Steve Yeater/AP
Poet Kay Ryan reads some of her poetry
at the University of California in 2004.

Listening to Poetry: 5 Poems Read by Their Authors

April 01, 2010
by Liz Colville
Most agree that poetry’s effect is at its fullest when read aloud. Though a poem’s meaning may seem cryptic on the page, when spoken, its meaning can become as clear as conversational prose. In honor of National Poetry month, here are five memorable poems read aloud by their authors.

Kenneth Koch: “Spring”

The American poet Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) was a member of the New York School of poets, which also included his friends John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. All three were Harvard graduates who lived and worked in New York in the 1950s alongside contemporary painters Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers. Koch’s poetry is full of tiny events that balloon into a series of meticulous and bizarre observations.

“Spring” is part of the poetry album “Biting Off the Tongue of a Corpse,” recorded at New York’s St. Mark’s Church in 1975. Koch is sharing a city in springtime with his lover, creating his own brand of romanticism: “Let’s take a walk / In the city / Till our shoes get wet,” then later, “Let’s take a walk / Into the river (I can even do that / Tonight).” His vocabulary blends technical with natural, romantic with foreboding, nonsensical with mundane, with phrases like “A bookcase of orange groans,” “Are you less intelligent / Than the pirate of lemons,” and “Please remember with your shoes off / You’re so beautiful.” Listen to Koch read the poem, hosted by WFMU.

Simon Armitage: “You’re Beautiful”

Simon Armitage (1963-) is a British poet who grew up in Huddersfield, England. Early on, his “northern roots and ear for street-wise language gave his work a young, urban appeal.” He is a regular feature of the British school curriculum, explains the Poetry Archive, which hosts dozens of other poets reading their work.

In Armitage’s “You’re Beautiful,” the poet’s soft voice and enveloping northern accent lend themselves to the brooding tone of the poem, an ode to a lover and an enumeration of the speaker’s own imperfections. The compliments all start with the phrase “You’re beautiful because.” But it’s the self-deprecating lines, which begin “I’m ugly because,” that hold the poem’s gems. They show off Armitage’s ability to sharpen and polish little events and casual observations: “I’m ugly because once, at a dinner party / I defended the aristocracy and wasn’t even drunk.”

Dylan Thomas: “Poem in October”

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), the influential Welsh poet whose career was cut tragically short by his death at the age of 39, was exceptional at reciting his own work. He brought a stage actor’s powerful, emotive voice to works like “Poem in October,” where he recounts the natural details of his seaside hometown “in a rainy autumn” on his 30th birthday, comparing his childhood impressions to his present ones. His voice emphasizes the thick alliterations found throughout the poem and its subtle rhymes, often tucked in the middle of lines: “And I rose / In a rainy autumn / And walked abroad in shower of all my days / High tide and the heron dived when I took the road / Over the border /  And the gates / Of the town closed as the town awoke.” Listen to the reading at Salon.com.

Kay Ryan: “Home to Roost”

As part of “The Poet’s View,” a film from the Academy of American Poets, U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan reads her poem “Home to Roost” for an audience. In the process, she displays her self-deprecating humor when she admits that chickens don’t fly (as she suggests in her poem), and shares her surprise at finding her work quoted in a “Boondocks” comic.

Ryan’s subtle rhymes are heard in “Home to Roost,” as is her humor: “The sun is / bright, but the / chickens are in / the way. Yes, / the sky is dark / with chickens, / dense with them. / They turn and / then they turn / again.” Watch the video on YouTube and read and listen to the poem at the Academy of American Poets site.

Robert Pinsky: “Samurai Song”

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (1940-) published his first book of poetry in 1975 and since then has been praised for both his deep understanding of the human experience and the melodic form of his poems. Pinsky is a huge proponent of poetry as a “vocal art,” and helped promote this passion during his three terms as poet laureate.

In an amusing performance of his poem “Samurai Song,” Pinsky walks down an alley and into a hotel. He begins the recital in the hotel elevator, where he conveys a claustrophobic and intimidating environment with a hint of a smile that fades as the poem builds from phrases like, “When I had / No mother I embraced order” to “I have / No priest, my tongue is my choir” and the final blow: “When I had / No lover I courted my sleep.” You can also read the poem at Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac.

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