From the archive: Philip Larkin on the voices of poets

All my antiquarian rage boils at the thought that nobody thought to record Hardy.

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First published in the New Statesman on 2 February 1962. To read Larkin writing in defence of public libraries, as well as over a hundred other gems from the NS archive, download our anthology, The New Statesman Century, now.

Had the history of technology meshed a little differently with the history of literature I might now be able to lay reverently on my turntable a thick black 78 rpm with a Globe label reading Will Shaxsper: Sundrie Sonnets (recording supervif’d by my Lord Veralum), and, after a vertiginous crackling pause, hear in almost incomprehensible Elizabethan “From fairest creatures we desire increase,/That thereby beauty’s rose might never die . . .” What should I gain if I could? Concede at once the souvenir value: it would be fascinating as a photograph, or J P Morgan’s lock of Keats’s hair. But would Will’s Warwickshire, or for that matter Wordsworth’s Westmoreland, have any more relevance to my reading of their poems (once my excitement had died down) than Tennyson’s Lincolnshire (which in fact we have) to The Northern Farmer?

Perhaps this is to begin in the middle. But when spoken poetry is mentioned, all my antiquarian rage boils at the thought of the legions of pre-1928 tenors and sopranos we preserved when nobody thought to record, say, Hardy or Lawrence. Others feel differently. “Poets nowadays,” as Mr John Wain, Director of last summer’s “Poetry at the Mermaid”, pointed out in its prospectus, “make records of their work as naturally as they print it. Does this mean that the printed page will cede first place to the living voice?” Is the poem, as it were, the “score” that must be brought to life by performance? Or must we share the dubiety with which Dylan Thomas regarded the whole business of “travelling 200 miles just to recite, in my fruity voice, poems that would not be appreciated and could, anyway, be read in books”?

There are one or two distinctions to be made before an answer can be given. First, however appropriate the medium was for ballads in the rush-strewn hall or Homer smiting his blooming lyre, its public application to modern meditative non-communal poems affects me as the choir of a thousand Boy Scouts reciting “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” did W B Yeats. To re-adopt it would seem to me regression, like moving one’s lips when reading silently. Not that I expect complete agreement: many poets are paranoiac bores, and those impure assemblages known as poetry readings are a wonderful new way of being paranoiacally boring. But as my first axiom I should lay down that the only desirable form of spoken modern poetry is that which whispers in the corner (or corners, these days) in hi-fi.

Secondly, who is to read it? The price of having the poem re-created in the element in which it was conceived (as they say) is the interposing of a new factor, the reader, between me and the poem. He will not read it with the emphases that I should use, and this will irritate me. Or he will have the kind of voice I associate with brown-eyed young men called Frank. Or, if the reader is a lady, she may use that tone so popular among her kind which indicates that in the very act of enunciation she has perceived in the poem an unbelievably obscene acrostic. None of this seems to me an advantage. But suppose it is read by the author? Here a new contention is raised: can one legitimately quarrel with any aspect of an author’s reading of his own poem? Isn’t he supplying a definitive, authoritative rendering from which it will ever after be “wrong” to depart?

Yes and no. I should hate to find myself in agreement with the kind of critic who denies the poet supreme authority regarding his work – seeing nothing in his explanation of a poem, for example, but an attempt to limit its suggestiveness – and for this reason I should contend that if an author has read a passage fiercely, ironically, humorously, sadly, then for ever after to read it softly, idealistically, seriously and gaily will be a smart bit of wrong-headedness, like Hamlet in space-dress. But one’s quarrel with the author’s reading does not usually take this form. To answer “yes” to this question too often commits one for ever after to reading the poem as if it were one of the sections of the Sale and Movement of Poultry (Domestic) Act, 1943. Poets, in fact, too often do their poems less than justice, and why shouldn’t readers who have flexible and expressive voices and have been trained to use them show what music lies in the cold print? One is forced to admit this is legitimate.

Yet, now we are getting more and more examples of authors’ own readings, I doubt whether authors read as badly as they are popularly supposed to do. I remember, for instance, putting on a record of Mr Eliot reading “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” to show an Italian visitor what his voice was like, and though I had intended to stop it after perhaps 30 seconds I found myself letting it go on to the end. And yet Eliot is not supposed to be a good reader. Again, no one could throw his poems away with more contemptuous dryness than Mr Graves, but should we prefer them read with more voluptuous intonation? I think not. Earlier ages said: “The style is the man.” We might add: “And the voice is the style.”

I am a little taken aback to find that Francis Berry had anticipated me in his new book [Poetry and the Physical Voice] with a full-scale contention that “style is voice”:

“A style” has therefore become synonymous with “a private idiom”. But the “style” of an actual speech, of any oral delivery, is as much conditioned by the speaker’s voice as by his choice of language and his individual manner of thinking and feeling. Indeed, it can control his choice of language, his manner of thinking, his rhythms . . .

Mr Berry contrasts the “oes and aes” of Tennyson with the shrillness of Shelley (“I shall never be able to bear his voice – it would kill me” – Hogg): “the poetry of Shelley requires for its saying (and hearing) one kind of voice which Shelley had, and the poetry of Tennyson requires for its saying (and hearing) a quite other kind of voice which Tennyson had”. If a man’s style changes, it may be because his voice changes: “what is called Milton’s late style, in contrast to his early style, records a change of the physical voice. The voice deepened . . .” This is because a poet always thinks of his poems as being read in his own voice – that is, unless he is a dramatic poet such as Shakespeare, when the voices he imagines are those of his company. The fact that the “voice” of the Shakespearean hero ages (Romeo, Hamlet, Lear) may simply be a reflection of the age of Burbage.

