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.
- Orson Welles and Richard Burton read Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (Original text here.)
- Anthony Hopkins reads “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (Original text here.)
- Lee Remick reads two of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “This is my letter to the world” and “Dying.”
- Tennessee Williams reads Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower” and “The Hurricane” (Original text here and here)
- Michael Caine reads Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (Original text here.)
- Sir Anthony Hopkins reads “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas (Original text here.)
- Bill Murray reads poems by Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins and Lorine Niedecker at a construction site.
- British actors read World War I poetry by Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke.
- Harold Bloom recites ‘Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” by Wallace Stevens (Original text here.)