Exhibits Poetry Programming in the NAEB Collection
The three programs devoted to poetry in the NAEB collection—Poetry and the American, Poetry in Song, and What Is Modern Poetry—remind us how much norms of poetry performance have changed since the 1950s. Not one of these programs feature recordings of poets reading their own poems. Instead, lecture-recitals are common, with professors and actors reading poems in a slow and typically solemn tone, embedded in instructive lectures that contextualize and interpret the poems for the audience, often with paeans to the universal and unchanging nature of poetic subject matter.
Poetry and the American consists of twenty recordings from 1959 produced by KPFA and Pacifica radio in Berkeley, California. This is the same radio station that in 1956 was already recording readings by Allen Ginsberg, who credited Robert Frost with inventing the contemporary poetry-reading circuit and developed it further himself (Jay Parini, Robert Frost: A Life). Listen America, a series in the collection hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, does focus on living writers who read their own work and comment on contemporary issues. It features four poets—Frost, Archibald MacLeish, Randall Jarrell and Carl Sandberg—as well as playwrights and fiction and non-fiction writers, notably Pearl S. Buck and Arthur Miller. But the focus was not yet on reading their own work. And the likes of Ginsberg were not included in Poetry and the American. Hosted often by Anthony Ostroff, then a professor of rhetoric at UC Berkeley who would be remembered as an “Antiwar Poet” in his 1978 New York Times obituary, Poetry and the American displays what now seems a conservative understanding of midcentury American poetry, but it simply reflects the mainstream academic canon of the time.
Programs in Poetry and the American devoted to individual poets included Emily Dickinson (featuring Ostroff’s wife Miriam), Hart Crane, e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and, of course, T.S. Eliot, on whom Ostroff shares the critical consensus: “His work far more than any other man defines for the English speaking world what we call modern poetry.” One curious episode is devoted to Frederic Goddard Tuckerman, “an American poet no one rea[d]” then or now, who self-published one book, Poems (1860), and who was proficient in the sonnet form. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Yvor Winters admired him, to little avail. An episode on Senior Poets focuses on Archibald MacLeish, Robinson Jeffers, John Crowe Ransom, Conrad Aiken, etc. An episode on Social Protest featured “The Golf Links” by Sara Cleghorn and “Factory Song” by Vachel Lindsay. An episode on Younger Poets, which refers to but does not name an anthology of 50+ younger poets, both English and American, features a reading of the largely forgotten Berkeley poet James Scheville’s “The Tourist on the Towers of Vision,” who taught at San Francisco State, which begins “In a ruined Irish castle…,” and also a young Adrienne Rich’s “The Flaming Carousel.”
What Is Modern Poetry turns out to be British-imported performed lectures and poetry recital both. Produced by Thomas Parrish, the program is hosted by Alan Simpson, an Oxford-trained and Oxford-accented history professor at the University of Chicago (who went on to serve as president of Vassar College through a turbulent era). He reads a “text originally written by C. Day-Lewis for the [BBC],” and poems are read “by members of University Radio Theatre.” The text for the four episodes by Lewis underscores the point that modern poetry is not doing anything especially new, and places it in relation to the Romantic and Metaphysical poets. The first episode, “Techniques of Modern Poetry,” opines that “A poem should be all poetry – not an archipelago of heightened poetic passages linked together by a sea of versified prose. There is nothing very new in the idea. Keats told Shelley he ought to load every rift with ore.” The poems read and interpreted by Lewis through Simpson’s and anonymous radio actors’ voices are excerpts from Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” and Frost’s sonnet, “Never Again Would Birdsong Be the Same.”
In the program Poetry in Song, host Hobart Mitchell, a former English instructor at NYU, claims that
Just as the singer should sing his songs as though the words were his words and the experiences and thoughts and feelings his experiences and thoughts and feelings[,] so in listening we should listen as if the words were the singer’s own words coming directly out of his life. The song program then becomes good theater wherein the actor becomes the character he plays and we look upon what we see as being an actual living of life rather than a play performance.
This conception of a poem set to music, and the singer’s performance of it analogous to a stage actor’s performance of a character in a play, is very far from the individualistic, personal understanding we have of poetry performance today. While Spoken Word / Slam poetry performance bears a closer relationship to music than the mainstream academic poetry performance, no audience today is particularly interested in hearing anyone but the poet who wrote the poem recite or perform the poem. One exception and perhaps a vestige of the NAEB approach is Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry competition founded in 2006 by Dana Gioia, who served as chair of the NEA under President George W. Bush. The competition flourishes in high schools and requires students to recite a poem from the annually updated Poetry Out Loud anthology. It’s fascinating to listen to the poetry programming in the NAEB because it sets in relief what is arbitrary and strange about what we take for granted in poetry performance today.
Marit MacArthur Marit MacArthur is a lecturer in the University Writing Program and affiliate faculty in Performance Studies at the University of California, Davis. In 2018-19, she co-directed Tools for Listening to Text-in-Performance, funded by a NEH Digital Humanities Advancement grant.