The Sound of the Future

As Reviewed By: Ernest Hilbert

An Introduction to the Uses of Voice Recording in New Electronic Formats

The musical qualities of the spoken voice are thought by many to be the essence of poetry, and it remains true that most poetry is intended to be heard, either as an acoustic mental image or when spoken aloud. Propelled in part by new technology and an increase in available arts venues around the country, the performance of poetry has grown to be a greater concern than it has been for some time. Poets today have more tools at their disposal than ever before, including microphone, CDs, and digital audio downloads, and it is just a matter of time before small magazines, particularly in their online form, begin to make full use of these possibilities.

[private]After America embraced Dylan Thomas’s fiery recitations, which gained legendary status from John Malcolm Brinnin’s accounts in Dylan Thomas in America, the notion of the poet as solo performer began to gain greater acceptance. Robert Frost was known for his long reading tours and did a great deal to broaden the possibilities of the poet as touring performer. Though a few musty recordings on wax cylinder of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Walt Whitman survive, the recording of poets was not an archival or scholarly concern until after the Second World War, when the US Library of Congress began to compile recordings of poets as unalike as Gregory Corso and T.S. Eliot. Yale University also released LPs of at least one hundred American poets. Small labels like Fantasy Records released recordings of Allen Ginsberg, both reading and “singing” his own works and those of William Blake.

With rare exceptions, such as Caedmon audio publishers (now part of HarperCollins), it was only in the late nineteen-eighties and nineties that recorded poetry came to be viewed as an even remotely profitable branch of the entertainment industry. Caedmon, the oldest publisher of recorded poetry, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. It was launched with a recording of Dylan Thomas reading ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ with a flip side of poems, including ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’. This brought poetry into the medium that was then dominated by rock music, and Allen Ginsberg, reading ‘Kral Majales’, wound up on the flip side of a seven-inch record single from the rock band Hula Hoop, performing their song ‘Midget Love’. While a handful of recordings, such as those by icons like William Burroughs and Kurt Cobain, have gained respectable sales, it is still shaky ground for the would-be record company or publisher.

Audio recordings of the spoken voice will probably come to play an increasingly important role as a means of transmission for new writing, just as recently available archival recordings may offer new opportunities for scholarship. This is not to suggest that recordings will in any way supplant the written word, be it on page or screen. Rather, it is that recordings could come to be thought of as a valuable accessory resource, given the ease with which electronic (notably digital) files may now be exchanged and stored, particularly online.

As an aural art, poetry has married well with technology. The use of recordings by electronic magazines has been explored, but such use will become more common due to recent and forthcoming advances in technology. Recordings now exist as bytes of data rather than as physical artifacts, like magnetic tapes or vinyl records, or even plastic CDs. Electronic magazines are ideally placed to pioneer distribution, even as universities will likely be at the forefront of readily accessible archival activities.

Predecessors to purely electronic recording include wax cylinders and vinyl records. Electronic storage of voice on magnetic tape, particularly 1/4″ cassette tape, provided listeners with portability and some convenience, though magnetic tape deteriorates significantly over time and is subject to damage from moisture and heat. Poetry on tape remains a standard, however. The American Academy of Poets has an excellent selection of tapes, and both Caedmon and Random House’s Voice of the Poet series remain available on tape. Plastic, easily stored, and far more durable than tape, the CD has become the standard for mass distribution to date, though this is changing rapidly. Once one has gone from analog to digital formats, it is important to think less of the physical storage unit, such as a CD, and more of the data itself, which may be transferred and reproduced in any number of media. Despite this, the CD is currently the most efficient way of reaching listeners through traditional retail outlets, which sometimes have a dedicated section for spoken word recordings.

The practice of online storage and distribution of sound files is of considerable relevance to electronic magazines. There are two methods by which an online publisher may make voice recordings available. One is streaming audio, in which case the listener is not actually transferring an asset (such as an MP3 file), but rather accessing the information, which can begin to be heard almost immediately given a fast connection. With proper security coding, the original file is protected from listeners, who must return to the publisher’s site every time they wish to listen to the poem again. The second method is the full file download, in which case the listener would actually transfer the file from the publisher before listening to it. This may work well with paid online subscriptions, since readers and listeners will actually be receiving an asset in return for money.

In the last year alone, important advances have been made with digital audio technology that continue to make the use of such technology more appealing to electronic magazines. Apple introduced proprietary coding software called AAC (advanced audio coding) with their software I-Tunes Version 4, which introduces the MP4 for the first time. The MP4 is half the size of the MP3, and it represents another stage in the ongoing progress of increased compression. The ability to compress a file allows a site host to provide storage space and make downloadable or streaming files manageable for their audiences. It is now possible to store tens of thousands of recorded poems on the I-Pod hardware, which can fit easily into a pants pocket. Whether or not there will be tens of thousands of available poems worth hearing is another question.

