A Reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in 100 Celebrity Voices

For every august personage who’s taken a crack Edgar Allan Poe’s evergreen poem, "The Raven," there are thousands more who haven’t.

Humorist Jordan Monsell is doing what he can to close that gap, providing a sampling of 100 mostly male, mostly white, mostly human celebrity voices. It’s a solo recitation, but vocally a collaborative one, with a fair number of animated characters making their way into the credits, too.

He certainly knows how to cast outside the box. Traditional Poe interpreters such as Vincent Price and John Astin bring some well established creep cred to the enterprise. Monsell picks Christopher Walken and Christopher Lee already have existing takes on this classic, and Anthony Hopkins and Willem Dafoe are welcome additions.




But what to make of Jerry Seinfeld, Pee-Wee Herman, Johnny Cash… and even poetry lover Bill Murray? Manic and much missed Robin Williams may offer a clue. What good is having an arsenal of impressions if you’re not willing to roll them out in rapid succession?

While some of Monsell's impersonations (cough, David Bowie) fall a bit short of the mark, others will have you regretting that no one had the forethought to record Don Knotts or JFK reciting the poem in its entirety.

The titles offer a bit of a misnomer. In many instances, it’s not really the performers but their best known characters being aped. While there may not be too great a vocal divide between playwright Wallace Shawn and Vizzini in The Princess Bride, The Dude is not Jeff Bridges, any more than Captain Jack Sparrow is Johnny Depp.

The project seems likely to play best with nerdy adolescent boys… which could be good news for teachers looking to get reluctant readers onboard. Show it on the classroom Smart Board, and be prepared to have mini-teach-ins on Katharine Hepburn, Walter Matthau, the late great Robert Shaw, and other big names whose day has passed. Shrek, Gollum, and Harry Potter’s house elf, Dobby, are on hand to keep the references from feeling too moldy.

The specter of Poe gets the coveted final word, a balm to the ears after the triple assault of Christian Bale’s Batman, Mad Max’s Tom Hardy, and Heath Ledger’s Joker. (It may be a matter of taste. You’ll hear no complaint from these quarters with regard to Mickey Mouse, Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, or The Simpson’s Krusty the Klown, wonderfully unctuous.)

The breakneck audio patchwork approach doesn’t do much for reading comprehension, but could lead to a lively middle school discussion on what constitutes a successful performance. Who served the text best? Readers?

Furthermore, who’s missing? What voice would you add to the Monsell’s roll call, below?

Morgan Freeman

Kermit the Frog

Johnny Cash

Ringo Starr

David Bowie

Rick Moranis

Gary Oldman

Peter Lorre

Adam Sandler

Don Knotts

William Shatner

George Takei

Michael Dorn

Daffy Duck

Ricky Gervais

Foghorn Leghorn

Liam Neeson

Nicholas Cage

John Travolta

Anthony Hopkins

Rod Serling

Cookie Monster

Jay Baruchel

Jeff Bridges

Johnny Depp

Archer

Dr. Phil

Gollum

Mandy Patinkin

Wallace Shawn

Billy Crystal

Owen Wilson

Dustin Hoffman

Krusty the Klown

Apu

Christian Bale

Michael Caine

Tom Hardy

Heath Ledger

Mickey Mouse

John Wayne

Jerry Seinfeld

Phil Hartman

Goofy

Al Pacino

Marlon Brando

Jack Lemmon

Walter Matthau

Christopher Walken

Rowlf the Dog

John Cleese

Robin Williams

Katharine Hepburn

Woody Allen

Matthew McConaughey

Cowardly Lion

Jimmy Stewart

John C. Reilly

James Mason

Sylvester Stallone

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Stewie

Daniel Day Lewis

Maggie Smith

Alan Rickman

Dobby

Jack Nicholson

Christoph Waltz

Bill Murray

Dan Aykroyd

Sean Connery

Bill Cosby

Christopher Lloyd

Droopy Dog

Kevin Spacey

Harrison Ford

Ronald Reagan

JFK

Bill Clinton

Keanu Reeves

Ian McKellen

Paul Giamatti

Sebastian

Stan Lee

Jeff Goldblum

Hugh Grant

Kenneth Branagh

Larry the Cable Guy

Pee-Wee Herman

Shrek

Donkey

Charlton Heston

Michael Keaton

Homer Simpson

Yoda

Willem Dafoe

Bruce Willis

Robert Shaw

Christopher Lee

Edgar Allan Poe

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Harry Dean Stanton (RIP) Reads Poems by Charles Bukowski

Variety is reporting tonight that Harry Dean Stanton has died in Los Angeles, at the age of 91. He's best remembered, of course, for his roles in David Lynch's Twin Peaks, HBO's Big Love, Alex Cox's Repo Man, and Wim Wender's Paris, Texas. Over a 60 year career, Stanton made appearances in 116 films, 77 TV shows, and several music videos. He also lent his voice to an Alien video game and recorded poems by Charles Bukowski. Above and below, hear him read "Bluebird" and "Torched Out." Both recordings come from the 2003 documentary, Bukowski: Born Into This. Back in 2012, Stanton headlined an L.A. tribute to the Los Angeles poet.

