Great Poetry Performances

Not actually Keats, but close enough

Not actually Keats, but close enough

The experience of hearing a poem recited is very different from that of silently reading it on the page, and ideally the performance should enrich our experience of the poem. Alas, many poetry readings fail to deliver. Naeem Murr fisked them all in a hilarious essay: “Why is it that so few poets think about the importance of leaving their audience wanting more—or at least not wanting to self-harm? We’ve all experienced it. A lively, engaging, funny person takes the podium. We adore her; we’re ready to adore her work. And then it’s as if someone has pulled a string in the back of her head to release the “poetry voice” from her abruptly expressionless face.” Now, it’s kind of unfair to attack poets too harshly for not being great performers. Composing and performing are two very different skills. But some performances are better than others, and it’s worth seeking them out. With that in mind, here are some of my favorites.

The Three Year-Old Who Memorizes Poems

This little guy is not only ineffably adorable, he also has serious interpretive chops. This is his performance of Billy Collins’ Litany. See how he tumbles forward when he says “the evening paper blooooowing down an alley”? An adult couldn’t pull that off, but it’s perfect for him. The way he modulates his voice, rising and falling, is more sophisticated than Billy Collins’ own recitation. The way he plunges down again at the end of the poem (“But don’t worry…”) makes him sound like a miniature Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas, “Poem in October”

You can’t talk about great poetry performers without bowing down before Dylan Thomas. Whether he’s reading his own incantations or the war poems of Wilfred Owen, you won’t think about anything else while you’re listening. I could recommend many selections: “The Hunchback in the Park,” A Child’s Christmas in Wales ( a short story)… Or you could just spring for this 11 CD collection of his recordings, which is worth way more than $25.

This High Schooler Reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man-Moth”

You have to scroll down a ways to find Kareem Sayegh. I’m sure all the girls in his class had a huge crush on him. The way he interprets this delicate, Tim Burton-ish poem, with wry coolness and little fraying moments of vulnerability, is enchanting.

A Seriously Disturbing One By–Who Else?–Sylvia Plath

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. In this poem, Plath is Nurse Ratched, Mommy dearest, the HR lady from hell. Or something. Her voice is lye and honey.

Robert Hass, “Faint Music”

I didn’t expect to like this. I’ve not read much of Hass, and had a vague understanding that he was yet another academic hippie lefty poet. But I stumbled across these recordings and listened to them without reading the poems first – and I liked them better that way. There’s the faintest hint of gravel in Hass’s voice, and the poems slip through transitions as dreamlike as San Francisco in its states of light and fog.

Seamus Heaney’s Poem for His Mother

He wrote this sonnet after her death. His voice, so kind, so Irish, is always a pleasure to listen to.

Benedict Cumberbatch Reading Keats No I Can’t Stop Myself

I will let the women of YouTube speak for me: “I like this more than I like the crème filling of an oreo…” “BOOM my ovaries are gone.”