The NAB Blog

Poetry On The Move

By Nicolas Soames

1 July 2007

I was driving through the Wiltshire countryside the other weekend in the late afternoon sun, past Stonehenge, across Salisbury Plain and, further on, through the chalk downs, over which para-ascenders were floating quietly. I was listening to music on my iPod for a change – can’t quite remember what it was… Tom Waits or Richard Thompson or a quartet.

It came to the end and there was a short pause. And suddenly, totally unexpectedly, came those familiar reflective opening lines of Gray’s Elegy:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Immediately, I was in another space, as they used to say some decades ago. My foot slackened on the accelerator, my mind quietened yet sharpened – how different it is listening to words than music – and I no longer thought of the two-hour journey ahead.

This is, of course, the romantic view of poetry, and many poets – from William Blake to Benjamin Zephaniah (who recorded for us recently and a lively time it was!) – would call out ‘NO!’ for to them that is not what poetry is about.

But it happened to me at that moment. And, of course, poetry is different things to different people at different times – like music, of course; and the range is equally wide. Just how the Elegy got into that playlist I don’t know. But I hope the same thing will happen to you because the serendipitous shift makes one really alert.

Certainly, we hope our new poetry series The Great Poets – one CD to one poet – will provide the same attention-grabbing experience. Curiously, recorded poetry can be a challenge. The best-sellers are, of course, The Nation’s Favourites, or The Best of the Best – popular anthologies come in many guises though the content is so often much the same. And we have done that in the past.

The reason is that is rather challenging to have a 2 CD set on one poet, (two and a half hours if it!)  – more so than a book devoted to one poet. In conventional covers, one can flick around rather casually, and take in two or three at a time… rarely more. But the linear nature of recordings, on CD or downloads, dictate continuous use. Once started, the danger is that one just lets the CDs run long after the attention has waned.

And yet it is good to have a programme devoted to individual poets. That is why we decided on this 1 CD format, with most of the principal works there where possible.

The wealth of English poetry is so great that we could have started anywhere, and while we could say there was rhyme behind the reason of Blake and Kipling – two totally different but very popular poets – the truth is that they just appeared.

The 250th anniversary of William Blake’s birth is a good enough reason, and Robert Glenister, had just finished recording a new stimulating radio play by Peter Ackroyd on the poet directed by Naxos AudioBooks’ producer Roy McMillan. So we joined him with Michael Maloney and Stephen Critchlow to give what we hope is a faithful overview of the work, in all its variety of this unique figure.

As Roy says in his programme notes: ‘Some of Blake’s verse has a rhythm and cadence that stands comparison with the King James Bible; his works for children still sing with innocence and delight; many of his angry social polemics are couched in seemingly easy stanzas; he produced allusive and symbolic works whose poetical strengths carry them through generations even without their meaning.’

Rudyard Kipling comes from the other end of the spectrum. As much as Blake’s eyes were turned inwards or to his heaven, Kipling’s feet were firmly on the ground. That was his strength. And in this new CD are many of his greatest and most popular verses including If and Mandalay, performed by Robert Hardy, with Glenister and Maloney.

Later this year, we release CDs of John Keats and W. B. Yeats – and there will be more next year.

In August, by the way, we release a special 4 CD set with a selection from Spiritual Verses by Jalaloddin Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi poet whose 800th anniversary is celebrated this year. But more on that later.

Nicolas Soames

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