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The Periodic Table of Elements Presented as Interactive Haikus

British poet and speculative fiction writer recently got a little creative with the Periodic Table, writing one haiku for each element.

Carbon

Show-stealing diva,
throw yourself at anyone,
decked out in diamonds.

Silicon

Locked in rock and sand,
age upon age
awaiting the digital dawn.

Strontium

Deadly bone seeker
released by Fukushima;
your sweet days long gone.

You can access the complete Elemental haiku here.

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via Mental Floss

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Discover the Paintings, Drawings & Collages of Sylvia Plath: Now on Display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Sylvia Plath was a study in contrasts. Her popularization as a confessional poet, feminist literary icon, and tragic casualty of major depression; her middle-class Boston background and tortured marriage to poet Ted Hughes—these are the highlights of her biography, and, in many cases, all many people get to know about her. But “she was much more than that,” Dorothy Moss tells Mental Floss. As Vanessa Willoughby puts it in a stunning essay about her own encounters with Plath’s work, “this woman was not the sum of a gas oven and two sleeping children nestled in their beds.”

Moss, a curator at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery has organized an exhibit featuring many more sides of the poet's divided, yet purposeful self, including her work as a visual artist. Readers of Plath’s poetry may not be surprised to learn she first intended to become an artist. Her visual sense is so keen that fully-formed images seem to leap out of poems like “Blackberrying,” and into the reader’s hands; like the “high green meadows” she describes, her lines are “lit from within” by a deep appreciation for color, texture, and perspective.

Blackberries / Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes / Ebon in the hedges, fat / With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.

The blackberries come alive not only in their personification but through the kind of vivid language that could only come from someone with a painterly way of looking at things. Plath “drew and painted and sketched constantly as a child,” says Moss, and first enrolled at Smith College as an art major.

The exhibition, the National Portrait Gallery writes, “reveals how Plath shaped her identity visually as she came of age as a writer in the 1950s.” Unsurprisingly, her most frequent subject is herself. Her visual art, like her poetry, notes Mental Floss, “is often preoccupied with themes of self-identity.” But as in her eloquently-written letters and journals, as well as her published literary work, she is never one self, but many—and not all of them variations on the sly, yet brooding intellectual we see staring out at us from the well-known photographs.

We’ve previously featured some of Plath’s drawings and self-portraits here, but the Smithsonian exhibit offers a considerably richer selection than has been available online. The ink and gouache portrait at the top, for example, seems to draw from Marc Chagall in its materials and swirling lines and colors. It also recalls language in a diary entry from 1953:

Look at that ugly dead mask here and do not forget it. It is a chalk mask with dead dry poison behind it, like the death angel. It is what I was this fall, and what I never want to be again.

The hands thrown up in defense or surrender, the black lifeless eyes… Plath emerges from the ring of dead trees behind her like a suffering saint. Another portrait, further up also resembles a mask, calling to mind the ancient origins of the word persona. But the style has totally changed, the tumult of brushstrokes smoothed out into clean geometric lines and uniform patches of color. Three masks combine into one face, a trinity of Plaths. The poet always had a sense of herself as divided, referring to two distinct personalities as her “brown-haired” and “platinum” selves. The brown-haired young girl made several charming sketches of her family, with humorous commentary. (Her troubling father is tellingly, perhaps, absent.)

Hers was an epitome of standard-issue 50s white, middle class American childhood, the kind of supposedly idyllic upbringing which no small number of people still remember today in a glowing, nostalgic haze. In Plath's excavations of the identities that she cultivated herself and those she had pushed upon her, she gazed with radical intensity at America’s patriarchal social fictions, and the violence and entitlement that lay beneath them. The collage above from 1960 presents us with the kind of layered, cut-up, hybrid text that William Burroughs had begun experimenting with not long before. You can see more highlights from the Plath exhibit, “One Life: Sylvia Plath,” at the National Portrait Gallery. Also featured are Plath’s family photos, books, letters, her typewriter—and, in general, several more dimensions of her life than most of us know.

“One Life: Sylvia Plath” runs from June 30, 2017 through May 20, 2018.

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

Hear Patti Smith Read the Poetry that Would Become Horses: A Reading of 14 Poems at Columbia University, 1975

Note: The first poem and others contain some offensive language.

