Every poetry reading I’ve attended, and they have been blessedly few, has proven either dull, or infuriating, or both. There’s the shocker, the poet who fancies himself a species of rock star, spewing smut and political inanities to the delight of poetry-groupies. There’s the sensitive plant, oozing the sap of suffering, also to the delight of poetry-groupies. And the droner, sounding remarkably like Robert Benchley delivering “The Treasurer’s Report.” All “perform” in the most unseemly sense. All are vulgar affronts to the audience – and the poetry, if it’s any good. All get in the way of the poems they purport to convey to listeners – the messenger usurping the message. In his essay “The Audible Reading of Poetry” (The Function of Criticism: Problems and Exercises, 1957) Yvor Winters writes:
“A poem should, on the contrary, be conceived as having a movement of its own, an autonomous movement, which should be rendered as purely and as impersonally as possible. The reader has no more right to revise the rhythms in the interest of what he considers an effective presentation than he has a right to revise any other aspect of the language. The poem, once set in motion, should appear to move of its own momentum.”
Before Wednesday, I had never heard Winters’ voice. Based on my reading of his poems and prose, I imagined it stately, sonorous and deep, as I imagine Milton’s to have sounded, but purely American, and I was not disappointed. Helen Pinkerton sent me Yvor Winters Reading Poetry, the CD she and Wesley Trimpi produced for the Yvor Winters Centenary Symposium at Stanford University in November 2000.
In recordings made in 1953 and 1958, Winters reads thirty-one of his own poems, including most of his best – “The Slow Pacific Swell,” “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” “A Summer Commentary,” “Time and the Garden,” “At the San Francisco Airport,” and his masterpiece, “To the Holy Spirit.” Also on the CD are recordings of Winters reading Fulke Greville’s Sonnet XCIX (“Down in the depths of my iniquity”), Ben Jonson’s “To Heaven,” Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s “Elegy Over a Tomb,” George Herbert’s “Church Monuments,” Henry Vaughan’s “To His Books,” and seven poems by J.V. Cunningham.
The playlist will sound familiar to anyone who knows the “Winters Canon.” Pinkerton was a student of both Winters and Cunningham at Stanford in the nineteen-forties, and she once said to me: “Neither could open his mouth without saying something interesting about literature.” This extends to Winters’ manner of reading poetry, an applied lesson in metrics and rhythm. He maintains a consistently strong mid-tempo pace. Words are neither rushed nor labored. The enunciation is flawless, without sounding clinical or fake. No cheap effects, over-emoting, pandering to listeners. To use a much-scorned word, Winters sounds virile, like a husband, father and thinker. And very American, a voice worthy of the poems it carries. Pinkerton writes in her liner-notes:
“As if in a musical performance, he riveted attention on the poem itself in its full, living reality – its audible being.”
Thanks yet again, Helen.