Poetry as Sound

Michael Symmons Roberts - 12 November 2007

I've just been browsing the Archive here, after watching the TV drama on Rudyard Kipling. Did you see it? About Kipling's efforts to send his young son Jack to fight in the First World War, and his grief and guilt when Jack was killed. Amazed to find not just Kipling in the Archive, but Browning and Belloc and Bunting. All these riches from the past - poets I knew on the page but hadn't heard.

Have a listen to Basil Bunting's recording if you don't (or even if you do) know his poetry. He's a poet captivated by music, and convinced that young poets should compose their poems on the tongue rather than the page. What do you think? Inspiring or too far from ordinary speech?


The historic voices in the Archive are amazing. This is a real treasure-house for lovers of history as well as poetry. The Browning recording is one of my favourites, partly because of its informality -the dinner-party setting, the other voices hip-hip-hooraying, the man himself setting out to recite the poem and losing his way after a few lines. When I listen to this, it affects me in the way that looking at a Victorian photograph can affect me: I'm suddenly confronted with the reality that these people were as real and alive as we are. Listening to Basil Bunting reading Briggflatts is another, very different but equally powerful experience. I think we have become used to the idea these days that our poets should read in an unassuming, understated, 'natural' way, as if the poem were not such a special and extraordinary thing. I wonder what Bunting would have said if someone had suggested this approach to him? His style of delivery is certainly strange to my contemporary ear. For one thing, it's very slow, and I find I quite like having time to hear every line, every phrase properly, hearing the work that has gone into it. It's a long piece, and it sounds rather like an incantation. (My dictionary defines that word as 'a magic spell or charm', which seems to be one way of saying what a poem is, or can hope to be.) Bunting's diction really is a thing of the past, and yet his elaborately rolled r and the hardness of his flat vowels make me feel, recognise and understand the phrase 'crushed grit' as never before.

Yes Jean, I've listened to the Browning recording, and it is remarkable. And Brigglatts is a true performance too, not just a reading. I agree with you that the slow deliberation (and artifice) of Bunting's reading makes you concentrate on every line and focus on the work that went into each line. It's a bit like an audio equivalent of John Berryman's technique. He said that he would type out each single line of a poem on a separate piece of paper as he was redrafting it, and place (for a day at a time) a single line under the glass top of his desk, so he would have that line in front of him all day. Only this way could he be sure that each line was as strong as it could be. I like the idea of that (but my desk doesn't have any glass so I use post-it notes instead!) because it makes you focus on the key structural element in a poem - the line. A poem has a shape and form, and if it has stanzas they will have shape and form too, but none of that will work unless each line is complete and right in itself. Bunting's reading really brings this home.

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