The story of spoken word as a recorded medium really begins at the birth of the technology itself, with Thomas Edison reputed to have tested his earliest prototype phonograph cylinders in 1877 with his own recital of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. The technology was sufficiently advanced by 1890 for Alfred Tennyson to make wax cylinder recordings of around ten poems, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ among them. In the years that followed 78rpm discs featuring Biblical readings and passages from Shakespeare were plentiful, and many examples of interest exist in the richly populated hinterland between music and poetry: the twisted ballads and song-poems of the ‘Old Weird America’ gathered on Harry Smith’s epochal Anthology of American Folk Music and the Red Bird Poetry and Jazz sessions of Tony Kinsey and Christopher Logue are only two of the most interesting. Despite the riches available even before the full advent of the 12″ LP record, however, it seems to be the 1950s that saw spoken word recordings really take off, and the births of such idiosyncratic labels as Caedmon in America and Argo in the UK were particularly significant in creating a commercial market for what were otherwise seen as largely educational and archival artefacts. In the selection that follows, we’ve gathered a mere 17 recordings to represent a cross-section through the many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of possible inclusions, but they hopefully touch on key strands in the development of spoken word as a distinct literary medium and offer an introductory gesture towards that larger story.
T.S. Eliot: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock
From: T.S. Eliot reading Poems and Choruses (Caedmon, 1955)
The serious-minded Modernism of T.S. Eliot, and the poet’s drily ironic delivery of his own lines on records like this one, are often lazily condemned (in some circles, at least) as the antithesis of the spoken word scene’s more democratic energies. But any reader or listener who can’t imagine this 1955 reading of his early masterpiece The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock bringing down the house in a live setting with the same riotous force as the poem manages on paper is allowing Eliot’s forbidding reputation to get between the actual words and a more instinctive response to their effect. The truth is that however dry Eliot’s reading seems, there’s humour in the play between his high-serious tones and the absurdist doggerel of couplets like “I grow old, I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michaelangelo”. This LP, released as part of the Caedmon Literary Series in 1955, opens our selection of recordings made between the 1950s and 1990s, all precursors of today’s spoken word scene, and many by poets more closely associated with the page than the stage. As such, it’s also, I hope, a means of bridging the gap often perceived to exist between the realms of written and performed poetry in the UK. We very deliberately open proceedings with this recording of a man who is in many ways held up as the totemic ‘difficult page poet’ by both his supporters and detractors in the belief that Prufrock – first published in 1917 – unsettles that view at a very fundamental level. It’s not just our view that Eliot bridges the divide between page and stage approaches, either: the poet’s love of music hall is well known (he even wrote an essay on Marie Lloyd) but perhaps more revealing is that during an interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson in a Brixton café for The Big Issue in the North in March 2001, the renowned dub-poet mentioned in passing that he had himself recorded a reggae version of Eliot’s poem, to make exactly this point. At the time of writing, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Prufrock remains unreleased, but it would be wonderful, and no doubt transformative, if Eliot’s estate were to one day relent and allow Johnson’s so far unheard dub take on Prufrock to take its place beside Eliot’s own reading.
Edith Sitwell: Façade
From: Façade: performed by Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft with The London Sinfonietta conducted by Sir William Walton (Argo, 1972) [Link to different performance]
While the position of Eliot’s Prufrock in the Modernist canon is assured, there’s still a lingering suspicion that Edith Sitwell’s cycle of nonsense-poems set to music by William Walton – and first performed at the Aeolian Hall in London on June 12, 1923 – is some kind of in-joke, perpetuated by the Sitwell clan as a wealthy bohemian indulgence at the expense of a gullible public in search of novelties. Listening to this version, recorded to commemorate Walton’s 70th birthday, and conducted by him with Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft performing the recitals, suggests that it’s a singularly odd blend of verbal humour and musical experiment – not (as is sometimes claimed) in a jazz idiom, but with the quirky tenor of Erik Satie’s compositions, sharing its general atmosphere and tone with his score for Rene Clair’s silent film En’tracte (1924), an enterprise in which erstwhile Dadaist Francis Picabia was also involved. Seen in this context, it’s a good example of British modernism produced with lively humour and a lightness of touch, a point that seems self-evident in such nonsensically playful lines as “And why should the spined flowers/Red as a soldier/ Make Don Pasquito/ Seem still mouldier” (‘Lullaby for Jumbo’), “The light is braying like an ass” (‘Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone’) and “Herodiade’s flea/ Was named sweet Amanda,/ She danced like a lady/ from here to Uganda” (‘Came the Great Popinjay’). Taking its cues from the delight in wordplay of folk poetry and nursery rhyme, Sitwell’s verses seem both modish (“Lily O’Grady/Silly and shady,/Longing to be/A lazy lady”) and – at times – dug from some oddly distorted memory inside the language itself:
Bells of grey crystal
Break on each bough –
The swans’ breath will mist all
The cold airs now.
