January 10, 2008

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Poets corner
An occasional collection of poetry reviews
Reviewed by Dan Szczesny news@hippopress.com

Poetry Speaks Expanded, edited by Elise Paschen and Rebekah Presson Mosby (Sourcebooks, 2007, 270 pages, 3 CDs)

The pedigree of the poets covered in this updated edition of the original 2001 book is beyond reproach. Poetry Speaks Expanded offers the best English-language poetry of the past 125 years. Most of the poets and poems included in this collection — Frost, Plath, Whitman, Pound, Auden, to name a few — are likely already on your books shelves.

The conceit of the Sourcebooks series is that the coffee table-sized book comes with three CDs of recordings of the actual poets reading these very classic and well-known works. The book offers brief bios on the poets and some background on the recordings.

But the book itself pales compared to the utterly fascinating CDs.

Here are just a few of the high points of the recordings:
• Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Walt Whitman recording their poetry on Thomas Edison’s wax cylinders in the 1880s. Hearing the bravado and deep timbre in Tennyson’s voice as he reads “The Charge of the Light Brigade” or hearing Browning fumble a phrase as the rest of the men in the room cheer him on makes these great writers come alive in a way beyond their mighty reputations.
• Frost’s reading of “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” displays a different and bold take on the final line, English language’s most famous repeating couplet. When Frost repeats “And miles to go before I sleep” he does so with authority. The assuredness of the interpretation goes against most more pensive readings and changes the meaning of the poem.
• T.S. Eliot is funny. It’s true. In a live recording of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot jokes about its being a long poem and having to get his engine up to speed in order to read it properly.
• Ezra Pound sounds almost exactly like Sean Connery.
• Two of the 20th century’s greatest poets, William Carlos Williams and James Joyce, read terribly and, even worse, sound weak and timid.
• Only Jack Kerouac could make haikus sound cool and funky. Listening to Kerouac speak with a funky piano riff behind him is so clever it will make you laugh out loud at the unpretentious hipster speak.
• The bitter anger and violence in Sylvia Plath’s hard, black poem “Daddy” is every bit as present in her live reading of that poem. She’s 28 when she reads it, but sounds like woman only a few months from her suicide.

At $49.95, the price tag of this book may turn off some casual readers, and the editors could likely have made the collection more physically accessible by toning down the size of the book or just releasing the CD collection with an extended booklet.

But to fans of pretty much any Western poet of the last century this thrilling collection will speak volumes not just about the poems, but about the poets themselves. A. — Amy Diaz