Listening To The Great Poets

03/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When you consider that poetry was originally primarily an oral art form, it's remarkable how rarely contemporary poetry lovers listen to poets reading their work. I'd be surprised if most admirers of Robert Lowell have heard a recording of him reading "Skunk Hour," or if many admirers of Elizabeth Bishop know the sound of her actual voice.

Granted, it's rare that a contemporary poet writes with the intention of performing a poem. There's an expectation that a poem should succeed in a quiet existence on the page. Even so, I find that listening to a poet read can give you valuable insight into how he interprets the musical qualities of his work, along with, at times, how he intended to manage the poem's emotional impact. In some cases, a poet's interpretation of his poem--or the simple reality of his actual voice--will surprise you.

What follows is a sampling of the audio recordings available to you online. I expect you'll be surprised at how far back these recordings go. If you enjoy them, you should visit The Poetry Archive, the brainchild of Britain's poet laureate Andrew Motion. Extensive and well designed, the archive focuses heavily on British poets. The Academy of American Poets also has an excellent archive of almost 800 recordings available here. Audio collections available for purchase include Poetry Speaks, and The Voice of the Poet series from Random House.

Alfred Lord Tennyson
A wax cylinder recording of Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Barely audible, it's extraordinary to hear the ghostly voice of the great poet.

Robert Browning
This on is also hard to hear, but you can make out Browning's high-pitched voice as he reads "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix." The recording was made in 1889, the year of Browning's death.

Walt Whitman
An 1890 recording of Walt Whitman reading his poem "America." Whitman would have been about 70 years old.

William Butler Yeats
Here's William Butler Yeats reading his poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." Notice how he embraces the musical qualities of his verse.

Robert Frost
A collection of recordings is available at

Allen Ginsberg
Here's Allen Ginsberg reading his famous poem "Howl."

Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks performing her often anthologized poem "We Real Cool," recorded when Brooks was 66.

Elizabeth Bishop
Contrast that with the lack of performance in Elizabeth Bishop's poem for Robert Lowell: "The Armadillo". It was recorded in November of 1977, when Bishop was 66 years old.

Robert Lowell
A recording of Lowell's poem "Skunk Hour," inspired by "The Armadillo" and written for Bishop. Listen to how Lowell emphasizes the music in the second half of the following stanza, evidence that he intended it as a crescendo.

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.