Like tall pagodas
Two people go,
Trail their long codas
Of talk through the snow.
Lonely are these
And lonely am I…
The clouds, grey Chinese geese,
Sleek through the sky.
This is ‘Bells of Grey Crystal’ in full, and like much else in Façade it manages to be entirely superficial yet affecting simultaneously; the combination of Sitwell’s nursery-rhyme verses and Walton’s settings, with their parodies of sea-shanties and music hall comedy songs, suggest a peculiarly English sensibility at work. Just as Façade borrowed the devices of European modernism to build a path back to childhood, so English psychedelic bands such as The Kaleidoscope and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd would later eschew the harder formal experimentation and political edges of their American and European contemporaries of the later 1960s in favour of acid-tinged reworks of The Wind in the Willows or a full embrace of Lewis Carroll’s mindbending Victorian doll-house aesthetic. Sitwell’s later work may have fallen rather too often into grandiose pomposity but her early material has its own undeniable energy and appeal, perhaps coming as close as England managed to a native strain of Dadaism – or perhaps a development of the musical genre now known to adherents as Toytown Psychedelia four decades ahead of schedule. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine a 1967 English band in velvet jackets and frilly shirts performing many of these lyrics to the backwards tapes, fuzz guitars and distorted brass bands of the day: “The rooms are vast as sleep within:/When once I ventured in,/Chill silence, like a surging sea,/Slowly enveloped me” (‘Clowns’ Houses’).
Dylan Thomas: Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait
From: Dylan Thomas reading Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait (Caedmon, 1952)
Dylan Thomas was both an early protégé of Edith Sitwell’s and, in some respects, perhaps the indirect instigator of the boom in both public readings of poetry, and spoken word releases on vinyl LPs and 45s, during the 1950s and after. It was Thomas’s renown as a reader (as well as writer) of poetry that saw him endlessly touring the United States in his later years, and Caedmon’s phenomenally successful LP recordings (beginning in 1952, when two young American women, Marianne Roney and Barbara Cohen, brought Thomas’ voice and the medium of vinyl together) became instrumental in showing a market for recordings of such readings existed. Some of these LPs, such as Thomas’s own readings of Under Milk Wood, or his seasonal story A Child’s Christmas in Wales, added at the last minute to his debut recording of five poems for the label, sold in great quantities. That’s probably less true of this far from obviously commercial single, recorded in New York in 1952, on which one of Thomas’ more oblique and knotted late poems is spread over both sides of the record. But if the meaning here is frequently obscure, the language and rhythms are sufficiently rich for a listener to treat the piece as an immersive rather than interpretative experience. Hearing Thomas’s deeply musical reading of such lines as “Sails drank the wind, and white as milk/ He sped into the drinking dark;/ The sun shipwrecked west on a pearl/ And the moon swam out of its hulk” is to allow the long-lined ballad stanzas driving the poem forward to wash through the mind like the sound of the ocean itself: “…nothing remains/Of the pacing, famous sea but its speech,/And into its talkative seven tombs/The anchor dives through the floors of a church”. As Marianne Roney noted in a 1999 interview, looking for an explanation of the success of her fledgling company’s Dylan Thomas recordings with the public, Thomas always “wrote to the thunder of his voice. His poems are inconceivable without that voice”. While it’s possible to hear other voices successfully reading at least some of Thomas’s work (Richard Burton’s performance in Under Milk Wood comes to mind) or appreciate Thomas’ thunderous tones applied to the works of others (notably Yeats and James Stephens, whose poems he often incorporated into his public readings) it’s certainly hard to imagine Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait being this successfully transmitted by any voice that is not Thomas’s own.
