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Explore the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature for National Poetry Month

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The following post is by Cheryl Lederle, an Educational Resource Specialist at the Library of Congress. It originally appeared on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog.

T.S. Eliot thought April was the cruelest month. William Carlos Williams thought it was the saddest. Longfellow and Ogden Nash said they loved it, and Emily Dickinson was ambivalent, so far as I can tell.

There’s at least one thing about April that they might all appreciate, though: It’s National Poetry Month, an opportunity for teachers, librarians, and readers everywhere to celebrate poetry and its vital role in U.S. culture.”

— Stephen Wesson, Primary Sources and Poetry

Home page, Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature

National Poetry month, a month to celebrate poetry, is a perfect time to explore the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Some of the readings focus closely on the poems; others include musings on the selections and what inspired them. Some of the recordings are of a single poet, and others are panels or conversations between two or more poets. Hearing a poem in the poet’s voice brings it to life in unexpected ways, and the range of poets offers something for all lovers of poetry. Here are a few that I enjoyed.

Gwendolyn Brooks Reading from Her Poetry

The former poet laureate ruminates on poetry and how her poems reflect her life experiences; sometimes her reflections are hard to distinguish from the poems. For example:

  • At 13:00, Brooks talks about her marriage, introducing a poem (14.47-17.20);
  • At 20:15, she introduces “We Real Cool” (21:08-21:35) and comments briefly about it being banned;
  • At 35:48, she muses on Martin Luther King, Jr. and her inspiration for “Riot” (37:44-40:07).

Brooks’ longer poem, “The Lovers of the Poor Arrive” (24:10-32:40) offers opportunities to discern her opinion of the ladies from the Ladies Betterment League from her word choices. Careful listening may also help students to understand the social commentary implicit in the poem.

An Evening of Chicano Poetry

Lorna Dee Cervantes, Sandra Cisneros, Alberto Ríos, and Luis Omar Salinas, four American poets of Mexican descent, read from their works. Some poems that caught my ear include:

  • Cervantes’ “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway” (4:41-9.30) and “Astronomia” (10:34- 12.30) from her Women in Science series;
  • Cisneros reading “Velorio” (22:10- 23:48), “A woman cutting celery…” (25:41-27:22), and “My Name” from The House on Mango Street (30:23-33:40).

Robert Hass reading his poems and his translations of poems

Beginning at 11:53, Hass reads his translations of Japanese haiku. These concentrated poems lend themselves to close listening, and Haas makes that easier by frequently repeating a reading before he reflects on it. Students might select a few, listen, and reflect on the poems. They might consider what surprises them or what the poems have in common, for example. They might even try writing their own poems.

Hass also reads his own work, including:

  • “Meditation at Lagunitas” from Praise (20:14-22.30)
  • “The Beginning of September” (23:30-29.25), which he introduces (22:50) as being prompted by a comment he overheard. Students might listen for a fragment overheard in the cafeteria or hallway, or on the bus, to spark their own poem.

If you find time to browse the archive, perhaps to immerse and lose yourself for a few minutes, please share your discoveries in the comments.

Editor’s Note: From the Catbird Seat would like to invite those of you interested in learning more about the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature to register for the upcoming webinar “Listening In: Exploring Literary Audio Archives at the Library of Congress” (Thursday, April 28, 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm EDT). We hope you can attend!