Poets are social critics by default. That is, since not very many of us take the same care to craft our daily language that poets do, poets often are (or see themselves as) outsiders. And as outsiders, many poets are well-positioned to see things that not everyone is able to see. Hence the buzz of excitement Obama generated just by carrying (and thus being photographed with) a collection of Derek Walcott’s poems three days after the election. Imagine… a politician with a daily habit of thinking about something in a meditative way.

Celebrations of the power of words, succinct demands for our attention, suggestive as well as demonstrative. When done well, poems — like film — leave the reader/viewer with much to think about, much to interpret.

There are many, many poetry websites that host, share, invite, and collect the written text. But like Meyer Abrams argues, poems should be read aloud. I remember well the first time that I heard a college friend, poet Edward Bartók-Baratta, perform a collection of his writings. Without artificial amplification, his normally quiet voice took possession of the stirred atmosphere inside the Northampton, MA church. It was a look inside the soul of someone I knew best as a baker and gardener.

PennSound is a remarkable online archive of poetry readings. Supported by the University of Pennsylvania’s English Department Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House, the web-based project is directed by poets, and the recordings are of poets reading poetry. [Thanks to Al Filreis for the correction.]

Collecting original recordings as well as hotlinks to recordings hosted in other archives, PennSound is the “first and the biggest site of its kind,” says Charles Bernstein, an English professor and the site’s co-director.

Launched in January 2005, their first press release boasted a collection of 1500 recordings. By 2007, the site had aggregated more than 10,000.

According to a May 2007 Associated Press article, recordings are…

contributed by poets, fans and scholars worldwide and converted to digital format. Some, such as Gertrude Stein recordings from 1934, date back decades.

The site mainly focuses on historical avant-garde and innovative contemporary poetry. So while you can hear Allen Ginsberg or current U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall, you won’t find Maya Angelou.

You won’t find Billy Collins or Rita Dove, but you will find plenty of contemporary and historical readings, mostly with an avant-garde bent. Don’t miss the extensive set of Ezra Pound readings.

Sticking with the theme of this site, below is a poem that includes mention of a two-wheeled pilot.

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John Tranter reads “God on a Bicycle” at a March 30, 2005 reading at the Kelly Writers House.

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