Often a classroom standard, like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, can be declared a great disappointment by listeners who find themselves slightly put off by the author’s awkward and sometimes painfully vague style of presentation. Conversely, a distinctive voice, such as the unnerving Indiana drawl of William Burroughs, may redefine the way readers approach the books. Listeners have explained that they quite enjoy hearing Ian McEwan’s Atonement read by a woman with a delicate Oxford accent, which matches the “voice”, so to speak, of the novel’s narrator. Novelists are generally discouraged from recording their own books, with notable exceptions such as Jackie Collins, who also has experience as an actress. The “star” status of readers sometimes helps to sell recording of classic literature. One can hear John Cleese reading Dante, Charlton Heston reading Melville, and Gary Sinise reading John Steinbeck. In short, listeners of recorded fiction want to hear a character, if possible, rather than the author.

With poets, it is not difficult to imagine why this would be much less the case. With recordings of William Blake, to take one example, listeners will hear Sir Ralph Richardson, though it is hard to believe that Blake himself would have been as measured and “Shakespearean” a reader. Given the choice, most would rather hear Blake himself. A printed poem can, in some ways, be understood as a “score” to an aural performance. This performance may take the form of a voice imagined while reading silently or an actual sounding when the words are read aloud. It is possible to imagine that there may be interpretations of a poem’s aural contours and pacing worth hearing, much as one hears Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations, which is, in its way, as much Gould’s as it is Bach’s. A recording of Allen Ginsberg reading William Blake can bring a new, or at least different understanding of the Blake poem as it existed for Ginsberg.

Sound recordings have, on occasion, figured in the university classroom, particularly when teaching “sound” poets, like the Vienna Group. It is, however, difficult to suggest that the act of hearing poets reading their poems is in any way necessary to an understanding of those poems, unless one wishes to admit that a poem without an accompanying recording will remain in some ways closed, since we cannot hear John Milton or Emily Dickinson (though the thought is quite tantalizing).

Recorded books, particularly classics like Charles Dickens and mass-market sellers like Sue Grafton, have never been more popular so far as library circulation is concerned. In the early 1990s, with predictions of the great commercial ascension of the recorded book, several books-on-tape rental stores sprung up, organized along the lines of Blockbuster or West Coast Video (I myself rented the Iliad read by Derek Jacobi and listened on headphones to the twelve cassette sides while mowing lawns one summer).

Most, if not all, of these stores are now gone, but it seems that libraries have satisfied what demand remains. Librarians have informed me that their budgets for recorded books have enlarged in accordance with the increase in circulation of these recordings. The audience consists in the main of commuters, dedicated walkers, and also those with difficulty reading small type. In many cases, the audience is made up of listeners who would never have read the book due to lack of time or other limitations. Refreshingly, unabridged CD editions are more popular than abridged, particularly when it comes to classics. This is only one small step from “pay on demand” services with a hand-held device that would allow both magazines and “book” publishers to provide, through the ether, a book, article, or poem to a reader while on a walk or a long drive across country.

Advocates of live improvisational events such as Slam competitions might well discourage the use of recordings, since it is generally held that the excitement, the very essence of the event, must be experienced in person. Spoken Word poems, as they are sometimes called, may well benefit from being recorded, as they share a great deal with the rhythms and belting rhymes of hip hop music. Spoken Word poet reg e. gaines, for instance, had a hit in the mid-1990s with Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans, although he would probably be one of the first to emphasize that such poetry is best heard, and perhaps just as importantly, seen live. He felt comfortable releasing an album of his Spoken Word poetry, so it would make sense that making the same recording available online would be acceptable.

There are poems that are not particularly meant to be sounded at all, such as some Concrete Poems. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, there are “sound” poems that are meant principally to be heard rather than read. Some recordings, such as those of W. B. Yeats, are sometimes merely a curiosity, of more interest to the biographer than the critic, though it is not unreasonable to think that such recordings bring casual listeners closer to the poet’s work than they might otherwise come. Sound poets, and in a larger view, sound artists in general, rely heavily if not exclusively on recorded media. Historical examples include Dadaists like Kurt Schwitters and Fluxus poets such as Robert Watts. Those composing along these lines today include Gregory Whitehead, Stephen Erickson, Charles Bernstein, and John Oswald.

More emotionally-freighted poets, such as Randall Jarrell, sound as though they are about to weep at times while reading. This is a valuable quality to observe. Sylvia Plath’s reading of ‘Lady Lazarus’, made several weeks after her final break with her husband Ted Hughes, can make the listener’s hair stand on end to this day. Even what has been described as “non-expressive” poetry, or poetry of the intellect, such as Gertrude Stein’s, can have a powerful effect when heard, since it makes use of repetition and other parallel structural elements that work more successfully when heard.


