RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Poetry sites are a popular destination the Web. Just Google the word `poetry' and you'll get more than 100 million responses. The newest addition to the poetry on the Web has the lofty goal of becoming the first port of call for poetry lovers around the world. It was launched by Britain's poet laureate, Andrew Motion, and the Poetry Archive boasts an extensive collection of poets reading their own work. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY reporting:
If you go to poetryarchive.org and click on the letter T, one of the poets whose name pops up is Alfred Tennyson. Click on his famous poem "Charge of the Light Brigade" and you'll hear a very old, very scratchy recording of the poet reciting his own immortal words: `Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.'
(Soundbite of recording)
Lord ALFRED TENNYSON: (Reading) Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of death rode the 600.
NEARY: This recording was made by Thomas Edison on a wax cylinder. It is one of the first recordings ever made of a poet reading his own work. It has an almost ghostly quality, and though it may be hard to distinguish each word, UK poet laureate Andrew Motion says it can still give a person the chills.
Mr. ANDREW MOTION (Poet Laureate, United Kingdom): At some stage after it was made, some bright spark left it lying on a radiator, so there are quite bad ridges in the wax cylinder. Nevertheless, it is the most compelling and fascinating thing at a variety of different levels. It's very interesting, for instance, to hear that Tennyson's accent right at the end of his life, his Lincolnshire accent, is really still quite strong. I think there's a tendency for people to feel that every dead poet spoke more or less as I do now in a kind of received pronunciation, but of course that's obviously not the case.
NEARY: A century from now, says Motion, he hopes to give people the same thrill with recordings of the great poets of today. That desire gave birth to this new Web site. Motion says the idea for the Poetry Archive came about one day when he was recording some of his own poetry and struck up a conversation with the audio engineer in charge of the session.
Mr. MOTION: And I said to him over my shoulder as I was leaving, `What a pity that nobody had done this in a systematic way since the technology first became available.' And he said, `What do you mean?' And I said, `Well, we have Tennyson, we have Browning, we have Walt Whitman, but we don't have D.H. Lawrence, we don't have Thomas Hardy, we don't have A.E. Housman for instance.' And part of the motivation for the archive is to make sure, as sure as we can, that that kind of omission doesn't occur again.
NEARY: Motion and the engineer, Richard Carrington, hatched the idea of an audible Poetry Archive which would include both existing readings by poets as well as new recordings. Motion envisions a site that will be constantly updated and eventually will be the premier site for hearing poets in their own voices. Sometimes Carrington travels to the homes of poets for the recordings, as he did with the well-loved British poet Charles Causley shortly before he died. Here, Causley reads from and comments on his poem "Eden Rock."
(Soundbite of recording)
Mr. CHARLES CAUSLEY (Poet): (Reading) `My mother shades her eyes and looks my way over the drifted stream. My father spins a stone along the water. Leisurely, they beckon to me from the other bank. I hear them call. "See where the stream path is. Crossing is not as hard as you might think." I had not thought that it would be like this.'
Somebody asked me the other day where Eden Rock is. I have no idea. I made it up. `Dartmore,' I said. That's always a safe answer.
NEARY: At the moment, Motion says, historical recordings come mostly from sources such as the sound archives at the British Library, but he hopes to strike up partnerships with poetry organizations in the US. Some, such as the Academy of American Poets, have their own audio Web sites. Others, like the Poetry Foundation, are developing new ones. Steve Young of the Poetry Foundation says the Web is a wonderful way to bring back the oral tradition of poetry.
Mr. STEVE YOUNG (Poetry Foundation): Robert Frost said the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader. And I think that's true. I think over the last few decades, poetry has kind of been exiled on the page. And you can preserve it on the page, but it really lives when it's spoken and heard.
NEARY: Among the American poets who are already included on the UK's Poetry Archive site is Langston Hughes.
(Soundbite of recording)
Mr. LANGSTON HUGHES (Poet): This is a poem called "I, Too." `I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh and eat well and grow strong. Tomorrow I'll be at the table when company comes. Nobody'll dare say to me "eat in the kitchen" then. Besides, they'll see how beautiful we are and be ashamed. I, too, am America.'
NEARY: Of course some American poets are still waiting to be included.
Mr. BILLY COLLINS (Former Poet Laureate, United States): One omission is that I'm not on the Web site yet. So I think that's something they need to work on pretty quickly.
NEARY: Former US poet laureate Billy Collins was a consultant on the UK Web site and applauds the idea of recording contemporary poets. But, he says, you have to be careful not to over-romanticize the notion of hearing a poet read his or her own work.
Mr. COLLINS: Some poets are better readers than others. And it's a little like the transition from, you know, silent movies to talkies. They found out that, you know, famous silent actors had--many of them had squeaky voices and they didn't make the transition. But I think in many cases even if the poet doesn't have the best dramatic presentation, it's almost like putting--you know, we say putting a face to the name. And this is putting a voice to the text.
NEARY: But whatever the poet may lack as a reader, says Andrew Motion, is made up for by the unique perspective the poet brings to the reading.
Mr. MOTION: To hear the intonations, accents, pauses, speeds and to play that sense of the poet's version of the poem against our own version of the poem is a very, very fascinating and important way into understanding, I think.
NEARY: Among the many other poets who can be heard on the archive are William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, Harold Pinter and Margaret Atwood. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: And you'll find a link to the Poetry Archive plus other sites Lynn mentioned at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.