In the context of the radical socio-political change of 1975, Patti Smith announced herself to the world with Horses, “the first real full-length hint of the artistic ferment taking place in the mid-‘70s at the juncture of Bowery and Bleecker,” writes Mac Randall. Though born in an insular downtown milieu, Smith’s view was vast, conducting the poetry of the past—of Rimbaud, the Beats, and rock and roll—into an uncertain future, through the nascent medium of punk rock. The album is “closely associated with the beginning of something,” and yet is “so concerned with endings": the loss of Jimi Hendrix (at whose studio Smith recorded), and of “other departed counterculture heroes like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones.”

In a way, Smith’s voice defines the pivotal moment in which it arrived: anticipating an anxious age of austerity and women's liberation; mourning the loss of 60s idealism and the promise of racial equity. She was a female artist fully unconstrained by patriarchal expectations, with complete authority over her vision. “My people were trying to forge a new bridge between the people we had lost and learned from and the future,” she recently remarked.




In her “fabulously grand” way, she told The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone in 2013, “I felt in the center, not quite the old generation, not quite the new generation. I felt like the human bridge.” Smith was no naïf when she made Horses, but a confident artist who, at 29, had worked in theater with her lately-departed friend Sam Shepard, become her famous lover Robert Mapplethorpe’s favorite subject, joined the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and published two collections of verse.

She thought of herself as a poet who “got sidetracked” by music. “When I was young,” Smith says, “all I wanted was to write books and be an artist.” But poetry was always central to her work; Horses, she says, “evolved organically” from her first poetry reading, four years earlier, at St. Mark's Church, alongside Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and other luminaries. Above, you can hear her discuss that attention-grabbing first reading, and at the top of the post, listen to Smith at Columbia University in 1975, reading the poems that developed that year into the songs on Horses, including her 1971 “Oath,” which begins with a variation on Horses’ opening sneer, “Christ died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

Be warned the first poem she reads contains offensive language, as do many others. No one should be shocked by this. But some who only know Smith as a singer may be surprised by her masterful literary voice and wicked sense of humor. She has always been an elegist, mourning her cultural heroes, most of whom died young, as well as a tragic string of personal losses. “When I started working with the material that became Horses,” she remembers, “a lot of our great voices had died.” But her intent went beyond elegy, beyond a maudlin appropriation of fading 60s heroes. Smith had a “mission,” she says, of “forming a cultural voice through rock’n’roll that incorporated sex and art and poetry and performance and revolution.” It sounds grandiose, but it’s a mission she’s largely fulfilled. At the center of her project is poetry as performance, as a means of entertaining, shocking, and seducing an audience. The reading at the top is an especially faithful record of her fearless onstage persona.

Find more poetry readings in our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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

Discover Langston Hughes’ Rent Party Ads & The Harlem Renaissance Tradition of Playing Gigs to Keep Roofs Over Heads

Both communities of color and communities of artists have had to take care of each other in the U.S., creating systems of support where the dominant culture fosters neglect and deprivation. In the early twentieth century, at the nexus of these two often overlapping communities, we meet Langston Hughes and the artists, poets, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes’ brilliantly compressed 1951 poem “Harlem” speaks of the simmering frustration among a weary people. But while its startling final line hints grimly at social unrest, it also looks back to the explosion of creativity in the storied New York City neighborhood during the Great Depression.

Hughes had grown reflective in the 50s, returning to the origins of jazz and blues and the history of Harlem in Montage of a Dream Deferred. The strained hopes and hardships he had eloquently documented in the 20s and 30s remained largely the same post-World War II, and one of the key features of Depression-era Harlem had returned; Rent parties, the wild shindigs held in private apartments to help their residents avoid eviction, were back in fashion, Hughes wrote in the Chicago Defender in 1957.




“Maybe it is inflation today and the high cost of living that is causing the return of the pay-at-the-door and buy-your-own-refreshments parties,” he said. He also noted that the new parties weren’t as much fun.

But how could they be? Depression-era rent parties were legendary. They “impacted the growth of Swing and Blues dancing,” writes dance teacher Jered Morin, “like few other periods.” As Hughes commented, “the Saturday night rent parties that I attended were often more amusing than any night club, in small apartments where God-knows-who lived.” Famous artists met and rubbed elbows, musicians formed impromptu jams and invented new styles, working class people who couldn’t afford a night out got to put on their best clothes and cut loose to the latest music. Hughes was fascinated, and as a writer, he was also quite taken by the quirky cards used to advertise the parties. “When I first came to Harlem,” he said, “as a poet I was intrigued by the little rhymes at the top of most House Rent Party cards, so I saved them. Now I have quite a collection.”

