Aug 8, 2008

that inimitable poetry-reading voice

Terry Teachout:
Today's literary critics have fallen into the unfortunate habit of using the word "voice" when they mean "style." It's easy to see why that metaphorical usage has become popular -- a writer with a strongly individual style often seems to be speaking directly to the reader -- but appearances can be deceiving, at times cruelly so. Take Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe, the hard-boiled private eye with a heart of mush. On paper Marlowe was forever tossing off snappy side-of-the-mouth wisecracks ("He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food"). Humphrey Bogart played him in "The Big Sleep," and you know what he sounded like. But what about the real-life author who put the words in Bogie's mouth? Brace yourself: Chandler's mild-mannered speaking voice bore an uncanny resemblance to the milksop whine of Elmer Fudd.

How do I know? Because Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, interviewed Chandler in 1958 for a BBC radio broadcast, a tape of which survives. More than a few of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century spoke over the BBC at one time or another, and to hear them is usually to be astonished, sometimes because they sound so wrong and sometimes because they sound so right. Max Beerbohm, the great Edwardian essayist and caricaturist, made several BBC broadcasts during World War II, and his precise, wistfully gentle voice turns out to have been ideally suited to his witty prose.
I'm not a huge fan of books on tape, or of poetry readings, but there are a few exceptions. My favorite out-loud poet is e.e. cummings, with his lilting cadences and musicality. Even better: in some recordings he sounds exactly like Winnie the Pooh.

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