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  The dashing English poet, biographer, and critic Jon Stallworthy has affirmed that poetry, in its written form, is akin to a score for music. He points out, quite correctly, that the principal divide between prose and poetry is the sound of the language. Poetry is an art form that places a very high value on rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and other strictly aural facets of a given language, creating what Kenneth Koch terms, after Valery, a language within a language. It stands to reason, then, that even when silently reading poetry the reader is keenly aware of its musical qualities. To hear poets reading their own works in recorded form is a benefit we in the twentieth century have over previous ages. While we may have a precious few recordings on wax cylinder from the nineteenth century by such poets, grizzled even then, as Walt Whitman and Alfred Lord Tennyson, it is only in the second half of our century that the recording of poets came to be viewed as an important archival enterprise. The Knopf series of recordings, Voice of the Poet, edited by J.D. McClatchy, is an excellent contribution to this undertaking, making available the recordings of such greats as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden, Anne Sexton, and her poetic sister Sylvia Plath.

It is a great pleasure to hear Anne Sexton read her poems. Her voice, smoky and a bit bored even in the earlier recordings, conveys the world-weary, even scarred, persona that gained her such a devoted and enormous following. Despite the private torments made public--the girlhood abuses, multiple suicide attempts, the vodka and Thorazine--she was a very public figure. By 1970 she had accumulated innumerable awards and honorary degrees. She formed a touring rock band, Her Kind (also the title of one of her most famous poems), and, in a long red satin dress, thrilled worshipful audiences with recitations of her incendiary poems, a rock star of poetry. While many of her poems are gaudy and overworked, as one would expect from such a passionate outpouring of painful emotion, her best work shows a poise and strength that places it among the best written in America since the Second World War. Recordings of poets such as T.S. Eliot or Robert Lowell, even the scarcely audible recordings of W.B. Yeats, possess an eerie quality, much as one finds in recordings of blues father Robert Johnson. Sexton's readings, however, are anything but ghostly. Although sounding from the gray stone halls of Bedlam, so to speak, her voice conveys a very direct, matter-of-fact presence. It contains more of the ennuyé shopkeeper than the Sibyl, her tone more house-wifely than haunting. This is all the more disturbing. To hear her intone in a raspy New England accent "I come to this white office, its sterile sheet, / its hard tablet, its stirrups, to hold my breath / while I, who must, allow the glove its oily rape, / to hear the almost mighty doctor over me equate / my ills with hers / and decide to operate" is quite alarming. The calm voice belies the naked horror that inspired the original compositions. She had to play it cool, particularly when reading before audiences (some of the recordings are from live performances) for various reasons. It was the tenor of the times, first of all, to be cool; second, she saw herself as the seductive, dissolute artist, wearied of the world, ready, almost, to depart it, or at least to try again. On October 4th, 1974, she was successful in this. After lunching with the poet Maxine Kumin, she corrected the galleys of The Awful Rowing Toward God, poured a glass of vodka, put on her mother's mink coat, and went to the garage where she started her car and placed a brick on the gas pedal. That we have such a great number of recordings is itself a largess that could easily have been denied us; that Knopf has assembled such a superior series of recordings for us is yet another gift.



--Ernest Hilbert
 
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Copyright © 2000 Ernest Hilbert.