Sound and Light: A Quick Tour of Recorded Poetry Archives

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I’ve always found the idea of the archive startling. This is to distinguish the archive from the library in a crucial way—the archive being a preservation of ephemera: letters, ledgers, and other bureaucratic documents; marginalia, fragments, and chit-chat. This is in contrast to the library’s ordered rows of lovingly bound volumes, objects materially and commercially deemed memorable, whose memory is automated by the machinery that distributed it in the first place. The archive is memory compelled, memory deliberated, held onto, preserved like a kind of wildlife—memory forced into being.

There is a politics to this, but there is also an aesthetics—the after-effect of the force of the archive is a kind of ghosting: it hints too uncannily at history reified, at history returned to the present. The voice is physically indexed, it leaves a residue in a way it simply can’t in the ordination of the library. Nowhere can one feel this than in the archives of poetry read aloud, that most ephemeral event. In this short post, I wanted to share some of the marvelous archives of poetry readings that are available. Perhaps many of these places will be familiar to you, but here they are gathered in one place, in a brief recognition of the important work put toward the preservation of the reading.


Library of Congress

In the fall of 2015 the Library of Congress launched its archive of recorded poetry and literature, digitizing 75 years of reel-to-reel tape formerly available only at the library itself. Here you can hear Audre Lorde in a 1977 reading, a 1957 conversation between Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell, or this 1990 double feature of Louise Glück and Daniel Halpern.

Poetry Foundation

The Poetry Foundation has been producing an incredibly rich series of podcasts and other audio assets, one of which is their Poem of the Day, which I highly suggest signing up for. How about this recent one, “Little Map,” by Jean Valentine.

Poetry Archive

This archive began in the UK and hosts a wide range of recordings, both historic and contemporary. You have to pay for some content. One terrific feature they have is this series of guided audio tours.

Penn Sound

I think of the Penn Sound project as the grandest of them all—their archives are massive! And they are continuously adding to them. Just before I wrote this, they added this splendid new episode of Close Listening—Charles Bernstein in conversation with John Ashbery. How about any of Rae Armantrout’s readings, like this quick clip, “Yonder.” Or maybe you’d like to listen to Louis Zukofsky’s lecture on Wallace Stevens? Lyn Hejinian reading from “My Life” at St. Marks, 1987?


No better than their mission statement to explain this treasure trove of the avant-garde: “UbuWeb is a completely independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts. All materials on UbuWeb are being made available for noncommercial and educational use only. All rights belong to the author(s). UbuWeb is completely free.” Here we branch out from poetry exclusively into a vast, networked terrain of projects. Here is a documentary on Wittgenstein (with a still form Un Chien Andalou held menacingly above it). Here is a PDF of Rosemarie Waldrop’s Camp Printing. Here is Sol LeWitt’s “Pentas for computer and 5 loud speakers.” Boring Art, anyone? Or maybe this 1927 recording of Osip Mandelstam. There are several lifetimes over in these sub-URLs.

Rabbit Light Movies

Let’s close with a quick look at Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s project, Rabbit Light Movies, a beautiful collection of contemporary (and often overlooked) poets reading in situ, in various locals—though so often in the urgency of twilight. I will point, simply, to Joyelle McSweeney, with her backyard rendition of a contest sonnet.


Just a small preview of a vast record, one that doesn’t even touch all the recordings we share on our phones, on YouTube, in A/V quality good or bad, every second of every day. Happy digging.

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