Sunday, February 25, 2007


We all know Auckland traffic is appalling -- and it's getting worse. One of the main reasons for living and working on the Shore (at Massey Albany), in fact, is avoiding this sort of thing: the grind across the bridge. Or at any rate having the opportunity to choose one's moment to take the plunge.

So what do you when you do get stuck in traffic, creeping along behind some bozo whose idea of fun is stopping twenty or so yards behind the car in front and then gradually drifting up on them, leaving you unable even to stop and cogitate in peace?

I guess I tend to wish I was somewhere else -- either snouting around some musty time-soaked secondhand bookshop, or lying supine on a sun-baked beach (Mairangi Bay, for instance ...)

So the question is, how do you get from one to the other: traffic-jam to state of inner peace? Well, the obvious solution is to listen to the radio, but there's only a limited number of times you can hear John Tesh dispensing "wisdom for your life" without wanting to strangle the smug bastard, or to those announcers on the Concert Programme who go on and on about every detail of the composer's life before they actually allow you to listen to any music.

Bringing along your own tapes or CDs, and listening to those, is probably the best idea -- if you're organised to remember to keep the supplies stocked up. But here's my own original extra suggestion for mellow, tension-free motoring ...

[I should probably add at this point that everyone to whom I've so far mentioned this solution has reacted to it a bit like Jim Jones's congregation when they got their first big satisfying slug of Kool-aid ... but you never know, you guys might be an exception. It works okay for me, at any rate ...]

What I do is listen to poetry in the car.

"Gaaah!" I hear you cry. "No, no, have mercy -- anything but that."

But wait a second. Jan Kemp and I have spent an awful amount of time over the past few years collecting soundfiles of NZ poets reading their own work (most of which now reside in the vaults of Auckland University Library and the Turnbull in Wellington). We even put out a text/ sound anthology of Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance through Auckland University Press last year (and very successful it's been, thank you very much).

But when can you actually find time to put a bunch of poets on the CD-player during an average day? I mean really, not just that one dutiful listen you give it before packing it away on a shelf forever .... In my case the answer is: in the car.

Not just our anthology, of course (though I've listened to that an immense number of times -- not to mention its sequel, Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance, covering the baby-boomer poets, roughly from Sam Hunt to Michele Leggott, and due out later this year).

I guess my particular favourites for traffic jams or long drives in the country are very long epic poems: The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Aeneid. I have a number of versions of each, and it's agreat way of comparing the different translations.

Too intellectual? Too pretentious. Well, as the immortal Blackadder once put it, there's nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a nightshirt trying to get laid. That's pretty much the essence of most of these epics -- sex, sadism, family feuds, and lots of drinking. Life, as Homer sees it, is a grim struggle punctuated with moments of brightness, and it doesn't seem to make much difference whether you're a mortal or a god.

I like listening to other poets too, the Moderns: Ginsberg is great to crank up loud when you're cruising round campus trying to disillusion people with the life of the mind: "Moloch! Moloch!" Auden has a kind of dry charm. I like the mellifluous blarney of Irishmen such as Paul Muldoon or Seamus Heaney. And it's not long before you find yourself getting to know their poems far better than you ever did when they just sat in front of you on a page.

It's depressing to think that I can still sing the jingles of most of the TV ads which were on when I was a kid ("We are the boys from down on the farm / We really know our cheese ..." "They're going to think you're fine / 'Coz you got Lifebuoy ..." "Kiss me Cutex / Kiss me quick ..."). Wouldn't you rather din into your head the immortal cadences of Homer or Beowulf, or find yourself intoning "April is the cruellest month / Mixing memory with desire ..." instead? Okay, maybe not -- but it's got to be better than bitching about the traffic or (worse) listening to talkback.

[Editor's note (May, 2008): And here's the cover of the latest in our series, New New Zealand Poets in Performance, due out from AUP on Poetry Day (July 18) this year]:


Richard said...

Talk back is terrible -traffic jams dont worry me. I actually work on my mind so that it is not a problem at all.

[I have to concede that these days I dont work so I usually avoid the worst of it - but traffic is bad everywhere]

Except I wish I could be reading: so this suggestion suounds good - I also get sick of listening to music - but where do you get these recordings? I have some - but I would like to get a wider range.

I only have a tape player but obviously I can copy them to tape.

Actually I have CD I made myself of myself - hmm maybe not fo for me!

Talkback!! When it started and at few intermittent times I have been hooked on it - but now I only listen on the raidio to the Concert Program - now they do talk so much about stuff (a lot of it is irrelevant as you imply) - some of it is good - but there is (creeping in even to the Concert Programme) a degree of trivia and down grading. Stupid cheeriness. I am always hearing how terrible Shostakovitch's life was - so much so I now wish it had been worse - and I wonder at this political propoganda - I also have heard the Concerto by Ravel for left hand about 100 times or more - there is BTW no mention ever of the connection to the Wittgensteins - which would be interesting. And why isn't there more interesting poetry and so on on there? - There has been some, but there is not enough. There are too many interviews with performers some are ok but I want to hear a composer eg give along talk about his own music - that would be ok and more poetry - poetry is given split second time everywhere.

