A pair of
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.