Getting the best out of the archive

You may listen to poetry all the time, by attending readings, tuning in to radio programmes, or through audio books. Or you might not have listened to poetry since school or never have heard a poet reading his or her own work (as opposed to readings by teachers or actors). Whatever your previous experience of listening to poetry, these notes are meant as a starting point to help you find your own way to enjoy what the Archive has to offer.

Tip 1

Listening to poetry requires concentration in the same way that reading does, so finding somewhere quiet is preferable. The majority of the Archive's recordings were made in a recording studio so they have a more intimate character than a public reading: this sense of connection between poet and listener will be enhanced in a peaceful, comfortable environment.

Tip 2

It might be helpful to listen to a poem first before following the text so that you can focus on the quality of the poet's voice - its unique tone, accent and rhythm. Closing your eyes might help this process.

Tip 3

Don't worry about understanding everything the first time you hear a poem; listening to poetry is more rewarding if you're relaxed, allowing the poet's voice and words into your mind, rather than worrying about a poem's meaning. You can always play the recording again!

Tip 4

If you enjoyed a particular poem, you might like to read the text as you listen to the poet's interpretation a second time.

The Archive provides many ways of supporting the listening experience, through introductory notes on the recording and poet, bibliographies so you can locate which books the poems appear in, guided tours around the Archive and themes which lead you on many different paths from poem to poem. Our main aim, though, is for your enjoyment of poetry to be refreshed through the unique medium of the poet's voice.

The poet Fleur Adcock writes:

Poems are composed by the poet's voice. They are made out of the speech of the poet. Their rhythm, structure and vocabulary are those of the person who writes them. When you are composing a poem, even if you don't speak it aloud (as some poets do), it is based on the speech patterns in your head, on your own individual intonation and vocal habits and the choice of words is dictated by the same internal control centre that governs your other forms of utterance. As you write, the tiny involuntary muscles in your throat and vocal cords are silently shaping your words without your knowledge. The pace of each poem, and even sometimes the line-lengths, are dictated by your own breathing. Writing poetry is, like dancing or playing music, essentially a physical activity as well as a mental one.

Only the poet can give the correct rhythmical interpretation and phrasing to his or her own sentences. If I admire a poet's work, I try to make a point of hearing him or her reading it at least once; after that, their voice is inherent in the words on the page, and I can summon it up again when I read other work by the same author. Then there is the bonus of regional accents; I am thinking of the late, wonderful Patricia Beer, with her Devon voice, and the Northern Irish poets, among others. It is a question of authenticity. I can see no point whatsoever in listening to the work of a living poet read by an actor or by anyone else except the author, unless for educational purposes in the course of teaching. It is valuable for students to hear poetry read aloud and to read it aloud themselves, as part of the process of comprehension and "getting inside" a poem. Ideally, though, they should also hear recordings of poets reading their own work. I am not suggesting that students should imitate a poet's style or presentation, but such recordings illuminate the work itself.

Watch the video introduction

A welcome to the Archive by
Andrew Motion, former UK Poet Laureate

Andrew Motion tells you why the Archive has been created and what he hopes you will enjoy as you explore it.

Listening to Poetry

To value the sound of a poem as much as its written meaning may seem like a new thing; in fact, it's as old as the hills. Andrew Motion writes about the enjoyment to be had from listening to poets reading their poems.
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