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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Comments (3)
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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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