Louise Bennett: A Jamaican Alphabet
From: Childrens’ Jamaican Songs and Games Sung by Louise Bennett (Folkways, 1957)
Already well-known at the time of this record’s release as the editor of several anthologies of Jamaican folklore, dialect and stories, and as a newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster, Louise Bennett is often considered the most important figure in carrying the oral traditions of the Caribbean into the post-war evolution of a distinct written literature. While she could be biting and satirical as well as warm and witty in her own poems, with pieces such as ‘Colonisation in Reverse‘ and ‘Independence’ having enormous influence on the writing that developed in her wake, Bennett – always an enormously popular figure in Jamaica – was not widely acknowledged as a poet deserving of literary respect until the 1960s. Jamaica Alphabet is typical of her earlier output, in that a piece of folk poetry is redefined by Bennett’s sensibility, and her linguistic and rhythmic invention, releasing the oral into a written form:
A is fe Ackee Saltfish bes’ frien’
B is fe Bammy Banana an den
C is fe Cocoa, Coconut, Callalloo
D is fe Dumplin’ an Duckoonoo
E is fe Egg nourishin fe eat
F is fe Fu-fu when you lose yuh teeth…
Bennett’s other achievement, of course, was to marry the oral as performance with the new mediums of radio and recording, and it’s worth remembering that Jamaica Alphabet was released on the legendary Folkways label as part of a 10″ album of traditional songs and games in 1957, barely a decade after the SS Windrush had first docked at Tilbury. Its contents – doubtless somewhat exotic to English ears on its initial release – have since become so deeply woven into the fabric of British culture that Bennett’s voice now seems as familiar as Thomas Hardy’s or John Betjeman’s. As a precursor, pointing towards the future of English, and for her immense importance in shaping the spoken poetry and performance that flourished from the 1960s onwards, it’s probably not going too far to suggest that Bennett has been as energising and transformative an influence on the English language poetry of the twentieth century’s second half as T.S. Eliot was on that of the first.
Edward (Kamau) Brathwaite: Calypso
From: Rights of Passage by Edward Brathwaite (Argo, 1968)
As though taking positions on either side of Louise Bennett’s commitment to an oral literature, the two towering figures of Caribbean poetry since the 1960s have been Derek Walcott and Edward Kamau Brathwaite, but while Brathwaite was undoubtedly considered the senior figure during the 1960s and 70s, he has subsequently been eclipsed in Europe and America by Walcott’s ascent to Nobel status in recent decades. As a question of mere literary reputation, this shouldn’t much matter, but it’s the difference in approach between the two bodies of work that perhaps explains how the discrepancy arose. For while Walcott’s response to the poetic marginality of his St Lucia home was to occupy the traditional forms and models of European literature, Brathwaite’s to that of his native Barbados was seemingly to tear up that tradition and begin again, from the example of such Francophone poets as Aimé Cesaire and Nicolás Guillén. The 1967 publication of Rights of Passage, the first book in his first trilogy, sees modernist techniques interwoven with an English that shifts between standard form and the dialects of ‘Nation Language’. Brathwaite re-told the story of the migrations and disruptions of the Middle Passage in a form that echoed the collective experience described: in broken lines, fragments made coherent by a constantly changing rhythm. As Brathwaite himself stated in the sleeve notes to this recording, “the rhythms… convey a great deal of the meaning of the poem. The drum-like beats of its African beginning (‘Drum skin whip/ lash’) give way to the blues of the ‘slave’ section, which in turn develop into the boogie-woogie train rhythms of emancipation, the jazz phrases of urban ghetto life and the creole dialect speech rhythms of the peasant countryside”. For this reason (and not unlike Basil Bunting’s 1978 recording of Briggflats for Bloodaxe) what can seem difficult on paper comes into clear and accessible focus when heard aloud, with the musical structures foregrounded. Brathwaite’s impact on the younger generation of British and Caribbean poets who went on to develop dub poetry and other performance-based styles – Michael Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson among them – has been undeniable and profound, but his less frequently noted effect on Walcott’s sense of scale in works like Another Life and Omeros probably shouldn’t be forgotten either.
