From the archives: The voice of the poet (2011)

July 16, 2012

A few months back, when Philip Levine was named Poet Laureate of the United States, I got to thinking about the couple of times I saw Levine read his work here in the Bay Area. Once was at a bookstore in Berkeley, and another time I saw him read in San Francisco. That was perhaps a  decade ago.

Stirring memory, I pulled a few of Levine’s books off the shelf – titles like What Work Is (1991), 5 Detroits (1970), Not This Pig (1968), and A Walk with Tom Jefferson (1988) – and reread some of his rough-hewn lyric poems. My reading of these texts brought to mind his voice – which I recalled was an insistent working class tenor only slightly worn by the passing years.

Poetry is, at its heart and in its origins, an oral medium. To read a poet’s work is one thing. To hear a poet read their work is something else all together. I’m not talking about whether or not the poet’s voice is a tenor or a bass, but rather how they read their lines, their cadences, where they break, or pause, or what they emphasize. (And even the incidental comments or anecdotes between poems which help inform a text.)

Audio tapes at SFSU

Recently, the Poetry Center and the American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University launched a digital archive of poetry recordings on the web. It’s a remarkable free resource available to anyone with internet access. It is also an enlightening way to hear notable contemporary poets read their own work.

The Poetry Center, founded in 1954 at San Francisco State College (now SFSU), has been recording and archiving its events for nearly six decades. Together, the Center and Archives maintain one of the most significant public collections in the United States of original recorded performances by poets and other related writers. Today, the Center holds over 4,000 hours of original audio and video master-recordings dating from the mid-1950s to the present.

The Poetry Center Digital Archive, which debuted in April, has begun making available a small but significant portion of the many early audio recordings from its collection. This stuff is rare, and incredibly valuable, and incredibly interesting. The plan is for new audio files to be added incrementally as recordings from the 1950s onward are prepared and uploaded to the web. And, beginning in Spring 2012, video recordings will be added from the Poetry Center’s extensive collection of early original video, collecting works from 1973 forward.

One of the audio recordings included in this first batch of files is that of Philip Levine. It is a six poem, nearly 14 minute recording dating from November 24, 1958. In it, one can hear the muscular Whitman-esque line which shaped Levine’s verse, and what’s a little surprising, a sly humor is also present – the audience laughs on more than one occasion. Certainly, this 1958 reading is historically significant for the Detroit-born Levine; for it was in that year that the future Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner joined the ranks of California poets when he joined the English Department at California State University in Fresno.

Gary Snyder, then also another up and coming writer, read along with Levine at that 1958 event.  Snyder, who read from the Riprap poems which became his first book, can be heard on a separate audio file lasting 21 minutes. It’s full of choice moments.

Who else is on the Poetry Center Digital Archive? In alphabetical order I might mention such major names as Robert Creeley, Langston Hughes, Randall Jarrell, Stanley Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Charles Olson, Theodore Roethke, Muriel Rukeyser and William Carlos Williams. Each are vintage recordings which date from the late 1950′s.

Not unexpectedly, the Beat poets, and the poets associated with the San Francisco Renaissance, are well represented. I love their work. There is audio featuring James Broughton, Gregory Corso, Robert Duncan, William Everson (a.k.a. Brother Antoninus), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen, and Jack Spicer. There is even a 1956 recording of the a re-creation of the famed 1955 Six Gallery reading – here introduced by Kenneth Rexroth and featuring Snyder, Philip Whalen and Michael McClure.

Film cans at SFSU

According to the Poetry Center Digital Archive website, the most listened to and downloaded recording (yes you can) is an April 27, 1959 reading by Allen Ginsberg. No surprise there, as Ginsberg is one of the most famous poets of our time. The most unusual recording is certainly that of Jess (Collins), the seldom seen, famously reticent San Francisco painter. He can be heard reading his own singular sing-song poetry as well as his translations of Christian Morgenstern’s Gallows Songs. Jess was the long-time companion of poet Robert Duncan, who for a couple of years in the late 1950′s served as assistant director of the Center.

There are other singular voices as well. One of them is William Stafford, long an Oregon-based poet. When I had the chance to interview this National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner writer in the late 1980′s, he told me how important it was to be witness to one’s times. And, to one’s culture. Stafford was a pacifist and conscientious objector, and bearing social witness was a Quaker notion he also applied to the arts.

After our interview, which took place at the Robinson Jeffers Centennial conference in Carmel, Stafford and I talked. He snapped my picture, as Stafford then was something of a shutterbug. I asked him to sign a couple of books, which he obliged me in doing. This led him to tell me about the time in the 1930′s when he asked Robinson Jeffers to autograph a book when Jeffers passed through Kansas on a rare book tour. (Until the late 1950′s, poets seldom read their work in public – the SFSU series was pioneering in that regard.) Jeffers obliged Stafford by autographing his book, but absent mindedly forgot to return a precious fountain pen to the young admirer. All his life, Stafford treasured his signed Jeffers book, but also never forgot the fact that Jeffers kept his pen – this was during the Depression, Stafford was young and poor, and simple things like a fountain pen were not easily given up.

On November 7th, two of the legendary poets included in the Poetry Center Digital Archive will be reading their work once more in a special benefit event for the Poetry Center. Set to take the stage at the historic Fugazi Hall in North Beach are Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder.

Ferlinghetti last read for the Poetry Center in October 2001. Snyder’s previous reading for the Poetry Center dates back to 1983. The November 7th Benefit Reading will be the first time that the two world-renowned poets have read together for the Poetry Center in its near 60-year history. It is an event not to be missed. It is a poetry reading one should witness. It is a chance to hear the voice of two great poets. More information about this benefit event can be found here.

Gary Snyder & Lawrence Ferlinghetti


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