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Poets Reading Badly

Sean, Standley Lake Library

To my mind, the greatest ninety seconds in the history of recited poetry happened in 1986. The film was Back to School, the actor was Rodney Dangerfield, and the poem was Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."

Watch it and tremble in awe.

Of course, Rodney doesn't quite recite the whole poem, and his performance is helped by some soaring background music. Regardless, watching this scene as a teenager, I thought, Now this is what poetry's all about!

I was, in a word, stoked.

Subsequent opportunities to attend actual poetry readings never lived up to that magical moment. This devastated and frustrated me. I ventured to coffee houses at the ends of the Earth, hoping to duplicate that elusive experience. I would not go gentle into that good night. I would rage, rage against hearing poets performing badly.

Then after attending a few more lousy readings, I said to hell with it and turned my passions to bar trivia.

Still, I've never really lost my interest in hearing writers read their work. For instance, I just listened to Stephen King read some excerpts from Doctor Sleep a few weeks ago in Boulder. I've also heard Ray Bradbury, John Irving and John Updike. All of them were competent readers.

But Rodney Dangerfield's recitation still beats them all. Sorry. I've even found a recording of Dylan Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." This excited me. If anyone could do the poem justice, it was surely the man who wrote it. And while he does a good job, even Thomas can't top Dangerfield's performance. I realize true poetry lovers are rolling their eyes right now, but I'm just being frank and fillibial with you about my tastes.

There are many places to find recordings of famous writers reading, but an especially intriguing one is Open Culture, which bills itself as providing access to the best free media resources on the web, including lectures, textbooks, movies and audiobooks. That's all impressive and worth your time exploring, but I gravitated to a section called Great Readings. This eclectic catalog of streaming audio includes T.S. Eliot reading The Waste Land, James Joyce reading from Ulysses, Hemingway and Faulkner reading stories for the radio, and various other oddities.

After listening for an hour, I pretty much concluded what I already knew: Rodney Dangerfield remains the supreme oral interpreter of Western literature. I mean some of these recordings leave no room for doubt. T.S. Eliot sounds like he's on the brink of death; Hemingway's halting voice makes it seem like he's translating his material live from Morse Code; and Flannery O'Connor reminded me of how my grandma might sound if she was doing a Clarice Starling impression.

Now I know at this point, most of you agree with me. How couldn't you? But a minority must be saying, "This guy needs to go back to school."

Well the joke's on you.

I never went to school at all.