Herbert Read: Exile’s Lament
From: Echoes of My Life by Herbert Read (Argo, 1967)
Released on the Argo record label to commemorate Read’s death in 1968 at the age of 75, the very English sensibility on display throughout Echoes of My Life seems at first glance as far removed from Brathwaite’s concerns in Rights of Passage as it’s possible to be. Yet listening to the two recordings together, it quickly becomes clear that both are concerned with roots and displacements, and Read – a Yorkshire-born poet, anarchist and art critic who first came to prominence with poems and diaries written in the aftermath of war service between 1915 and 1917 – had once described himself as a young man “cast into the frenzy of war with no better personal covering than the philosophy of Nietzsche,” suggesting that his own life had seen its own exiles and disruptions. In this recording, he moves back through his own experience in an effort to bridge the distance between his origins and later years, interspersing passages of prose autobiography from The Contrary Experience with selections and excerpts from the poems, and weaving his own voice with those of Peter Orr and Yvonne Bonnamy to describe a series of landscapes, and the resonances of these in his own sensibility. Read’s frequent sense of the impact of natural forces on an individual consciousness follows in the tradition of Coleridge, and perhaps anticipates Ted Hughes, as when he notes “A rising fish ripples the still waters/And disturbs my soul”, or observes a rook, that “if it should swerve in the sky/Will move the whole world momentously”. Despite his own poetry’s broadly conventional feel, that English Romantic ideal underlay Read’s promotion of Surrealism during the 1930s, and in the book he edited at the time of the 1936 International Exhibition in London, essays by Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Georges Hugnet and Hugh Sykes-Davies sketched out the connections between the French movement’s concerns and the longer traditions of Romanticism and political radicalism in England that Read felt made the movement a natural fit with this deep-rooted sensibility in his home culture. It is these interests, rather than his broader role as a polemicist, educational writer and public explicator of modern art, that informs this recording. As the poems move forward from ‘Childhood’ and back into the deeper history of a Saxon and early Christian England glimpsed in such poems as ‘The Ivy and the Ash’ and ‘Dirge’, the record ends with a conjunction of ‘Exile’s Lament’, a polyphony of voices in apparent conversation with Caedmon, the first Christian poet of England, and ‘Lines from Moon’s Farm’, in which the central symbol is a clock. In one passage, Read finds belonging in a village whose inn, to his delight, is named The Wings Of Liberty, and these homespun details combine with reminiscences on the ancient kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, and the thought, voiced by an exile, that we might live “for fifty years in successive states of illusion”, our best hope to believe “it is not too late for these illusions to be re-established”.
Joan Baez: The Magic Wood
From: Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, Sung and Spoken by Joan Baez (Vanguard, 1968)
This selection of spoken and sung pieces with settings – both musical and atmospheric – by Peter Shickele, also emerged in 1968, and while Baez’s concept presents itself as ‘a journey through our time’, the record draws mainly on older material to present its portrait of the political turbulence of its day. Works by Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca, James Joyce, Countee Cullen, Wilfred Owen, William Blake and Norman Cameron’s translations of Arthur Rimbaud appear alongside Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s ‘Colours’, Norman Rosten’s ‘In Guernica’, Jacques Prevert’s ‘Song of the Blood’, Kenneth Rexroth’s ‘Poems from the Japanese’ and the anonymous lullaby ‘All The Pretty Horses’ in a surprisingly effective and considered meditation on war, love and idealism, allowing the many voices gathered into Baez’s own to create a deeper perspective on an age of slogans and easily-chosen sides. Perhaps the most surprising inclusions are three poems from the now largely forgotten 1940s Faber poetry collections of Henry Treece, whose ‘Old Welsh Song’, ‘Who Murdered The Minutes’ and ‘The Magic Wood’ each offer a fusion of the early WB Yeats’ elegant lyrical impulses and Dylan Thomas’s more extravagant linguistic compression. Baez’s version of ‘The Magic Wood’ is – like her setting of e.e. cummings’ ‘All in Green Went My Love Riding’ – a case of a poem written under the influence of folk song re-translated back into that tradition. In ‘The Magic Wood’ this creates not just a very fine setting of an unduly neglected poem but one of Baez’s own best performances, beautifully poised between the breathless innocence of her singing voice and Treece’s wonderfully nightmarish imagery:
I met a man with eyes of glass
And a finger curled as the wriggling worm,
And hair all red with rotting leaves,
And a stick that hissed like a summer snake.
The wood is full of shining eyes,
The wood is full of creeping feet,
The wood is full of tiny cries;
You must not go to the wood at night!
The Open Window: The Priests of the Raven of Dawn
From: The Open Window: Peter Shickele, Stanley Walden, Robert Dennis (Vanguard, 1969)
A very different proposition from Baez’s arranger Peter Shickele is this 1969 recording of a song built from two different William Blake poems, presenting the verses of ‘London’ intact but inserting a refrain from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ as a kind of chorus. The mood is set by repeated electric piano vamps and a doom-laden organ, creating an experience akin to an otherworldly progressive rock sermon. It’s superbly atmospheric, and delivers Blake’s extraordinary poetry – “In every cry of every man/ In every infant’s cry of fear,/ In every voice, in every ban/ The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” – without worrying about possible archaisms, and deploying its late sixties musical armoury with unusual sensitivity to the text’s own shifting moods. As Shickele’s sleeve-notes rightly emphasise, Blake’s ‘London’ may have been written in the 1790s “but there’s no need to update it, or to pretend that it’s not also about, say, New York”. As with the 1970s jazz settings of Blake’s poetry by Mike Westbrook and Michael Horovitz’s adoption of Blake as the figurehead of his late sixties anthology of performance-based poetry, Children of Albion, ‘The Priests of the Raven of Dawn’ offers a lesser-known piece of evidence in support of Blake’s currency in the underground culture of this time on both sides of the Atlantic.
