“You know what they say about actors performing poetry?” my old professor, Philip Levine, once asked our class. “They make bad poems sound good, they make good poems sound good, and they make great poems sound good.”
I don’t think we necessarily need to unpack that quote, which I think Levine got from someone else. Let’s just let it hang in the air as we go over the next entry in our Poetry on Vinyl series: Some Haystacks Don’t Even Have Any Needle.
I picked up my copy at Last Vestige record store here in Albany back in 2009. Released in 1970, Some Haystacks is in fact a companion double-record release to Some Haystacks Don’t Even Have Any Needle and Other Complete Poems, published by educational publisher Scott, Foresman and Co. in 1969, and edited by Stephen Dunning, Edward G. Lueders, and Hugh Letcher Smith. This is not a rare record. You can buy the record or book used online for under ten bucks. My ex-library copy comes from Doane Stuart, a private school that was located in Albany and now located across the river Rensselaer, NY (pronounced by the locals as REN-sler).
Some Haystacks, from the poem selection to the performances, adds up to a professional, sincere effort to get kids into a selection of poems that, while good and great, aren’t written specifically for young people. They’re not particularly scandalous for kids, either. I’m trying to imagine myself in school, listening to this record, and trying to get into poetry. I don’t think it would have done the trick. I think I’d probably dive back into my beloved Mad magazines.
It is indeed a trip to hear actors read these poems. Tony Randall’s take on e.e. cummings’ “since feeling is first” rings faithful and, well, actorly. Tony winner René Auberjonois (of Deep Space Nine and Benson fame) takes on Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and does it justice. Anne Anglin, whose name I recognize from Scanners and who appears in a TV movie based on Mia Farrow’s life, recites Larry Rubin’s “Warning,” a poem I’d never heard of, in an able, affable manner.
“As the album was being planned, the taped interpretations were auditioned by several hundred students and by teachers and other adults,” reads the liner notes. “These audiences were asked to indicate their reactions to both the poems and their interpretations….the degree of enthusiasm, the spontaneity of discussion, and majority preferences determined the final structuring of the album.”
This account makes the album sound more of a joyless, scientific project than what it is, which is a recording of contemporary actors performing poems of mostly contemporary poems. Considered that way, it makes me wish there were more recordings like this nowadays, even if adds up to a noble experiment, even if it flattens our expectations of poetry and poems in some ways, and even if it doesn’t connect or work — it still does what poetry on vinyl does, which is bring poetry’s musical qualities to the forefront. I mean, imagine current actors reciting current poems from our own era, and putting it on wax, posting performances on YouTube and TikTok. You could do a lot worse with your time, no?
Someone should digitize this record and post it online so more people can hear The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s Donald Harron recite James Wright’s “A Blessing,” or Robert Creeley’s “The Invoice.” Even if it wouldn’t float Philip Levine’s boat.
This originally appeared on the Best American Poetry Blog.