In a way, you can't blame me. The public library
was a short walk away from our house, and it had
an admirably complete collection of vintage Caedmon
recordings. T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas,
Gertrude Stein...obligatory watershed moments for
all English majors. Unfortunately, while
I was studying English lit., my roommate was an
art major. And the Caedmon recordings--which I played
nonstop, at every waking moment--nearly drove him
crazy, although he was polite enough to keep this
fact from me for nearly twenty years.
Although the house we shared was huge (it's amazing
how much square footage you can get if you don't
mind a few neighborhood shootings on the weekend),
our bedrooms were side by side and even shared an
interior door. So when I chose to fall asleep to
The Wasteland, he, by default, did too--except
for those rare moments when he'd make a special
"How about that 'good night' poem with the
drunk Welsh guy?"
Personally, I wondered if he might be misinterpreting
"Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,"
but I'd slip the Dylan Thomas tape into the machine
without complaint, and Thomas's voice would fill
the house with an eerie, echoing intensity, as if
we were two literary Jonahs floating inside the
whale's cavernous belly. (Click here
to listen to Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle
into That Good Night." An MP3 player is required.)
People say we set the parameters of the music we
like for life when we're teenagers. Maybe it's true
for poetry as well: no matter how my roommate felt,
I still look back on those nights listening to the
Caedmon recordings as seminal moments that decided
I wasn't the city's only Caedmon addict. I knew
a writer--he was so intense that we called him the
Messianic Poet--who could recite both The Wasteland
and the Four Quartets in a pitch-perfect
imitation of Eliot's pinched, nasal delivery. And
I know another writer whose appreciation for John
Donne skyrocketed once he heard Richard Burton reading
Donne on the Caedmon label.
He wasn't the only Donne-via-Burton convert. Even
now, as I read Donne poems to my kids, it's hard
to avoid Burton's mellifluous intonations. Trust
me: once you hear the Caedmon recording of a poem,
it's hard to read the poem to yourself without unconsciously
falling into the recording's rhythms. Just ask my
roommate to read The Wasteland aloud and
see if he doesn't drop into that nasal voice like
it was a comfortable old shoe.
Caedmon: The Early Years
By the time I stumbled onto them, Caedmon recordings
were thirty years old, and they'd already turned
an improbably large audience on to great writing.
It began in 1952, when Marianne Roney and Barbara
Cohen, two young Hunter College graduates with degrees
in Greek, approached Dylan Thomas in the bar of
the Chelsea Hotel and asked if he'd be willing to
record some of his poems for their new, as yet unnamed
company. Perhaps improbably, he agreed (it was undoubtedly
an astute move to meet him in a bar). By the time
the studio date arrived, Roney and Cohen had named
their new company 'Caedmon' after the first English
poet to write in English rather than Latin.
It seemed like an auspicious start--only Thomas
didn't show up. He had found the draw of the White
Horse Tavern en route to the session to be too great
A week later, Thomas finally made it to the rescheduled
recording session, and after recording a handful
of poems, Roney and Cohen agreed to fill out the
LP record's B-side with "A Child's Christmas
in Wales," a little-noticed Thomas story that
had run in Harper's Bazaar. Ironically, Thomas's
reading of "A Child's Christmas in Wales"
helped cement Caedmon's future, just as it brought
Thomas a far bigger audience than he ever could
have attracted with his printed collections alone.
"He wrote to the thunder of his voice,"
Roney wrote in 1999. "His poems are inconceivable
without that voice."
With Roney and Cohen's seemingly unerring choices
for recording material, they built Caedmon from
their initial $1,500 investment to a $500,000 /
year business by 1959. At first, the two women did
all the work, from running the recording sessions
to mailing out the orders. In time, their sales
grew enough to hire a staff. The film director Mike
Nichols was their first employee (he was hired to
be the head shipping clerk), and Peter Bartok (Bela's
son) was hired to be the recording engineer. William
Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings
were among the writers who made seminal recordings
for Caedmon over the next few years, and with the
advent of stereo recording, the company branched
out into distinguished ensemble cast recordings.
For their recording of Arthur Miller's Death
of a Salesman, for example, they assembled the
cast members from the original Broadway production
(among them, an unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman).
Roney and Cohen sold Caedmon in 1970, and today
it is a part of the HarperCollins publishing company.
This year, Caedmon celebrates its fiftieth anniversary,
and in addition to releasing new recordings of classic
literature (like Philip K. Dick's The Minority
Report and Other Stories, read by Keir Dullea),
it continues to digitalize its backlist. Arthur
Miller, Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, James
Joyce and Edgar Allan Poe are among the classic
writers who have made it onto CDs, and the list
In the meantime, The Caedmon Poetry Collection
is an excellent place for beginning collectors and
poetry enthusiasts to start. It offers thirty-six
poets reading their work, and the range is impressive.
From William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden and Dylan
Thomas to Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams
and e.e. cummings, it represents both sides of the
modernist Atlantic well, and with Joseph Brodsky,
Derek Walcott and Margaret Atwood, it has its contemporary
elements as well. Perhaps best of all, it includes
Eliot's reading of The Wasteland in its entirety.
In all, the three audio CDs offer three hours of
It's a joy to sample so many poets' voices in such
a convenient package. The sound is clean, with just
enough scratchy quality to add a desirable patina.
Some of the poets' delivery might strike contemporary
listeners as odd, though: oratorical, at times;
at others, almost incantatory, as if the poets believed
their art evoked magic. How long has it been since
poetry was considered so dangerously important?
Often, the readings feel like sound waves from a
distant time. Only James Agee--but of course, James
Agee--delivers his poetry at a casual storyteller's
Collectors looking for a more sustained presentation
of a single poet should strongly consider The
Dylan Thomas Collection (with an introduction
by Billy Collins). Across eleven CDs, it offers
every recording Thomas made for Caedmon, from the
original recording sessions that launched Caedmon
(A Child's Christmas in Wales and Five Poems)
to his last recording--as a cast member of his 'play
for voices,' Under Milk Wood. In addition
to Thomas's recordings of his own work, the collection
also includes recordings of him reading other authors'
works (among them, Auden, Yeats, Shakespeare and
D.H. Lawrence). Listen to these CDs and you'll understand
what an incredibly astute decision it was to start
a spoken-recording revolution with Thomas's lion
Come to think of it...my college roommate's birthday
is coming up. I wonder if he'd like a copy of the
Thomas collection, just for old time's sake?