BBC Drama Workshop with Ronald Duncan and David Cain: July
From: The Seasons. Poems by Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill, Radiophonic Music by David Cain (BBC, 1969)
As you’d expect from the national broadcasting body, responsible for most of the UK’s schools programming on radio and television for the better part of 70 years, the BBC archives are a rich seam of recordings in which pretty much every possible approach to presenting text in audio formats is tried out. From well known actors reading the works of Shakespeare and Wordsworth to specially commissioned scripts devised for radio by many of the post-war era’s best-known poets, perhaps the most fascinating today are the readings set to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s distinctive and hugely influential electronic sounds. On this 1969 recording, the Workshop’s David Cain creates abstract soundscapes for the poems of Ronald Duncan, who moves through each of the 12 months of the year in turn, and Derek Bowskill, who offers four poems on the four seasons, from Spring to Winter. For ‘March‘, Cain generates minimal rhythmic scales that seem to skip happily along, but periodically stumble on dry synthetic rustles, like feet dragging in leaves, as Duncan intones “The Earth is washing, who will wake her?/ Burn the brambles from the hedge./ Fire will rouse her/ Bring a scrubbing brush of ice/ Frost to soap her,/ Till the fingers of rain/ Fall and rinse her”. The effect is curiously disjunctive, as when the decayed folk-tunes of ‘May’ accompany imagery of a female-personified Earth going “in impudent loveliness/ To meet the wind’s wantonness:/ Wet leaves of vine, her lips;/Their kiss, the heather rose…”, or the stately but melancholy processional of ‘July’ evokes Duncan’s “Empress with an endless train”, followed by “white swans and modest little boats” whose “cortege goes/ Down to the indifferent sea”. Throughout, nature is powerfully evoked through sounds that are far removed from the natural. The vivid poems (“Like severed hands the wet leaves lie”, writes Duncan in ‘October‘; “Now night on all fours/ Crawls cautiously through the valley”, he adds for ‘November‘) are steeped in the neo-pagan imagery of fertility, death and resurrection, and set here to a sonically inventive palette of clicks, bleeps, rustles, whooshes and rhythmic patterns that will be familiar from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s other early productions. These – the work of composers like Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and John Baker – domesticated the alien sounds of electronic music into such familiar yet startling shapes as the Dr Who theme and the 1960s call signals of BBC Radio Nottingham and Sheffield. The sleeve-notes of this LP suggest that David Cain was responsible for a 1967 setting of Eliot’s The Waste Land that should also be well worth tracking down, if it still exists.*
[Note: Since first writing this, I had the opportunity to ask Cain himself about his Waste Land setting. It turned out this was never recorded, to his knowledge, and was made as an arrangement for a live performance.]
The Liverpool Scene: Winter Poem
From The Liverpool Scene: Bread on the Night (RCA, 1970)
When the Penguin Modern Poets series published its tenth volume, bringing together three young Liverpool poets, there might have been some calculation that poets from the Beatles’ home city might prove a popular choice, but probably few clues as to the mainstream best-seller status that followed. While the contributors continue to be spoken of together, as the Liverpool Poets, the three were all notably different, even in 1967, when The Mersey Sound first appeared. Brian Patten’s work displayed a stumbling but often likeable adolescent sincerity, Roger McGough’s updated older music hall and cabaret traditions, while Adrian Henri’s interests were more underground and bohemian, encompassing jazz, painting and literary modernism. McGough and Henri both moved into making records that travelled a long way from the idea of merely recording their own poems, and McGough’s trio The Scaffold (with John Gorman and Mike McGear) scored mainstream novelty hits like Lily The Pink alongside occasional pop-psychedelic curiosities, and they continued to work as a cabaret and recording act well into the 1970s. Henri’s The Liverpool Scene – an altogether more volatile outfit that also included the independent song-writing talent of Andy Roberts – is more varied in its blend of music and word, with Roberts’ grasp of folk, blues and jazz idioms meshed into Henri’s knowing (and often satirical) approach to the key bohemian tropes of his time. The version of Henri’s long poem ‘The Entry Of Christ Into Liverpool‘, based on a painting made in the early 1960s as a homage to James Ensor, unrolls against a backdrop of loose jazz, while the Henri-penned instrumental ‘Come Into The Perfumed Garden Maud’, with its Eastern scales and heavy improvisation, seems to anticipate such current cult bands as Voice of the Seven Woods and Six Organs of Admittance, demonstrating that Henri’s input was not always, or even predominantly, on the lyrical side. Even so, perhaps it’s his own ‘Winter Poem’, an effective mood-piece with atmospheric and minimal backings, that comes closest to the mood generated by David Cain, and it’s tempting to wonder if Henri had that BBC recording in mind when recording this track. The influence of the Liverpool Poets is often spoken of today in terms set largely by knowledge of McGough’s most accessible work, with its clear sentiments, gentle comedy and love of puns, but the recordings of The Liverpool Scene (alongside the best of Henri’s poetry, and such publications as Environments and Happenings, his 1974 study of installation and performance art) suggest that the phenomenon was both wider ranging and more attuned in significant ways to the traditions of modernism than is usually acknowledged, by either the advocates or detractors, who continue to debate the Liverpool Poets’ influence.
