Listening to poetry

In the last couple of generations, the popularity of public poetry readings has grown enormously; they now form an indispensable part of Literature Festivals, bookshop promotions, etc, and have even started to feature prominently as a part of English courses in schools and universities. Inevitably, some of their appeal has to do with the authors themselves: what do they look like, what can they say about their writing, will they be able to shed any light on the origins and intentions of their work? For a few people, this seems like a worrying lurch towards personality-hunting. For the great majority, it's a profoundly welcome development. It allows the mystery of poetry to remain intact, while demolishing the idea that the only good poets are dead ones. It helps to make poetry a challenging yet vital part of everyday life. And it both confirms and demonstrates the extent to which the sound of a poem is as crucial to its meaning as the achievements of the words on the page.

A growing audience

This last point, simple and uncontroversial as it seems, was too often forgotten for much of the last century. Whereas Tennyson - whose voice is the earliest recording included in the Poetry Archive - was perfectly used to reading his work aloud (and often held audiences spellbound for hours, with lengthy intonations of 'In Memoriam' and 'Maud'), many poets writing during the first two-thirds of the c20 gave only occasional readings. According to popular opinion, Modernism had made poetry impenetrably difficult, diminishing it to a minority interest in which public appearances held no significant place. But as the century unrolled, and some of the prickly barriers between 'conservative' and 'radical' poets were torn down, the situation changed. The famous Albert Hall readings, held at the end of the 1960s, introduced new kinds of poetry to a much hungrier audience than many thought existed, and in subsequent years a network of reading venues was formed - a network which is still expanding today.

An ancient tradition

In other words, the present resurgence of public poetry readings is not so much a new phenomenon, but a return to a very ancient tradition - one which runs all the way back to the Beowulf poet in his mead hall and beyond. And it's not surprising to find, during that long time, many poets writing well about the value and importance of hearing poems aloud. Think of Keats, 'chaunting' his poems to his friends. Or Hopkins advising Bridges to 'take breath and read with your ears', or Robert Frost trading ideas (with Edward Thomas, among others) about 'the sound of sense'). The fact that such a comprehensive and readily-available resource as the Poetry Archive has only been made possible by the arrival of the Internet only deepens and enriches the paradox. 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.

'The ear is the best reader'

When Frost said 'the ear is the best reader' he didn't mean to say that he preferred the fleeting voice to the substantial page, but to give them both equal value, and to remind us how they depended on one another. The point can be proved very easily. A poem creates its effects not simply by sharing an explicable meaning with its reader, but by dramatising that meaning and making it intimate - by the musicality (or not) of the words, by rhythm, by rhyme, by recurring patterns of sound, by disruptions, and by the movement and evolution of tone through a whole piece of work. It is a demonstration of harmonies, in all sorts of ways. More than that, even, the sound of a poem can actually become its meaning, as our ear supplies us with insights and feelings that our other senses might miss. Think of a poem like Eliot's 'The Waste Land' - notoriously packed with difficult references, learned allusions, and clever compressions. A person reading it on the page for the first time is bound to feel they're missing things - perhaps even to the extent of feeling they 'don't understand it'. But when the poem is read aloud, the play of sounds creates an unforgettably powerful effect, expounding sense by other means. It's the effect Frost wrote about again and again (though he was hardly on Eliot's Modernist team). 'The living part of a poem', Frost explained, 'is the intonation entangled somehow in the syntax, idiom and meaning of a sentence. It is only there for those who have heard it previously in conversation? It goes and the language becomes a dead language, the poetry dead poetry. With it go the accents, the stresses, the delays that are not the property of vowels and syllables but that are shifted at will with the sense. Vowels have length there is no denying. But the accent of sense supersedes all other accent, overrides and sweeps it away'.

Dissolving obscurities

To value poetry aloud in this way can seem a bit highfalutin. So it's worth saying at once that spoken poetry has much more fundamental interests as well. Does the poet go for a big effect or speak confidingly? What sort of accent do they have? (Another false impression created by the comparatively-silent mid-c20 was that all poets spoke in RP: they never did and they still don't. If only we could have recorded Keats, we'd probably have heard him 'chaunting' like a Cockney.) There are many other kinds of practical justification as well. It can, for instance, be useful simply as a way of dissolving obscurities. There's a passage in Philip Larkin's poem 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album', for instance, which I found confusing when I first read it as a schoolboy: 'But o photograph!' Larkin says, 'As no art is, Faithful and disappointing!' It was only when I heard the recording of him reading the poem, and stressing 'art' (to show that in his Larkin-like way he didn't think photography was an art), that I saw what he was getting at. In the same sort of way, the stresses of a voice can be heard giving their tacit explanations on virtually every page of the Archive. As can the pauses, the implied severities, the swallowed smiles, the tones of tenderness or anger.

Poets reading their own work

This is why the Archive contains recordings of poets reading their own work, rather than handing the job over to actors. It's not just that actors (by and large) tend to go at poems as though they're trying to reach the back row of the stalls. It's more that poets know their own work in a way and to a depth that is unique. (This is not the same as saying they know everything about them.) In this respect, it's difficult to say a poet ever reads their work entirely 'badly'. Even if they mumble a bit, or read ponderously, or at too great a lick, their delivery will still have important things to tell us about the links and separations between the speaking voice and the character in the poem, about its mood, about how the poet thought that sense would be communicated, and about how he or she hears it inside their own head.

A gigantic echo chamber

Everyone using the Poetry Archive will discover their own favourite voices, and their own pleasures in matching sound-meaning with word-meaning. That's as it should be. We also hope that, in the process, you'll be led from these favourite writers into other sound-worlds, and other realms of the imagination, which were previously unknown to you. At the same time, we'd like to think that the Archive is a kind of gigantic echo-chamber, in which individual voices are able to prove their originality, and yet to speak about poetry itself, in all its manifold forms and accents and idioms.

How to get the best out of the Archive

Whatever your previous experience of listening to poetry, here are some tips to help you enjoy the recordings the Archive has to offer.

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.

Search for a poem or a poet:

My Archive

Create lists of your favourite poems and poets and share them with friends.

Browse all poets by name

View all poets

Browse all poems by title

View all poems

Glossary of poetic terms

View full glossary