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Playlist

Staple’s music issue (Spring 2010) included a feature looking at the history of spoken word through a (sometimes wilfully) eclectic selection of 17 key recordings. This playlist offers excerpts from each as linked soundfiles alongside brief extracts from the articles, and hopefully acts as either a supplement to the issue, or a taster for anyone thinking of buying a copy: either way, we hope you’ll enjoy the readings and songs, and feel inspired to seek out more material by all those featured, both in print and on record.

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…

Edith Sitwell: Façade

From: Façade: performed by Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft with The London Sinfonietta conducted by Sir William Walton (Argo, 1972)

…a good example of British modernism produced with lively humour and a lightness of touch [...] 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…

Dylan Thomas: Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait

From: Dylan Thomas reading Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait (Caedmon, 1952)

…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…

Louise Bennett: Jamaican Alphabet

From: Childrens’ Jamaican Songs and Games Sung by Louise Bennett (Folkways, 1957)

…doubtless somewhat exotic to English ears on this record’s initial release, Bennett’s voice now seems as familiar as Thomas Hardy’s or John Betjeman’s…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 she 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: The Journeys

From: Rights of Passage by Edward Braithwaite (Argo, 1968)

…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…

Herbert Read: Exile’s Lament

From: Echoes of My Life by Herbert Read (Argo, 1968)

…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”…

Joan Baez: The Magic Wood

From: Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, Sung and Spoken by Joan Baez (Vanguard, 1968)

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 re-translated back into that tradition. In ‘The Magic Wood’ this process 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 Henry Treece’s wonderfully nightmarish imagery…

The Open Window: The Priests of the Raven of Dawn

From: The Open Window: Peter Shickele, Stanley Walden, Robert Dennis (Vanguard, 1969)

As with the 1970s jazz settings of William 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 David Cain and Ronald Duncan: July

From: The Seasons. Poems by Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill, Radiophonic Music by David Cain (BBC, 1969)

…throughout, nature is powerfully evoked through sounds that are far removed from the natural. The largely conventional, if often vivid poems (“Like severed hands the wet leaves lie”, writes Duncan in ‘October’) 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…

The Liverpool Scene: Winter Poem

From The Liverpool Scene: Bread on the Night (RCA, 1970)

…the recordings of The Liverpool Scene (alongside the best of Adrian Henri’s poetry, and such publications as Environments and Happenings, his 1974 study of installation and performance art) suggest that the Liverpool Poets phenomenon was both wider ranging and more attuned in significant ways to the traditions of modernism than is usually acknowledged, by either their advocates or detractors…

The Barrow Poets: The Loch Ness Monster’s Song

From: The Barrow Poets: Magic Egg (Argo, 1972)

The version of Edwin Morgan’s The Loch Ness Monster’s Song 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)

…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…

Dave Dallwitz and his Jazz Band: Patterns for Slatterns

From: Dave Dallwitz & His Jazz Band: Ern Malley Jazz Suite (Swaggie, 1975)

…Dallwitz sets selections from fictitious poet Ern Malley’s cut and paste texts to trad-jazz music, inserting songs based on such poems as ‘Culture as Exhibit’, ‘Boult to Marina’ and ‘Perspective Lovesong’ among instrumental passages. 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…

Peter Porter: The Sadness of the Creatures

From: British Poets of Our Time: Peter Redgrove and Peter Porter (Argo, 1975)

…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…

R.S. Thomas: Welsh Landscape

From: R.S. Thomas Reading his own Poems (Oriel Records, 1976)

…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…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…

Cyril Rajendra: The Animal and Insects Act

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Di Great Insohrekshan

From: An Evening of International Poetry (Alliance Records, 1982)

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…some of the material here 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, but 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. Perhaps the most intriguing piece on this ’soundtrack’ to Marcus’ book is a version of Hugo Ball’s ‘Karawane’ 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…