Edwin Morgan: The Loch Ness Monster’s Song
From: The Barrow Poets: Magic Egg (Argo, 1972)
A music and poetry aggregation who made records from around 1963 into the early 1970s, The Barrow Poets’ core members were William Bealby-Wright, Gerard Benson, Cicely Smith, Heather Black and Susan Baker. They began with a cabaret presenting a broad range of material, from Shakespeare, Walter de la Mare and Robert Graves to Ogden Nash and Jack Kerouac, and on later recordings for Harley Usill’s marvellously eccentric Argo label – such as Joker and Outpatients – added more material written by the poets and performers themselves, with music by Jim Parker, whose CV also includes work on John Betjeman’s recordings for the progressive rock-leaning Charisma label, of which more later. Magic Egg is billed as the group’s childrens’ LP, and the title track recasts an Assyrian legend as a song that shares some DNA with the material created by the noted folk musicians Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner for Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin’s Bagpuss in 1973. Elsewhere, though, the material covers Edwin Morgan’s noted sound poem ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, Miroslav Holub’s ‘How to Paint a Perfect Christmas’ and Adrian Mitchell’s version of the English ‘world turned upside down’ poem, ‘Nothing Mass Day’, alongside a variety of folk pieces such as ‘Tom Tit Tot’ and ‘The Turtle Dove’. The version of Edwin Morgan’s piece is especially strong, taking the witty print version of this entirely wordless poem and presenting it as a piece of anarchic vocalese full of gurgles, roars and other meaningless but evocative glossolalia, part childrens’ party piece, part distant cousin of the Dadaist experiments of Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball, as the monster herself surfaces, looks around, and – not liking what she sees – returns to the depths of Loch Ness.
Sir John Betjeman: The Licorice Fields at Pontefract
From: Sir John Betjeman: Late Flowering Love (Charisma, 1974)
Jim Parker adds his musical stylings to the familiar tones of the best-known post-war Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, on several recordings, with recordings like Banana Blush and this one, Late Flowering Love, picking up on the popularity of Betjeman’s films and documentaries with settings that sometimes create 1920s pastiches or summery string arrangements to frame his words, but occasionally offer something more sinister and interesting, as in the crawling bass-line that underscores ‘Late Flowering Lust’, Betjeman’s account of an old man’s vision of entwined skeletons as his speaker “runs his fingers down your dress/ With brandy-certain aim” and concludes, in the aftermath of reignited passion, that “Too long we let our bodies cling,/ We cannot hide disgust/ At all the thoughts that in us spring/ From this late-flowering lust.” In another piece here, ‘The Licorice Fields of Pontefract’, Parker adds the feel of a psychedelic brass band to the typically cosy voice that intones: “In the liquorice fields at Pontefract/ My love and I did meet/ And many a burdened liquorice bush/ Was blooming round our feet…”. Located somewhere between a downbeat take on ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ and the darker, more unsettling hallucinations being created by former Mr Fox member Bob Pegg on records like Ancient Maps around the same time, it’s a reminder that Betjeman could be a surprisingly strange poet at times, deploying his reassuring tones to slip all kinds of sex and death-obsessed peculiarity under the radar of his audience. No wonder Philip Larkin liked him.
