The Voice of the Poet by J.D. McClatchy

Including John Ashbery, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton

McClatchy: "Poetry in the 20th Century deliberately became more obscure and inaccessible and thorny."
  • McClatchy: "Poetry in the 20th Century deliberately became more obscure and inaccessible and thorny."

The Voice of the Poet

Random House, 1999-2001; editor, J.D. McClatchy

FROM THE PRESENTATION BOX: The Voice of the Poet is an audiobook series that features various 20th-century American poets reading from their own work. Each audiobook includes rare archival recordings on cassette and a book with the text of the poetry, photographs of the poet, a bibliography, and a commentary by J.D. McClatchy, the poet and critic, who is the editor of The Yale Review.

Poets featured in The Voice of the Poet series include John Ashbery, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and a collection titled Five American Women, which includes Louise Bogan, H.D., Edna St. Vincent Millay, Muriel Rukeyser, and Gertrude Stein. Prices for these audiobooks vary—from $15.95 to $22.95.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: J. D. McClatchy, bom in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in 1945, is the ideal editor for this series. Formally educated at Georgetown and Yale and informally educated by his own reading, conversation, and study, Mr. McClatchy is one of modern poetry’s great impresarios. He is the author of four books of his own poetry, editor of numerous collections and interesting anthologies (Poets on Painters remains one of my favorites), an opera librettist, and, since 1991, editor of The Yale Review, a publication that with his leadership has gone from troubled to somewhat triumphant. Literary executor of the estate of James Merrill, McClatchy is one of the two editors, with Stephen Yenser, of Merrill’s recently published 885-page Collected Poems.

On the day that we talked, Mr. McClatchy was in his office in Manhattan. We chatted initially about The Voice of the Poet series.

One factor, said McClatchy, that made the series seem a good idea is “the very real resurgence of interest in poetry in the last decade or so. Also, with what I knew about the Yale archives, about the historical Caedmon recordings and other archival holdings, I realized that there was so much material that had never been explored, much less released.”

McClatchy noted that while many recordings of contemporary poets do exist, these recordings are not often accompanied by text, as are the recordings in his series. “And poetry,” he said, “is really a collaboration between the eye and the ear. There is nothing like hearing an authoritative reading of a poet’s own poems. But it helps at the same time to see the text on the page. It’s difficult to pick up nuances when the text is read if you are not able to take it in by both ear and eye. For this Voice of the Poet series, we made up a package that has photographs and worksheets and essays and bibliography. We wanted to deepen appreciation of the poems by bringing all this together into one package in a way it had not been done before.”

McClatchy and I agreed upon a lack of fondness for poetry read by actors. McClatchy said, “They read for emotion and expressivity, and they don’t pay much attention to the fact the poems are written in lines and meters. I think to hear a poet read her own work is to get so much closer to the origins of the poems and the author’s own imagination, and closer, thereby, to the heart of the poem itself. Imagine, if we could have recordings of John Keats or Emily Dickinson reading their poems.

That said, I do think that some poets are better readers than others, but I think all of them are quite superior to actors reading the work.”

“Even a bad reader,” I said, “is interesting when the poems are good.”

“Indeed. For example, Elizabeth Bishop was not thought to be a very good reader. And, in fact, in her will she specified that no commercial recording could be issued, because she felt the way we all feel when we hear our voices on a tape recording or see our driver’s license photo: we all recoil. She was very determined about this. For 20 years after her death that has been the case. I wrote to the estate and made the case that there was an overriding historical value in putting together this recording, a value that transcended her wishes or her sense of her own voice. I noted that there were thousands of readers devoted to Bishop’s poetry, and the poems would take on a whole other dimension, hearing them read by the author. Although she’s not — in the conventional sense or in a Hollywood sense — a great reader, what she may have thought of as a hesitation and shyness now seems like a genuine, wry charm that she brings to her readings of the poems.

“I sometimes think, when people say, ‘Lincoln had a high, squeaky voice,’ but who would not have wanted to have heard him read the Gettysburg Address? And, to listen to Gertrude Stein with that marvelous patrician voice of hers, and that mid-Atlantic accent that sort of went out with Myma Loy is wonderful. Where her words can be opaque on the page, her voice gives the words a kind of dramatic shading and thrust.”