Poetry is massively superior to music. The word - the voice.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Good question about where one actually gets such recordings ... You have to be on the lookout in Unity, the University Bookshop and places like that -- even Borders. They tend to get snapped up quickly, so I tend to buy them as soon as I see them. There's a whole range of American poets ("The Poet's Voice") available through I dunno if I agree that poetry is superior to music, but I certainly think it deserves an equal place in the sun.

Katherine Dolan said...

I like listening to poetry too. Btw, how does one order the cd if one does not own a credit card?

These are my three favourites:

Eliot reading Eliot's life-on-a-cannibal-isle poem.

The pioneering wax recording of Tennyson as a throat-singing vaccuum cleaner.

Adrienne Rich "The Loneliness of Waking First"

If you could revive a dead poet for the sake of recording him/Sappho read, who would it be?

I think it would be interesting to revive productions of Terence's comedies to find out if the audience actually laughed. I'm betting not.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I don't know of any way around the credit card thing for online ordering -- once you've got one, though, it's a dark road that has no turning, so I hesitate to recommend it ...

Yeah, that Tennyson recording is bizarre. Even better is the Browning one where he forgets the words and starts shouting "Hip hip hooray" instead!

as for dead poets, I think I'd like to hear Ovid most of all. He seems the smartest and most sympathetic of all those Romans. Shakespeare'd be worth a listen, too, mind you, though I don't doubt hsi reading woul dbe pretty stagey.

Richard said...

Re ordering overseas - I do have a cc (as a book seller I also had eftpos failities but I cancelled that as I recieved money directly now) -

Now, wihtout a cc - use someone you trust or who trusts you who has a cc - or it should be possible to pay by other means - direct credit or it should be possible to send personal cheques. Even cash. Direct credit shold be possible soon - it is only a matter of details - the failities are there - it is only a matter of some technology and changes via the banks.

I have been paid in all these ways (with no problems at all) myself - in Autralin,US and British currency. I havent bought ("going the other way so to speak") withoug ht a cc but I am pretty sure it can be done.

I have a few interesting poetry readings I picked up...I remember now I got Auden from the library -I could have taped that. The libraries - central ones - should have a lot of such resources - also if one knows someone at Uni and has the time - the Uni has great audio visual resoucres - it is a problem of time and so on - organisation - but yes, listening to poetry is wonderful.

Music is secondary for me - the voice is what one hears as a child - from ones mother and father. It will always be primary. Music obcures this primal and very profound thing.(Maybe less so with say a great Bach cantata etc). Very deep and basic. (People are frightened of it - so they surround themelves with music which is thus often corrosive.) There are exceptions if it is not used to obscure or distort the voice...

In our culture today music obscures and distorts the voice of our mothers.

Richard said...

Here is a link that includes amazon and many others ( e.g. abebooks,alibris,The Strand, various European book distributors and many others)

it is ADD ALL and I use if for pricing books (altho some prices can be taken with a pinch of salt one has to know what one is doing there)- now if so doing or searching use it warily as it sometimes misses things - you have to change parameters or make the search compass smaller - that is less book companies. But as it is is enormous, and used intelligently is very useful - covers 10s of millions of books and also records, videos etc.

There also always the possibility of making (reasonable) offers on items.

Katherine Dolan said...

That Browning anecdote is hilarious.

Ovid is a lot of fun. It is amusing to see him getting distracted by his own charm and wit. I'd also like to revive Shakespeare, if only to clear up the identity issue and ask if he was drunk when he wrote Troilus and Cressida.

Thanks for the overseas buying advice.

This posting has inspired me to look for audio poetry at my local library, where I found a book called Poetry Speaks (ed. Paschen and Mosby), which includes 3 cd's of 42 poets (Tennyson to Plath). The narration can be a bit tedious, but it's a good source of recordings in one place.

Stevens reads particularly well. I love "So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch", which includes the luscious phrase "eyes dripping blue" and ultimate flourish "Good-bye/Mrs. Pappadopoulos, and thanks." (Spoken sort of regretfully by WS).

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yeah, actually the Browning recording is in that very book ... along with some weird growlings allegedly by Walt Whitman. It's quite a relief when one gets to a poet one can actually hear, in the person of W. B. Yeats: "Oii wull arase und gooo noww, and gooo ti Unnusfree" or words to that effect.

The Caedmon poetry collection is also pretty good -- supplying a lot of the lacunae of the Poetry Speaks book without hte commentary.

(I quite like Troilus and Cressida, actually ... a bit discordant in parts, I suppose, but full of good stuff).

Richard said...

I would love to hear Stevens read (I did once at the Auckland Uni but it was a very poor recording.) I read Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'. I enjoyed that a lot. It is great the way Pound uses him. I haven't rad Troilus and Cressida. Must give it a go. A lot to read.

Browning is a great poet: very modern in a way. Tennyson also of course - but perhaps less "modern".

Ashbery and Charles Bernstein, Lynn Heijinian and Berrigan I have heard read and I heard Creeley read most of the - or many of the US poets he knew or was asociated with such as Olson Jack Spicer, Berrigan, Ed Dorn, Wieners and many more. Iwoudl also lie to hear Susan Howe and Alison Notley.

And I would like to hear Stein reading - even Emily Dickinson.
Cheers Jack et al.