Every year, April coughs up poetry month, only this will be a silent one, as far as readings go. I’m not going to pretend we all used to go to them groaning. If you’re reading this blog, a poem has tackled you at least once. Nothing, in my opinion, is more glad-making than a poem read beautifully; a poem said forcefully, with feeling. Without poetry voice.
Lots of actors and former actors are offering to burp up sonnets these days. Why not simply listen to the poets? For every Derek Walcott, who mumbled through the waves of his own verse, there’s a Sharon Olds or a Sonia Sanchez or an Ocean Vuong who practically sing theirs—and the internet is chock full of their fantastic recordings. [See below for all the poems.]
Scroll around and you can also hear the long-dead, like e.e. cummings or Langston Hughes or Sylvia Plath. You can watch the long-dead brought back to life—as Sandra Cisneros does with Garcia Lorca, whom she recites from memory during a sound check at the LA Times Festival of Books.
A good reader, like Cisneros, conveys the power of a poem, its tone, its voice. You feel that transfer of energy instantly in your body. Some poets are just too shy to do this with their own work; some are exceptional at it. What a joy it is to hear the warmth you heard in the silence of your skull out loud. Kay Ryan’s poems only look stark on the page, in reality they’re little wisecracking meteors of feeling and thought, something abundantly clear in her reading here.
There are a few poems I listen to online whenever I feel blue. They always improve my mood—not because they’re necessarily cheerful. But because they’re full of feeling and ecstatic sonic beauty. I don’t know how I found a recording of Aracelis Girmay reading from “The Black Maria,” but I challenge you to be dry-eyed by its end. A poet friend converted me to Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Sutra Vortex” ages ago, and then one day I found a recording of it, which plays his reading over the composition by Philip Glass, which he wrote inspired by the poem. I wind up on the floor every time.
A great recording doesn’t have to flood the zone of emotion though, it needn’t slam its presence. I adore the recording below of Gwendolyn Brooks, in part because her introduction to “We Real Cool” is so full of personality, a tiny bit ornery, but also tender toward the boys who inspired her great poem. And how she reads it! I spent an afternoon with her in the mid 1990s, and she spoke this way—wry, curious, correct—the entire day long. What a joy it is to know that voice is eternally recorded tool.