I mentioned that recently I had listened to the Merrill tape. Merrill, I said, read so exquisitely that I thought I’d die of charm.

“Which, ’ said McClatchy, “would be a nice way to go. Merrill was certainly the best reader of poetry, I think, among poets recently. He really had perfected that kind of reading style dial is nearly inimitable. He was a pro and knew how to use a microphone.” McClatchy talked then about various readers in The Voice of the Poet series. “Auden,” he said, “is so brilliant, and Lowell is a wonderful reader. With the Sylvia Plath tape, you hear the difference between the young Sylvia Plath and then Sylvia Plath near her death, when her voice becomes absolutely harrowing and drops the affectation and the sort of phony English accent that she’d been using early on. And when she’s in London near the end and writing great poems, her voice sounds actually more American. By then.

perhaps, she had the self-confidence that she had lacked and tried to cover up with affectation early on.”

McClatchy found some of the reading tapes at Yale, but for others, he searched archives in the Harvard Poetry Room, the Library of Congress, and wherever material could be found. “But,” he said, “in every case we were able to come up with material that had never been released before.”

Acquiring the rights for the series, I said, must be quite tedious. “Absolutely. Because we have to get both print rights and audio rights. And we have to deal with many people, many projects. But that’s what the producer, Jane Garmey—thank God—does so well.” Many people, I said, do not realize that the poems and the poets’ reading of the poems must be purchased.

“Oh, yes. And as with the Sylvia Plath thing, the estate, strangely enough, never owned the rights to reproduce a five recording. A fellow in Massachusetts, of course, cashed in and made a living on Sylvia Plath and charged us an arm and a leg. We couldn’t include all we wanted because he was just such a pirate about it. Considering how closely all that stuff was controlled by Ted Hughes’s sister, this is one thing that got away from her. So you do the best you can. But the business end of the art is what always takes the longest. Writing the poems isn’t so hard as getting the rights for them.”

Did McClatchy think that Dylan Thomas’s United States tours in the 1950s spurred the small but enduring interest in hearing poetry read aloud?

“I think so. Probably Robert Frost had something to do with that. And T.S. Eliot, I remember his giving a reading at the University of Michigan, and the entire football stadium was filled to hear him speak. Eliot had that kind of celebrity. He had a kind of authority. Thomas was a kind of freak, almost. You know, a brilliant reader, but people knew that he was a bad boy and a drunk, and I think they went the way you go to see a tightrope walker or a race-car driver, half-hoping for the crash in front of you.

“But Dylan Thomas gave poetry that kind of glamour in performance that it had lacked. Seems to me so much of the history of 20th-century poetry is poetry retreating from the stage and from being read aloud, as it was back in the days of Longfellow, when poems were meant to be listened to and recited. And poetry in the 20th Century deliberately became more obscure and inaccessible and thorny, and only with a few people like Frost or Thomas was it a matter.

"And I think now in the last 10 or 20 years, there’s been a quite remarkable resurgence and readings and performances of high and low quality, from hip-hop or slams and whatnot, to these kinds of quite brilliant readings. So I think that it must be that people long for this. And it still remains, even listening to it on these tapes, a very private experience. Maybe one reason for the popularity of this is that it’s in a culture so dominated by talk shows and MTV and whatnot, that the kind of intimacy that a poem allows—that the dumbed-down culture cannot provide — people can hear in a poem.”

I mentioned that I was feeling rather head-over-heels happy with the huge collected Merrill, which not only offered late Merrill poems that I’d never read, but also an inset lavender ribbon as bookmark and gorgeous lavender end-papers.

McClatchy said, about the book, “My experience was like any other reader’s; if you’ve been following James Merrill, you read him one book at a time, and you look at the new book that comes out for the new twist in the book or the new angles on this or that. Now, suddenly, with it all together you see a career, not just an installment. I’ve been interested to see the reviews where people have been fascinated by what an original voice he had from the beginning and how brilliant it was right at the start. That voice, however it may have modulated and changed and grown or darkened, it still was a remarkably poised and inventive voice from the very beginning. So that the chance to see it all together is wonderful. And the variety within the book is remarkable. And think, a book this big, and yet this represents only half of his poetic output.

