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.

Author: 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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