A pair of

Ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

TO­DAY I’m go­ing to re­view a re­cent re­lease in the Bri­tish Li­brary’s splen­did The Spo­ken Word se­ries. Ir­ish Po­ets and Writ­ers is a 214-minute, three-CD set of record­ings drawn mainly from the BBC ar­chives. The ear­li­est record­ing is of James Joyce read­ing from Ulysses in 1924 and the most re­cent is Ea­van Boland recit­ing four of her po­ems, in­clud­ing the mag­nif­i­cent The War Horse, in 1988. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing Ulysses was still banned in Bri­tain (and else­where) in 1924, so the record­ing here is not from the BBC but was made in Paris by Joyce’s cham­pion Sylvia Beach. The sound qual­ity is or­di­nary but it’s still in­ter­est­ing to hear Joyce’s voice, which is milder than I ex­pected (though why I ex­pected that I’m not sure). Later on he reads from Fin­negans Wake. But my favourite bit of Joycean his­tory on th­ese discs is a 1950 record­ing of Frank O’Con­nor re­count­ing his first and only meet­ing with the Great Man, with his ‘‘dead eyes be­hind black spec­ta­cles’’. He says Joyce asked him if he was from Cork and, on be­ing an­swered in the af­fir­ma­tive, asked if a penny was still called a lob there. ‘‘They never called a penny a lob in Cork,’’ O’Con­nor con­tin­ues in amuse­ment. ‘‘We call it a lop.’’

The first CD is dom­i­nated by WB Yeats, whose voice is any­thing but mild. ‘‘I am go­ing to read my po­ems with great em­pha­sis on the rhythm and that may seem strange if you are not used to it,’’ he warns in a 1931 record­ing. But, he ex­plains, quot­ing the 19th-cen­tury English poet Wil­liam Mor­ris, ‘‘it gave me a devil of a lot of trou­ble’’ to get the po­ems into verse ‘‘and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose’’. He then reads beau­ti­fully from The Lake Isle of In­n­is­free.

Five years later, in a BBC lec­ture, Yeats takes aim at the modernists who emerged dur­ing World War I: ‘‘young rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies’’ who be­lieved ‘‘po­etry must re­sem­ble prose’’, ‘‘Tris­tan and Isolde were not a more suit­able theme than Padding­ton rail­way sta­tion’’ and ‘‘the past had de­ceived us, [so] let us ac­cept the worth­less present’’. How’s this for a back­han­der? ‘‘In the third year of the war came the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary man in po­etry dur­ing my life­time, though his rev­o­lu­tion was stylis­tic alone. TS Eliot pub­lished his first book.’’

We fin­ish with Yeats in 1949, a decade af­ter his death, with O’Con­nor, Sean O’Faolain and oth­ers de­bat­ing, among other ques­tions, whether he might have been an even greater poet had he gone to the pub more of­ten.

Speak­ing of the pub, there’s no ev­i­dence Bren­dan Be­han had a few be­fore record­ing a rous­ing ren­di­tion of the prison song The Auld Tri­an­gle, but it would hardly be a shock if he had. There are no such doubts about the only sur­viv­ing BBC in­ter­view with Flann O’Brien, which is not in­cluded here. As Dublin poet David Wheat­ley tact­fully ob­serves in an en­ter­tain­ing es­say ac­com­pa­ny­ing this col­lec­tion, O’Brien’s ‘‘un­for­tu­nate state of over-re­fresh­ment ren­dered it un­broad­castable’’. The other no­table omis­sion is Sa­muel Beck­ett: we’re told no com­mer­cial record­ings of him ex­ist.

Other high­lights in­clude Bernard (as he called him­self) Shaw’s jovial 1933 speech to the Bri­tish Drama League Con­fer­ence, a 1978 record­ing of Edna O’Brien read­ing her short story Christ­mas Roses and El­iz­a­beth Bowen keep­ing her cool dur­ing an odd in­ter­view with the BBC in 1960. When the in­ter­viewer, prob­ing Bowen’s in­flu­ences, asked, ‘‘Am I mad in sus­pect­ing a touch of Mered­ith?’’, it must have taken some re­straint not to re­ply, ‘‘Well, I am fond of Mered­ith, but now that you men­tion it . . .’’

The Spo­ken Word: Ir­ish Po­ets and Writ­ers (Bri­tish Li­brary Pub­lish­ing, $39.95) is dis­trib­uted in Aus­tralia by In­books.

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