Peter Redgrove: From the Reflections of Mr Glass
From: British Poets of Our Time: Peter Redgrove and Peter Porter (Argo, 1975)
Alongside its many releases of train-sounds LPs, Shakespeare plays, radio ballads by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and a wide-ranging series of ethnographic field recordings edited by Deben Bhattacharya, the Argo label also gave what looks like free rein to Peter Orr to compile a series of recordings of contemporary poets reading their own works. Besides Orr’s rightly renowned The Poet Speaks compilations, each featuring four or five poets, and widely used in schools, a separate strand of LPs was produced under the general heading British Poets of Our Time. These differed from the anthology approach of The Poet Speaks titles by devoting either a whole record to one author (as was done for Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn and W.H.Auden) or – as was more common – splitting an LP between two contrasting or complementary voices. Intriguing connections were thus forged between Stevie Smith and Adrian Mitchell, Norman Nicholson and Tony Connor, and, as here, the urbanely witty early work of Peter Porter, already trailing the shadows that would deepen through the next decade, and the free-associative Cornish strangeness, with its unique strain of scientific romanticism, of Peter Redgrove. Both poets read on this LP without accompaniment of any kind, and do so very engagingly indeed, proving that, sometimes, the words themselves and the poets’ own voices are all that is necessary.
Dave Dallwitz Jazz Band: Patterns for Slatterns
From: Dave Dallwitz & His Jazz Band: Ern Malley Jazz Suite (Swaggie, 1975)
The story of Australia’s most notorious modern poet, a man who never existed, was told in fascinating detail by Michael Heyward’s 1993 book The Ern Malley Affair, in which Ern’s creation as a tool to discredit Australia’s nascent avant-garde by the conservative poets James McAuley and Howard Stewart while on active service in 1943 set in train a compellingly unlikely series of events and connections. Malley’s poetry and fictional back-story were embraced by the young Melbourne editor Max Harris, who published the works in his magazine Angry Penguins. Harris’ subsequent trial for obscenity over the publication of these poems, and the debates in court and elsewhere over their value, is all laid out in brilliantly entertaining detail by Heyward’s account, which also includes copies of all the letters, poems and collages faked up by McAuley and Stewart in Malley’s name. Far from an ordinary hoax, however, Malley’s invention left a legacy in which the fake collection of this fabricated poet, published under the title The Darkening Ecliptic, ended up becoming one of the iconic works of the Australian modernism it had been created to discredit and Malley passed into Australian culture as a folk-hero to rival Ned Kelly. Which is no doubt why more than thirty years after the original hoax and its attendant dramas had been played out, Australian band leader Dave Dallwitz felt inspired to create his Ern Malley Jazz Suite, setting selections from Malley’s cut and paste texts to 1930s style jazz music, intercutting songs based on such poems as ‘Culture as Exhibit’, ‘Boult to Marina’ and ‘Perspective Lovesong’ with instrumental passages evoking portraits of Max Harris, Sidney Nolan and Malley himself – whose best-known likeness was the painting of Nolan’s creation featured on the LP’s sleeve. The raucous jazz pastiches of the band’s music generate a synthetic feel that complements the texts well, and Penny Eames’ singing enunciates the absurd poetry of such lines as “And I must go with stone feet/ Down the staircase of flesh” (‘Sweet William’) with a deadpan brilliance that is hard to fault.
R.S. Thomas: Welsh Landscape
From: R.S. Thomas Reading his own Poems (Oriel Records, 1976)
In the drought summer of 1976, The Welsh Arts Council visited the home of R.S. Thomas with some basic recording equipment and taped his readings of around 40 poems, releasing the results on this LP, a fascinating back-to-basics project that frames Thomas’s sometimes odd lineation on the page in the brittle, old-fashioned voice (not unlike Eliot’s, and the opposite of Dylan Thomas’s thunderous delivery) that helps to make sense of his signature poetic techniques. Side one covers material from his work between 1946 and 1968, and includes such poems as ‘A Peasant’ and ‘Walter Llywarch’, while side two divides equally between his two early 1970s books H’m and Laboratories of the Spirit, poems that seem marginally less bleak only because they encompass a more mythic dimension than the earlier work. Despite the poems’ focus on human suffering at the hands of an arbitrary universe and its largely absent creator, their angular music and Thomas’s ability to create compelling, often beautiful, images from his bleak material gives the effect of a hard-won transcendence; the Crucifixion is “love in a dark crown/ Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree/ Golden with fruit of a man’s body” (‘In a Country Church’), while for all the general despairing tone of ‘Welsh Landscape’, the vivid “spilled blood/ That went into the making of the wild sky” and half-comic dismissal of the past (“Brittle with relics,/ Wind-bitten towers and castles/ With sham ghosts”) ensure that however disconsolate the words may be, their grounding in the passing beauties of the world, even (perhaps especially) at its least picturesque, ensures there’s an ultimate sense that life might, in the end, mean something after all.
