the poets themselves brings poetry to people better than anything else I have used.
For 18 years I ran a writers series at a small university in western Ohio. The audience response was nearly always enthusiastically positive, but after every poetry reading, at least one and usually many people came up to me and said, “I never thought I would enjoy that so much. I’ve never liked poetry.” No one ever said, “I never thought I would enjoy that. I never liked novels [or short stories, or essays or memoirs.]”
Never? I would ask. Not Mother Goose rhymes or Psalms? Not Ogden Nash or Robert Frost?
During my 18 year stint running a creative writing program, I also taught an online literature course titled “E-Poetics,” which attended to online poetry. The students’ final paper and project involved an analysis on the web presence of a contemporary poet of their choice. Interestingly enough, most of the students were adults in their 30s and 40s studying Hazardous Waste Management or Business, and this course was one they could choose from a handful of courses for their upper level English requirement. So they were not poetry-readers by any means. Many were poetry haters. They were this-was-the-only-time-slot-I have choosers.
However, like the audiences at the readings I hosted, they usually arrived at the end astonished at how much they loved the poet they had chosen and immersed themselves in. They loved how the internet enabled them to hear and even see the poet and to get extras not as available in the books. One student read Milosz with her Polish grandmother, who broke into tears at hearing the Nobel Laureate read in her native language about the post WWII years that she had lived through. The student brought her grandmother “to class” (at the time, a chat room), and the students asked her questions about the poetry and its effect on her. One man felt that Alice Walker was remiss at not having any readings of her poetry at her website, and he created his own excellent audio podcast of his favorite poems to share with the class.
I believe if these people had an Audible account, they’d be willing to buy an audiobook of poetry of the type Orr suggests. I also believe that they would not go out looking for free poems on the web. It involves a lot of looking, often to get one poem that’s over in three minutes and not hours of ear food that can nourish a driver on the journey and through traffic jams.
One claim made in the letters to the NYT editor was that it isn’t necessary to produce audiobooks of poems because there is already so much audio on the web! Penn Sound (out of Pennsylvania University) sent in letters to claim themselves the center of the universe for this kind of thing-- and ours is free, they said! It's true, and it's wonderful, and you can check it out here if you haven't already.
It’s true and it’s wonderful, but honestly, Penn Sound is also one of many poetry ghettos, sites where poets go to hear poetry. It’s not the kind of place where you can download a book of poetry, as Orr is suggesting. Many of the recordings are brief MP3 podcasts that take downloading one by one or a reading but not the presentation of a book that has been carefully chosen for its arrangement and pacing. The catalogue takes a lot of wading through if you are new to listening to poetry. My former students are not ever going to find it on their own.
That said, many Penn recordings are wonderfully live, providing one of many models for a poetry audiobook. That is, some include the poet at readings, speaking about themselves and their poems and even interacting with the audience, a part of what so thrilled me about my first live reading by Stafford. Such poet patter and audience interaction is an element that Orr proposes might be included in these audiobooks. Unfortunately, he also proposes “critical glosses,” on which I am going to vote a no, but heck, if some poet or the producer wants to try that, then try that too, along with adding intros, trained actors, whatever.
Audiobooks of novels sometimes include music or a reading of the novelist’s bio or notes, or other "extras," and so far, none of that has ruined the audiobook. For example, the audio of Tina Fey’s Bossypants, read by Fey herself, includes an audioclip of a SNL skit that was not in the print book. Pure lagniappe for someone like me who has never been able to stay up late enough to see SNL.
Finally, for three decades in Cleveland, a poetry program first conceived by poet Lolette Kuby produced hour long live performances of contemporary poetry that involved actors, musicians, visual artists, or dancers in presenting the poems. At first some poets railed against actors reading their poems. Cy Dostal for one was anxious about the notion. He thought his rendering could be the only authentic one, and like several poets, he feared the actors would…overdramatize. And then, lo and behold, most poets liked the new readings that the actors brought to their work, along with the associated dances or paintings. (Cy? Loved it.)
And professional audiobook readers can do the same for poetry audiobooks. Not that it’s either or. Toni Morrison is my very favorite audiobook reader of her own novels, but the stable of authors who read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society do a wonderful job of dramatizing that epistolary novel. Meanwhile over at Librivox, there are volunteers who read so well that I download their voices even when I am not particularly interested in the works they read. Mil Nicholson. If that woman ever just reads a cookbook aloud, I will listen.
So I am saying, let the poets read their own work but let actors read the work, too, and hey, let's try poets reading other poets' work. Try it all. Load it on the audio with an intro or patter or neither, with just a bit of music or without. And not just for my walks. There are the car trips across country or an hour down the road to Cleveland, too. Please. I’m all ears.