Speaking up for Poetry

Prompted by an interesting post over on John Barlow’s blog, where he suggests that the potty Steve Jobs should not call recording industry conglomerates black, I remembered something I wanted to say about poetry on iTunes.

As an active podcaster, learned much about the dark arts of podcasting I have. It’s a nice feeling to get my novel ‘out there’ in audio form, but I’m beginning to think that podcasting is better suited to shorter forms of fiction, including poetry. It seems to me that this model has the potential to earn poets a bit of cash. (You think writers have got money worries? Never mind that only, say, 10% of all published writers in the UK can support themselves on their writing alone. How many poets can support themselves? Three?)

I’m a writer who cares very much about his fiction at the level of the sentence, but I’m just buggering about in the foothills of the mountains that poets regularly climb. So I see poets as the true writers, if you will, and a little noble because they do what they do for love.

The iTunes store has given me an opportunity to access many poetic works, and the spoken form is ideal. If there is one thing I really hate, it’s people who read too quickly, but this is exactly what I do when confronted with a poem; gulp it down, think, is that it? and move on. But poetry in the audio mode – its native medium – forces the listener to experience the poem at the pace of the reader, and them the strange magic of the words can tell.

One of my most treasured MP3s is the Seamus Heaney (inset) translation of Beowulf, the tenth-cenutry epic about a sixth-cenutry Scandinavian warrior. Slowed down, the rhythm of the language starts to snag your thoughts, and the poem blooms. It is lengthy (2hrs 15mins), but represents, perhaps, some of the finest English language material in my possession, and I often return to it when I get bogged down in editing my own work and I want to remember that potential of English captured by Heaney and the anonymous author(s) of the original.

Here are a couple of the best poetic pieces I’ve purchased online, with iTunes music store URLs:

  • The Best Poems of All Time, Vols 1 and 2 – a superb collection that boasts Shakespeare (Sonnet Eighteen rocks), Poe, Coleridge, Omar Kayam, and some excellent snippets from the Bible (not the Good News rubbish, but the King James). Pros: Production quality, cost. Each volume is only a fiver. Cons: Virtually no work by female poets, and some of the accents are dodgy.
  • Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. Ah, that Bible-black night. 24-carat stuff, and Richard Burton’s impression of Anthony Hopkins is nicely done.

So far, poetry seems to be underrepresented on iTunes. I hope that will change. Poetry is ideally suited to the shortish form of audio, where novel-length wordage can founder. Yeah, iTunes is good for music. This I know. But you can’t argue with a good actor reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet Eighteen.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

2 thoughts on “Speaking up for Poetry”

  1. I too read poems far too quickly, and agree with you that a great way to experience them is in the audio mode to savour the meaning and magic.
    I am absolutely not a podcast person, but an increasing majority of my fellow-commuters certainly are. I agree with you about the desirability of getting more poetry onto itunes, who knows who will stumble across it who had not previously heard much?
    I once had an old-style LP of Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas’s poems, that was definitely magic. (I’ve also heard the recording of Under Milk Wood to which you refer, if you mean the one with Liz Taylor in it, but I loved the poems one more.)

  2. The Under Milk Wood version I’ve got is narrated by Richard Burton, but doesn’t have Elizabeth Taylor, as far as I can tell!

    Whatever gets a bit more poetry out there to the masses gets my vote…

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