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Audio Poetry

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Jun 25, 2014
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9 years of service
As Robert Penn Warren recalls in a 1986 U.S. News & World Report interview titled “Pretty, Hell! Poetry Is Life”: “Poetry was a part of my life growing up. My father, a small-town businessman who ran a local bank in a Kentucky village, always read poetry aloud to the children. My mother did, too. And my maternal grandfather used to quote poetry to me when I spent summers with him.” My own love of poetry probably came from my mother, who recited everything from A. A. Milne (“King John was not a good man — / He had his little ways”) to Wordsworth (“I wandered lonely as a cloud”) to out-and-out doggerel (“I never saw a Purple Cow / I never hope to See One”) in equal measure and with equal abandon.

Absent a fond memory or two though, poetry can be downright intimidating. For most of us, poetry is just not a part of our daily lives and, though we can relish the words on the page, recitation retains all the mystery of speaking in tongues. Stop at the end of every line or blaze on toward the familiar and comforting anchor of a period? Let every rhyme ring out like a bell or tap it lightly and move on? Which shall it be: sticks or brushes on the snare drum of rhythm? Before you know it, many of us come to the conclusion that it’s best to read the poem silently, mutter something about metaphors or similes, and leave by a back door.

Luckily, there is help at hand, in the form of audiobooks. Some of the best poetry recordings for children have had the same enormous staying power as their print counterparts. First recorded in 1983 and 1985 (and re-released in 1992 on CD), Shel Silverstein’s two classic collections of nonsense verse — Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic — will tickle as many ribs today as they did twenty years ago. Complete with music and sound effects (from cheek pops to finger snaps), Silverstein’s raspy, elastic voice jumps, skips, slides, whoops, whispers, and grunts as he performs (never say reads) a total of eighty-six seriously silly rhymes selected from the more than 260 contained in the two volumes. Liner notes include the complete text of each poem; the only thing missing is Silverstein’s witty black-and-white line drawings. Children who listen will surely be drawn to the printed text to savor their favorites again and again as well as to discover newfound treasures. Sadly, Falling Up, which was published a few years before the poet’s death, does not have an audio version.

Following in Silverstein’s footsteps, Jack Prelutsky’s poetry performances — a blend of sound effects, recitation, singing, and musical accompaniments — have been staples in audio poetry collections since they were first recorded in the mid-eighties and early nineties. He is at his best when backed by his trusty guitar, which adds a rhythmic quality that his unaccompanied reading sometimes lacks. And if the recordings sometimes go a bit overboard on sound effects, Prelutsky’s impressive range of voices more than make up for it in sheer goofy fun.

Prolific as he is, Prelutsky’s audio titles seem even more numerous because they have gone through a variety of reincarnations and formats. Currently, The New Kid on the Block and Something Big Has Been Here are packaged as a two-cassette set under the umbrella title Jack Prelutsky’s BIG Collection. New Kid is still available separately as a re-mastered CD with five additional tracks. The Dragons Are Singing Tonight and Monday’s Troll (both include the sung and recited versions of the poems) are packaged as a two-cassette set called Jack Prelutsky’s Fantasy Festival. A Pizza the Size of the Sun is available on CD, and The Frogs Wore Red Suspenders has recently been re-mastered.

Some collections of poetry seem to get more than their fair share of attention. One such is A. A. Milne’s two classic volumes of verse about Christopher Robin: When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. In 1997, the avuncular Charles Kuralt recorded both volumes, along with Milne’s two collections of Pooh stories for Penguin Audio. While his comforting baritone was a marvelous match for stout Pooh, lugubrious Eeyore, bouncy Tigger, and the other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood in the stories, he thudded along through the lighter-than-air rhythms of the poems like a lost soul. Fortunately, actress Miranda Richardson recorded both volumes of poetry in 2004 for Harper Children’s Audio. This definitive double CD set will stand as the quintessential recording of these enduring favorites. No others need apply.

Another set of poetry books that has received audio attention is Joyful Noise and I Am Phoenix, Paul Fleischman’s collections of poems for two voices. Both have been recorded by three separate companies. Some of the attention, no doubt, is due to the rarity of poetry receiving a Newbery Medal, as Joyful Noise did in 1989, but these inventive verses present a unique challenge — and hearing them read by experts after careful preparation and rehearsal makes tackling them in the classroom or in person much less daunting. The best of these productions is the 2001 single CD version of both books from Audio Bookshelf; even the title is done in two voices. The unison readings are flawless, and the rhythmic pacing is gracefully expressive. The mix of male and female, adult and children’s voices adds a wonderful dimension.

Two prolific poets who deserve more audio airtime are Kalli Dakos and Nikki Giovanni: each has only a single recording. If You’re Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand by Dakos is a collection of thirty-eight (mostly) zany verses about the trials and tribulations of school from both the student’s and the teacher’s side of the fence. Read by a trio of narrators (Jeff Woodman, Christina Moore, and John McDonough), these poems are a medley of humor, exasperation, cocksure success, gloomy prediction, and the pain of growing up. The Sun Is So Quiet by Nikki Giovanni is poetry in a more contemplative vein. Kim Staunton’s voice is mature and well paced, and she handles the somewhat irregular rhymes and rhythms with ease. Some listeners may occasionally find her interpretations a bit saccharine when she stretches to impart weight to lines that are essentially glancing observations, but overall this ranks as a solid performance.

One of the more unusual audio productions is the (mostly) musical rendition of a collection of mountain rhymes by folklorist Gerald Milnes, Granny Will Your Dog Bite. Originally available as a book/cassette package, the rhymes are presented as poetry in the book, but the recording returns many of them to their musical origins. Sung and recited, accompanied by banjo and fiddle or performed a cappella, this collection of forty-seven rhymes connects young listeners to hundreds of years of literature passed down orally from generation to generation. Who could resist joining in on a chorus of “Come a rippy dippy doey doey doey eye day”? Unfortunately, despite the appearance of this title on recommended reading lists, lesson plans, and teacher resource guides, the audio version is no longer available for purchase.

One or two audio poetry titles continue to be published each year in the form of book/CD packages. In 2000, Weston Woods brought out Antarctic Antics, Judy Sierra’s collection of eleven penguin poems that loosely follows a hatchling from egg to adulthood. The poems are presented first as songs (taken from the animated film) and then as recitations by the author. Unlike some poets, Sierra is a natural performer; her voice is lively, enthusiastic, and highly expressive, and she seems to relish rhyming such pairs as tentacle with ventricle and pro***stinate with regurgitate. In “I Am Looking for My Mother,” about a little lost hatchling on
the loose, young listeners will almost believe they are hearing real penguin-talk: “ECK!” “ICK!” “EEK!” “AWK!” “ACK? ACK ACK?” Leave the CD running after the last poem to hear some brief but exuberant impromptu silliness by the cast.

In 2002, Live Oak produced In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall, a richly textured collection of poems by African-American writers celebrating fatherhood. On this book/CD package, four separate narrators—Robin Miles, Lizan Mitchell, Charles Turner, and illustrator Javaka Steptoe—create a collage of voices supplemented by a rich m
D 0


Apr 21, 2023
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5 months of service
That's quite cool, although i disagree at some parts it's still quite thought provoking
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