Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath    

  The musical subtlety of the human voice is the essence of poetry, and it is an incontestable fact that poetry must be heard, either as an acoustic mental image or spoken aloud, to be adequately appreciated. Propelled in part by new technology and a renaissance in available arts venues around the country, the performance of poetry has grown to be a greater concern than it has been for hundreds of years, perhaps since the earliest bards strummed simple instruments and recited couplets recounting versified histories of whole cultures. Poets today have more tools at their disposal than ever before, from the microphone to CDs and digital audio downloads. After America embraced Dylan Thomas's fiery recitations, which gained legendary status from John Malcolm Brinnin's equally legendary accounts in Dylan Thomas in America, the notion of the poet as solo performer began to gain greater acceptance. Robert Frost was known for his long reading tours and did a great deal to broaden the possibilities of the poet as touring performer, though the image that remains most solidly to Americans is the snow-haired old man helplessly clutching his wind-scattered papers at John F. Kennedy's inauguration; television leaves us with this image, and it is television and recorded music that have done so much to change the role of the poet. Though a few musty recordings on wax cylinder of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Walt Whitman, already very old men at the time, remain to us, the recording of poets was not an archival or scholarly concern until after the Second World War, when the US Library of Congress began to compile recordings of poets as unalike as Gregory Corso and T.S. Eliot. It was only in the late nineteen-eighties and nineties that recorded poetry was viewed as an even remotely profitable branch of the entertainment industry, and while a handful of recordings, such as that by twin icons William Burroughs and Kurt Cobain, gain respectable sales, it is still shaky ground for the would-be record company or publisher.

Random House's Voice of the Poet series is a unique contribution in this field. Combining audio-tapes with stylized books of the recorded poems, they make a welcome addition to the serious reader's bookshelf. The series covers six of the most famous English-language poets of the second half of the twentieth century: W.H. Auden, Anne Sexton, James Merrill, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath. These recordings join the two principal uses and considerations of recorded poetry--they are both historical artifacts and enjoyable listening experiences. J.D. McClatchy has written extensive and very enlightening introductions for each poet, and has selected both boldly-representative and intriguingly-rare poems from the archives made available to him.

In this issue of Bold Type, we link to readings and reviews from all six of our Voice of the Poet features. Enjoy.

--Ernie Hilbert
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