Since the earliest experimental recordings on wax cylinders in the late 19th century, many thousands of recordings have been made of poets reading their work. These recordings are scattered across the world: some are in the form of commercial recordings; others are held in the archives of institutions such as the BBC or in university collections. Many are difficult to locate - for example, commercial recordings may have been deleted from back catalogues or may have been lost when record companies changed hands - and, once found, access to them can be limited by the availability and location of listening copies.
The Poetry Archive is researching collections around the globe in order to track down rare and seminal recordings so that you can enjoy these unique listening experiences.
Sadly, there are voices which, as far as we know, are lost to us forever. They include Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence and A E Housman (though if you think you have one of these on an old 78 in your attic, we'd very much like to hear from you! If you know of an unusual recording, please see Missing Voices for information on how to tell us about it). In future, the Poetry Archive will aim to ensure that important contemporary voices are not neglected and are properly recorded for posterity.
Many fascinating historic recordings do exist, however, and among them are also some precious examples from the late 19th century: we're delighted to be able to present poems read by Tennyson, Kipling and Browning (who can be heard forgetting his own lines!). These recordings cannot, of course, match the audio quality of today's recordings but that fact does nothing to diminish their fascination.
Other highlights immediately available include Yeats' 'Lake Isle of Innisfree', Allen Ginsberg's 'America', Louis MacNeice's 'Prayer Before Birth' and a private recording made in the 1950s by the great war poet, Siegfried Sassoon.
Some of these recordings capture the intimacy of studio sessions, others the atmosphere of public occasions. You can enjoy John Betjeman, for example, giving a masterclass in charming an audience during the course of 'A Subaltern's Love Song' and the intense dignity of Langston Hughes' comments on the black community's experience of the American Dream in 'I, Too'.
These recordings also provide an intriguing insight into the changing styles of reading poetry over the last hundred years, from the received pronunciation and majestic delivery of Edith Sitwell to the Devon burr of Patricia Beer, or the exuberance of accomplished performers such as Allen Ginsberg.
This element of the Poetry Archive is in its early stages and the recordings currently on offer are only a taster of the delights to come. Please visit again: more historic voices are being added all the time.
This section of the Poetry Archive has been made possible by a special grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
We are also very grateful to the staff of the British Library Sound Archive for their invaluable and expert help in our research into existing recordings.