Like myself, Mr Berry regrets that technology did not give us sound-recording earlier: “What would we not give for a gramophone record of Wordsworth . . . or of Keats saying his odes? Or of Hopkins declaiming ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’?” But in fact these are unnecessary. For Mr Berry “the last stage of acquaintance with a poet occurs when one can hear the voice in the absence of the text, when the signs on the page no longer act as intermediary but instantaneously conduct”. Subjective? Not a bit of it. The poem’s vowels, mood, pitch and so on “contribute towards, and compel, a timbre and a series of vocal harmonies, that only one voice could produce”.

If I hesitate to call this baloney, it is partly because I cannot disprove it (any more than he can prove it), and partly because I seem to have said something of the sort myself. It is, indeed, easier to go at least part of the way with Mr Berry by instinct than to adduce any real evidence for doing so. To read his book, however, is to realise how many of our assumptions about poetry come from always meeting it in printed form and not in the voice of its author.

The question remains, though: is spoken poetry – poems read by their authors in a way that lets us listen to them without distraction – a good thing? Is it better than reading? I still can’t believe it is. True, one actually hears the rough mouth-music of vowels and consonants and all that, but he is a poor reader who cannot imagine that for himself. It prohibits skipping, perhaps, but equally allows your mind to wander. And if the poem is unfamiliar, how much harder it is to grasp without its punctuation, stanza-shape, and knowing how far one is from the end! These may be the objections of someone hopelessly enslaved by an out-of-date reading technique. Perhaps we should not be regressing if we regained the Elizabethan ability to listen, which enabled them to take in Macbeth as we do Maigret. But for me, in the end, it comes down to a certain restless resentment at having the book taken away from me: I want to do it myself.

Is spoken poetry a bad thing, then – a gimmick of the professor just back from America, a toy for the tired schoolteacher, a way of meeting girls? No, equally strongly. Though I remain convinced that the reader’s first encounter with the poem must be a silent, active one, an absorption of spelling and stanza-arrangement as much as paraphrasable meaning and corrective historical knowledge, there comes a moment with any poem we have really taken to ourselves when we want to hear its author read it. We want to confirm our conviction that he would quicken the pace here, throw away an irony there, or perhaps our curiosity is just for what his voice can add, something we cannot define until we hear it. Well, for such ages as succeed our own this will be possible in the case of poets writing after 1930, and knowledge of them will be richer in consequence.

The most interesting production in this field lately is Donald Davie’s A Sequence for Francis Parkman. Here the publisher, Mr George Hartley, has taken Mr Wain at his word and produced a new kind of book: he offers, in conventional printed form, a sequence of seven new poems by Dr Davie, but in addition he includes in a pocket in the back flap a 7” LP (yes, 33⅓ rpm) of the author reading them. This has never been done before to my knowledge, and I therefore salute a landmark in publishing history. Its only drawback as a medium for publishing new verse is that at present it seems to get sent to the hack that does the records instead of the distinguished critic who notices poetry.

Selected Poems by Louis MacNeice gives the author’s reading of two dozen of his poems plus a section from “Autumn Journal”. Here the voice is not the style – at least, not if you think of Mr MacNeice, as I do, as poetically a sophisticated, almost dressing-gowned figure, dropping epithets into place effortlessly and exactly. His voice is hard and at times harsh, with a lurking Northern Irish accent (suitably exaggerated for “Carrick-fergus”), and makes such poems as “The Sunlight on the Garden” and “Nuts in May” much craggier and more forceful than one remembered them. The “Autumn Journal” extract is so good that one would welcome a record of the whole poem.

And why not? For if John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells is not the whole poem, the cutting is so skilful that one hardly notices. I know that Betjeman, like Peter Simple, Ornette Coleman and frilled evening shirts, makes some people swell up and turn black: if you didn’t like the book, then probably you won’t like the record even more. But for all that this is wonderful reading: even, unhurried, inclining now a little to sanctimony, now to self-reproof; utterly clear; accented at times with a suitable mischievousness. Dylan Thomas’s Quite Early One Morning is equally virtuoso in a noisier and more familiar manner; here the voice and style are indissoluble. Like many Welsh voices, Thomas’s has a rich fraudulence that sets you chuckling even before – perhaps I should say even after – the adjectival combination-punching begins. Certainly Betjeman and Thomas have voices in the platform-entertainer sense, whereas Davie and MacNeice haven’t. It all makes for variety.

The one certain thing is that companies are going to go on issuing records of poets and poetry no matter what the aesthetics of the thing are, and I for one am not prepared to grumble. Take Authopoetry No 1 – British, for instance – readings of a few of their own poems each by Christopher Logue, Thomas Blackburn, Jon Silkin, Charles Causley and Roy MacGregor-Hastie. This is a well-produced record. Whether or not you buy it will depend largely on your estimate on the worth of the poets, but I enjoyed Mr Logue’s Demon King contributions at any rate. And suppose it had been made in 1598 – Thomas Churchyard, Robert Southwell, Thomas Watson, Anthony Munday, and – what was that name again? Will . . . ?

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a poet, novelist and librarian. He contributed poetry and criticism to the New Statesman in the early 1970s.

This article appears in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015