Cecil Rajendra: The Animal and Insects Act
From: An Evening of International Poetry (Alliance Records, 1982)
By the early 1980s, the shape of what was already becoming a distinct spoken word and performance poetry scene was well established, and one of its key strands is given a showcase on this double album presenting a rising generation of African, Caribbean and Asian poets, many with roots on the page, but all equally interested in the possibilities for immediate communication with audiences offered by performance. Recorded live at Camden Town Hall in March 1982, it’s a snapshot of an historic moment, sandwiched between the punishing recession and inner-city riots that greeted the early years of Conservative government and the launch of the Falklands War that year, widely believed to have saved Margaret Thatcher from electoral defeat in 1983. Edward Kamau Brathwaite is the senior figure, lending his considerable weight and sense of history to the evening with a reading of ‘For The Third World’, and (perhaps not surprising, given the event’s links to 1982’s First International Fair of Black and Third World Books, the brainchild of John La Rose) the concerns of many – though not all – contributors are political in nature and subject. James Berry writes from the perspective of a ‘Black Man On Trial in London’, E.A. Markham presents a woman transferring her anger into bread making in ‘Don’t Talk to Me About Bread’, Linton Kwesi Johnson performs ‘Di Great Insohrekshan‘, his definitive poem on the Brixton riots, and John Agard offers observations on the attitudes revealed by ‘Graffiti in a British Rail Waiting Room’. Jack Mapanje’s quirky perspective in ‘Travelling on London Tubes’, Valerie Bloom’s comic ‘Recommendation’ and the absurdist legal satire of Cecil Rajendra’s ‘The Animal and Insects Act’ ensure the tone is varied, taking in voices from India, Cuba and Africa as well as the Caribbean. Some of the material is of its day, but much still has a clear resonance: in hindsight it’s easy to see that these voices were transforming English speech, and the poetry written in it, in ways that are still very much with us.
Marie Osmond: Karawane
From: Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, by Greil Marcus (Rough Trade, 1993)
Punk’s relationship to poetry is usually defined by the stick-thin figure of John Cooper Clarke, and in his early recordings (notably his adaptation of a 1940s barrack-room ballad into the mordantly funny, expletive-laden ‘Chickentown‘ and his bleak portrait of the more desolate corners of England in the late 70s and early 80s, ‘Beasley Street‘) Clarke set an example of accessible, sweary rhyming that bred a legion of imitators, and his approach is still used as a template by many contemporary spoken word artists; pretty much any open-mic night in the country will bring a few verbal stylings directly traceable to Cooper Clarke into plain view. Yet while this side of punk created its own form of alternative cabaret, Greil Marcus’s 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century proposed a different lineage, with its roots in a very different kind of cabaret: the Cabaret Voltaire, established in Zurich during the first world war, and the starting point of Dada as a movement in art, literature, politics and design. His book generated sufficient interest for this 1993 ‘soundtrack’ to be released by Rough Trade, pushing raw punk demos by The Slits, Liliput, The Raincoats and Buzzcocks into the same lineage as The Orioles’ 1948 doo-wop hit ‘It’s Too Soon To Know’, Benny Spellman’s 1962 recording of ‘Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)’ and Bascam Lamar Lunsford’s 1928 take on the Appalachian ballad ‘I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground’. Threaded between these more conventional tracks are such works as Raoul Haussmann’s ‘phoneme bbbb’ and Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck’s ‘L’Amiral cherche une maison a louer’, examples of sound and nonsense poetry made in the years between 1916 and 1918, and in Marcus’s view the founding documents of what came to be known as punk during 1976. Perhaps the most intriguing piece featured is a version of Hugo Ball’s ‘Karawane’ performed by the clean-cut Mormon pop-star Marie Osmond, recorded for an episode of the American TV series Ripley’s Believe it or Not in 1984. There’s a certain logic to the incongruity here; just as punk became cabaret during the 1980s, and it transpired, anyway, that the Sex Pistols’ sole LP had drawn heavily on the session bass playing of Chris Spedding (previously a member of Mike Batt’s bubblegum children’s TV cash-in group The Wombles) so it seems strangely fitting that an Osmond, of all people, might create her own fleeting moment of cultural insurrection.
The cultural confusion her recital creates seems a fitting place to close the story, for now. By the early 1990s, of course, the vinyl LP had already largely ceased to be the format for spoken word recordings, replaced by cassette and CD audio books, and those in turn are now being pushed to the margins by podcasts, downloads and online streaming video formats. As the formats continue to mutate the one sure thing is that the story outlined here continues, and poetry will keep finding outlets far beyond the traditional confines of the printed page, even as the book itself – one of the most resourceful technologies yet created – continues to hold its own.