The cards you see here come from Hughes’ personal collection, held with his papers at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Many of these date from the 40s and 50s, but they all draw their inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance period, when the phenomenon of jazz-infused rent parties exploded.  “Sandra L. West points out that black tenants in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s faced discriminatory rental rates,” notes Rebecca Onion at Slate. “That, along with the generally lower salaries for black workers, created a situation in which many people were short of rent money. These parties were originally meant to bridge that gap.” A 1938 Federal Writers Project account put it plainly: Harlem “was a typical slum and tenement area little different from many others in New York except for the fact that in Harlem rents were higher; always have been, in fact, since the great war-time migratory influx of colored labor.”

Tenants took it in stride, drawing on two longstanding community traditions to make ends meet: the church fundraiser and the Saturday night fish fry. But rent parties could be raucous affairs. Guests typically paid a few cents to enter, and extra for food cooked by the host. Apartments filled far beyond capacity, and alcohol—illegal from 1919 to 1933—flowed freely. Gambling and prostitution frequently made an appearance.  And the competition could be fierce. The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance writes that in their heyday, “as many as twelve parties in a single block and five in an apartment building, simultaneously, were not uncommon.” Rent parties "essentially amounted to a kind of grassroots social welfare," though the atmosphere could be "far more sordid than the average neighborhood block party." Many upright citizens who disapproved of jazz, gambling, and booze turned up their noses and tried to ignore the parties.

In order to entice party-goers and distinguish themselves, writes Onion, “the cards name the kind of musical entertainment attendees could expect using lyrics from popular songs or made-up rhyming verse as slogans.” They also “used euphemisms to name the parties’ purpose,” calling them “Social Whist Party” or “Social Party,” while also slyly hinting at rowdier entertainments. The new rent parties may not have lived up to Hughes’ memories of jazz-age shindigs, perhaps because, in some cases, live musicians had been replaced by record players. But the new cards, he wrote “are just as amusing as the old ones.”

via Slate

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

When J.M. Coetzee Secretly Programmed Computers to Write Poetry in the 1960s

Before J.M. Coetzee became perhaps the most acclaimed novelist alive, he worked as a programer. That may not sound particularly notable these days, but bear in mind that the Nobel laureate and two-time Booker-winning author of Waiting for the Barbarians, Disgrace, and Elizabeth Costello held that day job first at IBM in the early 1960s — back, in other words, when nobody had a computer on their desk. And back when IBM was IBM: that mighty American corporation had brought the kind of computing power it alone could command to branch offices in cities around the world, including London, where Coetzee landed after leaving his native South Africa after graduating from the University of Cape Town.

The years Coetzee spent "writing machine code for computers," he once wrote in a letter to Paul Auster, saw him "getting so deeply sucked into the process that I sometimes felt I was descending into a madness in which the brain is taken over by mechanical logic." This must have caused some distress to a literarily minded young man who heard his true calling only from poetry.




"I was very heavily under the influence, in my teens and early twenties, of, first, T.S. Eliot, but then, more substantially, Ezra Pound, and later of German poetry, of Rilke in particular," he says to Peter Sacks in the interview above, remembering the years before he put poetry aside as a craft in favor of the novel.

"Under the shadowless glare of the neon lighting, he feels his very soul to be under attack,"Coetzee writes, in the autobiographical novel Youth, of the protagonist's time as a programmer. "The building, a featureless block of concrete and glass, seems to give off a gas, odourless, colourless, that finds its way into his blood and numbs him. IBM, he can swear, is killing him, turning him into a zombie." Only in the evening can he "leave his desk, wander around, relax. The machine room downstairs, dominated by the huge memory cabinets of the 7090, is more often than not empty; he can run programs on the little 1401 computer, even, surreptitiously, play games on it."

He could also use these clunky, punchcard-operated computers to write poetry. "In the mid 1960s Coetzee was working on one of the most advanced programming projects in Britain," writes King’s College London researcher Rebecca Roach. "During the day he helped to design the Atlas 2 supercomputer destined for the United Kingdom’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Aldermaston. At night he used this hugely powerful machine of the Cold War to write simple 'computer poetry,' that is, he wrote programs for a computer that used an algorithm to select words from a set vocabulary and create repetitive lines."

These lines, as seen here in one page of the print-outs held at the Coetzee archive at the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center, include "INCHOATE SHARD IMAGINE THE OUBLIETTE," "FRENETIC AMBIENCE DISHEARTEN THE ROSE," "PASSIONATE PABULUM CARPET THE MIRROR," and "FRENETIC TETANUS DEADEN THE DOCUMENT." Though he never published these results, writes Roach, he "edited and included phrases from them in poetry that he did publish." Is this a curious chapter in the early life of a prominent man of letters, or was this realm of "flat metallic surfaces" an ideal forge for the sensibilities of a writer now known, as John Lanchester so aptly put it, for his "unusual quality of passionate coldness" — a kind of brilliant austerity that hardly deadens any of his documents.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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