Mention the word “poetry” and you are likely to get a number of responses ranging from adoration to hatred, with plenty of misconceptions in between. Although poetry was once read, understood, memorized and recited on a regular basis by entire families from the middle class upwards, poetry in the 20th century fell out of general favor largely because of the elements that made it “modern.” It was sequestered into anthologies and studied by unwilling high school students, enjoyed in the realms of academia, but it was definitely no longer a fixture in the family parlor.
Which is a pity. Although it is true that poems such as T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” cannot truly be appreciated without extensive footnotes, the 20th century produced a myriad of poets who wrote verse which is both beautiful and, within certain frames of reference, perfectly understandable.
Seeking to communicate this poetry to those who may have not given it a second look after high school, Sourcebooks has published Poetry Speaks Expanded. Featuring 47 of the most famous 20th-century poets (and including – remarkably – a handful from the 19th), it features, for each poet, a photo, a biography, an in-depth but immensely readable critique of the poet’s work, a selection of poems and even, in some cases, a facsimile of verse written in the poet’s own hand.
But the obvious highlight of this anthology presents itself in the form of three CDs which feature recordings of the poets reading their own verse. Poetry was (and is) meant to be a living thing – some have said that the page is a temporary stop but not an end for a poem. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the CDs included in Poetry Speaks Expanded. The poets reading here often change their poems, seemingly on the spot; this is especially apparent when the reader follows along in the book (and every recorded poem can be found in the book, which also contains additional poems not included on the CDs).
Whether or not any poet is ever absolutely finished with a poem, the point remains that poetry is meant to be heard. Just as one cannot conceive of fully enjoying a Cole Porter, John Lennon or Oscar Hammerstein lyric merely by looking at them, so, in a very real sense, one should not imagine that a silent reading of W.B. Yeats, Dorothy Parker or Walt Whitman can produce pleasure equal to hearing their poems read aloud.
And listening to these poems read by their authors is a truly remarkable experience because the verse comes alive in a way that their creators originally intended. Who knew, for example, that Tennyson meant to place such great emphasis on the word “rode” (as in: “into the valley of death RODE the six hundred”) in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” or that Gwendolyn Brook’s “we” of “We Real Cool” was meant to be so understated so has to be a quietly syncopated extra beat in her short, rhythmic poem.
The recordings also illuminate the poets themselves in ways that those already familiar with them might find surprising. Although one may understand that Carl Sandburg was a Midwestern poet seeking to reach the common man, one might not realize that his mother-tongue was Swedish until hearing him speak. While one may associate James Joyce with the “stream of consciousness” literary technique, hearing his rapid-fire delivery of a portion of “Finnegan’s Wake” gives this connection a startling new twist. And while one may realize that Dylan Thomas was Welsh, nothing can prepare the listener for the powerful lyric beauty of his voice. The bitterness in Sylvia Plath’s voice, the drama in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, the weariness in Robert Frost’s – all these add a rich depth towards a comprehension of these poets.
Enlightening from beginning to end, Poetry Speaks Expanded is a remarkable experience, a wonderful and living addition to any poetry library and a tremendous introduction to the beauties of 20th-century verse.