Poetic license

Culture | Poets on disc show good and bad of our cultural heritage

Issue: "Social Security," Jan. 11, 1997

If, as G.K. Chesterton observed, anything worth doing is worth doing badly, then the compilers of In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry deserve hearty congratulations merely for compiling this four-hour collection of oral poetry.

Now one can listen to an abundance of poetry by an abundance of poets without investing hundreds of dollars in Caedmon Records' many single-poet collections.

Regrettably, poetry has become the least enjoyed of our arts. As nihilist culture convulses in its death throes, poetry mirrors purposelessness. And unlike music and cinema, which can distract us from the bitter truths by wooing our senses, poetry is the unadorned thing itself. Yet poetry will occasionally reward its disciples with a glimpse of words transfigured.

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This four-disc set collects in one place recordings of many of the 20th century's most influential poets reading many of the 20th century's most influential poetry. To hear Walt Whitman reading &quotAmerica," W. B. Yeats &quotThe Lake Isle of Innisfree," Robert Frost &quotThe Gift Outright," Dylan Thomas &quotDo Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," William Carlos Williams &quotThe Red Wheelbarrow," and Edna St. Vincent Millay &quotRecuerdo" is to hear echoes of a time when whole nations could encounter in a single voice what about themselves was most worth celebrating and debating.

The set's compilers, however, fail to discriminate. Erica Jong, the writer of erotica, contributes both a poem and a libretto. Anne Waldman, the thrower of tantrums, contributes &quotUh Oh Plutonium," an unimaginative expression of anti-nuclear sentiments that would be bad enough without the chintzy funk-music background. And T.S. Eliot, perhaps the greatest of the last great poets and an Anglican Christian, contributes nothing because he was, according to the liner notes, &quotunavailable for inclusion due to licensing restrictions." His absence constitutes a vacuum so hungry that the occasional scrap of philosophical coherence that emerges from the chronological order of the unrestricted poems gets sucked into it.

But there are pleasant surprises. The live-in-front-of-sympathetic-audience offerings of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti-radical Beats both-serve as reminders of the extent to which self-deprecation and humor once enlivened even the saddest politics. The same goes for &quotThe Secret of My Endurance" by the quintessentially self-destructive Charles Bukowski. Incidents of profanity are relatively rare (as compared to films, television, and rap music, anyway). And at least half of the unknown, younger poets who populate disc four sound as worthy of their Muse as at least half of the well-known poets who populate discs one through three.

In other words, despite the refusal of its compilers to allow an accurate &quotbig picture" to emerge, In Their Own Voices does call attention to the fact that poetry continues to attract a large and diverse crowd of practitioners-so large and diverse that anyone who sits down and listens to these discs will almost certainly find a number of writers worth further investigation.


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