“There’s nothing sloppy. Everything is so brilliantly put together and so dazzling, but never forgetting the kind of emotional nuances and real, kind of Proustian wisdom at work there. I think people have been quite struck by it all. I’m delighted at the success of the book. It’s already in the third printing. And for a hefty book of poems, and an expensive book of poems—$40—this is quite remarkable. In New York City it was number four on Amazon. And it was on the independent booksellers’ bestseller list. For any book of poetry to make it there is quite extraordinary. So this is very gratifying. And we’re going to be publishing more Merrill. Every year and a half there will be a new installment — collected letters, prose, a biography. Over a period of the next ten years or so, at regular intervals, there will be a new shot of Merrill. I hope to see his name and his achievements kept before the public eye, in a way to kind of help cement his reputation.”

Mr. McClatchy’s essay, “Two Deaths, Two Lives,” about the lives and deaths of Merrill and Paul Monette, recently was published in a collection edited by Edmund White, Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS (University of Wisconsin Press, 2001). McClatchy relates, in the essay, how Merrill first told him in 1993 that he had the virus. Merrill asked McClatchy not to tell anyone, that he did not wish it made known that he was ill.

“It was a difficult piece to write,” McClatchy said about “Two Deaths, Two Lives.” McClatchy went on to say that The New Yorker had the piece, in a shorter version than that which appears in Loss Within Loss, for nine months or so before Merrill’s Collected Poems was published. “They had fact-checked it,” said McClatchy, “and then, three days before the issue was to appear, David Remnick [editor of The New Yorker] telephoned and he said, ‘You know, I read this again, and James Merrill was one of the great poets of the 20th Century, and I had a long association with him. I simply cannot bring myself to say in this magazine that he had AIDS.’ And I said, ‘Well, David, you are part of the problem now.’ ”

I said that this seemed a crazy attitude.

“Yes. Isn’t it crazy? But it reminds you that this late in the game, there is that kind of edginess. And then when Alison Lurie’s book [ Familiar Spirits, Lurie’s memoir about her relationship with Merrill and his long-time lover, David Jackson] comes out a week later, and it says in parenthesis in The New York Times Book Review, ‘James Merrill died of AIDS in 1995.’ So much for big, dark, dirty secrets. That’s exactly the way it should be treated. last a parenthetical remark, and there it is. But David ran scared. I was quite ticked off, as you can imagine, at that decision. But it was his decision to make.

“It was not an easy piece to write. And it’s so funny, when it was being edited by The New Yorker, there was a reaction to something sharp I had to say about Paul Monette. The person editing or fact-checking said something to the effect that, ‘You can’t really say something like that, it’s not nice, Monette died of AIDS.’ And you want to say, 'Well, Roy Cohn died of AIDS. What difference does that make? What is all the sentimentality about?’ It’s amazing the kind of bad faith and wrong-headed attitudes that swirl around this whole subject, from one extreme or the other. And fear and sentimentality. Everything that makes for bad writing.

It’s been very instructive to see the course of this piece as it’s come out in the world.

“I tried to make it as much a piece about how you live with a friend who is sick and all the moral questions there. Not so much about the illness itself. But the kinds of demands it makes on the rest of us. There arc a number of pieces, at least in that book, that are much more cold-eyed about this — about how selfish dying people can be, and the demands they make, and how angry they can be, and all of that, instead of the kind of account — especially found in novels — where the AIDS patient is a victim of this or the other thing and the caretakers are always the good Samaritans. Well, in life, it’s always much more complicated than that. The moral issues, as well as just the physical toll of the whole business, is the story that really should be told.”

I said that as someone who doesn’t like to talk about terrible things when they happen to her, I could understand Merrill not wanting to tell everyone that he had AIDS. “If you tell people your troubles,” I said, “then they want to talk to you about them all the time, and you can’t have a life.”

“Absolutely. Right back in the beginning, I thought, I hope I never test positive in this because it will mean that I won't be able to think about anything else. It would so preoccupy my life. "

I said that it seemed that Merrill did not want to be preoccupied with illness.

“Exactly. There’s so much more to one’s life. It’s amazing that he could write a whole memoir [A Different Person (1993)] without it ever casting a shadow over the material when he was sick. And it was quite a heroic effort to keep that fact, not secret, but out of the way of so much else that he had to write about and think about. I think it’s a quite heroic measure to have done that. Rather than as other people would sec it, as cowardice and repression.”

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