A number of electronic magazines have made use of sound recordings, and I shall mention four of the most interesting examples. Rattapallax has distinguished itself as a hybrid magazine, making the most of both print and electronic techniques. (The journal takes its name from Wallace Stevens’s onomatopoeia for “thunder”.) Issues of the magazine come with a CD featuring recordings from the authors. Rattapallax also hosts a reading series (the schedule may be beamed directly to a Palm Pilot), and makes supplementary materials available with weblink scans using a GoCode reader. If you want to read more poems by a particular poet, you wave your wand over them and are delivered to a URL. CDs, if reproduced on a sufficiently large scale, can cost as little as a nickel each, so they are not a great drain on the financial resources of a small print magazine publisher. Similarly, the Hudson Review‘s 55th Anniversary issue is bound with a CD titled Along These Lines, with recordings of W. S. Merwin, Maxine Kumin, Anthony Hecht, and X. J. Kennedy, among others. It is prepared by Speakeasy Literary Audio, a fledgling company that seems set to make considerable contributions to the field of recorded poetry.

Another innovation is the digital broadside. David Stack, who edits the National Poetry Series for HarperCollins, has created in his spare moments a series of digital broadsides called The Sell Sheets at his site Posterband. Each broadside is devoted to a single poet and is delivered to several hundred subscribers as an html e-mail. Each contains a number of digital elements, including visual art, links that allow readers to purchase the author’s books, interactive flash media and hypertext, and sound recordings of the poems in the issue. With exceptions of authoritative extension sites like The New York Times or interactive commercial sites like E-Bay, websites are no longer destinations as they once were. It is important thatPosterband actually delivers the broadside of poems and recordings directly electronic mailboxes, much as a print magazine will appear in a real mailbox.

Yet another model is that of UbuWeb, which is an archival site with a more historical focus, though it does publish new work. Its editor, Kenneth Goldsmith, has remarked in the print journal NC1 that “UbuWeb is an unlimited resource with unlimited space to fill. It is in this way that the site has grown to encompass hundreds of artists, thousands of files, and several gigabites of poetry. Paper materials and analog audio files, previously limited in their cost factors and cumbersome physicality, are transformed and centralized on UbuWeb, always available for all at no cost.” Goldsmith has made available free sound files for download with sections devoted to Dadaist sound poets, Fluxus poets, sound artists, and also traditional poets. In the case of sound poetry, a recording is more valuable to a scholar than the written text or instructions, if they even exist. UbuWeb has made use of the incredible facility with which information may be stored on a grand scale. It is an utopian project, seeking to make as much literary material available to the greatest possible audience without the interference of any commercial apparatus. The material remains free to visitors. Another site that shares this vision is the Gutenberg Project, established in the dark ages of 1992. The site offers access to over 3,500 books that fall, legally, into the public domain. The range of works they have made available is astonishing, and the project continues to expand annually, with help from volunteers around the world.

The last example is perhaps the most straightforward. Guy Shahar’s Cortland Review bills itself as an “Audio Magazine.” Each online issue contains not only audio files of the poets reading their poems, but also excerpts from long interviews with well-known authors. These are made available in addition to the written words, so it is in this capacity that one most clearly sees the “accessory” use of audio files. This seems to be the most accessible use of audio files for electronic magazines and will probably become the most common usage. This development is already familiar to many traditional readers through magazines such as The Atlantic Unbound (The Atlantic Monthly online), Slate, and Salon.

Although it does not yet exist, another type of magazine may appear soon. It is an audio clearinghouse for recordings of poetry readings in different cities. A small handful of committed editors, for instance, could, with very basic technology, capture readings in New York City at the 92nd Street Y, Zinc Bar, Double Happiness, KGB, the Bowery Poetry Club, St. Mark’s, Gathering of the Tribes, Galapagos, and many other locations. Once permissions and reproduction rights had been secured, these could be made available for online subscribers interested in the New York poetry scene. Similar online magazines could exist for other cities, and even for particular writing programs and universities.

It is possible that other potential uses simply have not occurred to me, and it remains to be seen if any of these innovations will be either enduring or particularly important. It should be stressed that the use of sound recordings by online magazines, publishers, and other institutional archives, such as libraries or educational companies, is a difference of scale rather than kind. A listener has come from listening to T.S. Eliot on a vinyl record, played on an essentially non-portable piece of hardware, to being able to more or less instantly access digital files at work, at home, and soon from any location in the world with remote internet access. One can now get a recording of Wallace Stevens reading ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ while on the beach in Key West as easily as one might formerly have twisted the dial on a portable radio to locate a new call number. One could be on a plane over the Atlantic and access a young poet reading from his latest book.

Storage space will be reduced from square feet of climate-controlled space to digital storage space that represents an almost imperceptible amount of physical space. What would once have taken a steamer trunk or even a moving van to deliver on vinyl can now be stored digitally in a piece of hardware smaller than a wallet. It is impossible to ignore the possibilities this provides for both education and the development of new literature, though as with so many matters beginning with the prefix “e”, this remains to be seen.

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally presented as a paper at the West Chester Poetry Conference in June of 2003.[/private]

About Ernest Hilbert

Ernest Hilbert edited the Contemporary Poetry Review from 2005 until 2010. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Parnassus, Boston Review, Verse, New Criterion, American Scholar, and the London Review. His debut collection is Sixty Sonnets (2009). He graduated from Oxford University, where he edited the Oxford Quarterly. He hosts the popular blog and video show and is an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, an archaeologist.
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