Watch Tom Waits, Bill Murray, and Other Modern Bards Read Some of Your Favorite Classic Poems

Long before the printing press, before parchment and papyrus, poetry was a strictly oral form. Many of the features we associate with verse—rhyme, meter, repetition, and extended similes—originated as mnemonic devices for poets and their audiences in times when bards composed extemporaneously from predetermined formulas. And while the image of the Homeric poet, strumming a lyre and narrating the deeds of gods and heroes seems quaint, poetry is still very much an oral art, in cultures traditional and modern. Right this very moment, in cities across the world, poets and audiences gather in bars, cafes, bookstores, temples, and libraries to hear poems spoken, rapped, sung, chanted, etc.

But we no longer assign to the poet god-like power and fame. Those accolades are now reserved for actors and musicians. And while poets are often perfectly good readers of their own work, sometimes there’s nothing so exciting as hearing the utterly distinctive voice of, say, James Earl Jones or Anthony Hopkins, turning over the words of a favorite poem, making them rumble and rustle in ways they never did flat on the page. So today we bring you some modern gods reading the ancient form, beginning with the great, gravel-voiced Tom Waits, who reads the great, gravel-voiced Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” (top, full text here). A more perfect union of reader and poet you may never find.

Also above, watch my favorite comic actor, and probably yours, Bill Murray, read my favorite arcane modernist poet, Wallace Stevens. Murray reads Steven’s “The Planet on the Table” and “The Rabbit as the King of Ghosts” (Original text here and here). His unaffected Midwestern voice sounds nothing like Steven’s posh Eastern baritone, but he brings to the poems a genuine tenderness that Stevens’ readings lack.

Finally, the unmistakable voice of Sean Connery (backed by the music of Vangelis) beautifully conveys the epic journey of C.P. Cavafy’s “Ithaca” (above, full text here). These are but three examples of the art of actors reading poets. Below, you’ll find several others, along with a couple of writers—Tennessee Williams and Harold Bloom—thrown in for good measure. Hearing poetry read, and read well, creates space in a widening sea of distractions for that most ancient of human crafts.

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • obscure musician says:

    I find your website for the most part interesting and educational, though I must say your taste in music (some great classical musicians aside) seems mostly restricted to rock-and-roll and pop. Maybe that’s why you make this very objectionable statement:

    “But we no longer assign to the poet god-like power and fame. Those accolades are now reserved for actors and musicians.”

    Are you aware of how ignorant of the reality of the experiences of the vast majority of musicians is? (I can’t speak for actors). For every “famous” and “god-like” musician, there are uncountable talented musicians who’ve spent years or decades of hard work polishing their craft, but whose contribution to society is completely under-valued if it is valued at all. As you may have guessed I’m one of them. I’m an acknowledged master of my instrument and genre of music, but I’m rarely paid well, I get treated like an object by producers, and because I don’t play a loud or electric/electronic instrument or a popular genre of music, my music is mostly ignored. And my experience is hardly unique. Having been part of inumerable open mics, I’ve heard other poor and obscure musicians play heart-breakingly beautiful music with a finesse and polish that many of the “famous and god-like” musicians of the last 50 years could only dream of doing.
    The music business is just that, and those who “succeed” at it are rarely the best of their times–this is much less true in the classical and jazz worlds, to be sure–but are the best and appealing to those who hold the purse strings, be it the producers or the public. For every famous musician tens of thousands, at a minimum, labor in obscurity and usually poverty.
    If we didn’t play, not work, music, it’s doubtful as many of us would stick with it.
    I suggest you cast your net a bit wider, your website and the music world at large would benefit.

  • obscure musician says:

    Excuse the two typos, I’ve been woodshedding all day!

  • Droy says:

    Love Ithaca by Cavafy, not crazy about the melodramatic video.

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