Assistant Librarian Will Rene selects ten favourites from the National Poetry Library vinyl collection.
Edith Sitwell Reading from her Poetry
(London : Caedmon, 1957)
Although the majority of the library’s vinyl records are 12” LPs, we also hold a selection of smaller 7”s, including this gem by Edith Sitwell, reading poems in her unmistakable, commanding voice. This particular record is testament to the value of the visual material in this collection - the sleeves feature two unique photographs of Sitwell wearing her iconic turban. In the image included here, Sitwell’s gaze firmly meets ours, adding to the gravity of her voice on these recordings.
This record was featured among the displays in the library’s recent Poets in Vogue exhibition, which explored the fashion choices of Edith Sitwell, as well as other poets such as Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde and Stevie Smith.
Poetry International 1969
(London : Argo, 1969)
The Southbank Centre’s longest running festival, Poetry International has been gathering poets from across the globe to London since 1967. This vinyl box set captures the second edition of the festival in 1969, and features W H Auden, Ogden Nash, Miroslav Holub, Robert Bly, Austin Clarke, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, János Pilinszky, Derek Walcott, Yannis Ritsos, and Vasko Popa. An inarguably amazing international lineup, although also clearly a product of its time, with not a single woman featured on the LP.
In the years since 1969, Poetry International has worked to champion the diversity at the heart of poetry all over the world, and this year’s edition of the festival welcomed Olive Senior, Belinda Zhawi and Lidija Dimkovska, among many others.
Poetry and Jazz in Concert
(London : Argo, 1969)
Recorded and released in the same year as Poetry International 1969 above, one of the striking things about this record at first glance is its similarly all-male line-up. Despite this dated programming, this record is testament to the rich history of the Southbank Centre’s engagement with literature, offering spaces for different genres to come together and cross-pollinate - in this instance, poetry and music. Poets including Dannie Abse, Laurie Lee and Spike Milligan give readings interspersed - and occasionally accompanied - by wonderful jazz from the Michael Garrick Sextet, in front of a very responsive crowd in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Ivor Cutler - Privilege
([London] : Rough Trade Records, 1983)
Before his death in 2006, Ivor Cutler was a regular visitor to the library, and it’s the stuff of library legend that one of his encounters with a library assistant at the desk was immortalised in Franz Ferdinand’s song ‘Jacqueline’ (‘Jacqueline was seventeen / Working on a desk / When Ivor / Peered above a spectacle...’).
A prolific poet and musician, the library holds a huge number of Cutler’s books and recordings of his work - including this delightfully eccentric LP, produced by David Toop and Steve Beresford. Released on Rough Trade in 1983, Privilege intersperses Cutler’s poems and songs. Most of the pieces on this record clock in at under a minute, and it includes the classic ‘Women of the World’, which went on to enjoy some success on the UK Indie chart on its release.
L K J in concert with the Dub Band
([London] : Rough Trade ; LKJ Records, 1985)
While the library holds many of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s iconic studio albums, this LP is particularly special - a live album of LKJ performing with the Dub Band in the Southbank Centre’s very own Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1985. The album opens with Johnson performing a solo, acapella version of ‘Five Nights of Bleeding’ before launching into an electrifying sequence of dub poems set to music. This is a fantastic slice of dub poetry history, capturing the energy of the genre with LKJ revisiting material from the four seminal albums he’d released up to that point.
Alice Notley - Live in Seattle
(Portland, Oregon ; Omaha, Nebraska : Fonograf Editions, 2017)
When the library reopened after the coronavirus lockdowns, the first event we programmed was a very special one, which had been postponed after everything closed - an evening with Alice Notley, with readings from ‘For the Ride’, which you’ll be able to listen back to on the library’s Soundcloud page.
Anyone wanting to hear more of this compelling and visionary poet should listen to this LP - a recording from a 2017 reading in Seattle, released by the wonderful Fonograf Editions, on which Notley reads poems from Certain Magical Acts in her inimitable voice. Notley’s beautiful and enigmatic poems are interspersed with excerpts from a Q&A with her, giving us an insight into the thinking behind her work, as well as her sense of humour: “Do you have a concept of success?” “No. I think everything is a hoax.”
Hannah Silva - Talk in a Bit
([Switzerland] : Human Kind Records, 2018)
Across this brilliant LP, poet Hannah Silva presents us with a range of innovative approaches to language and music, collaborating with a group of free improvisation musicians to explore how words and instruments can weave in and out of each other. The results are like nothing else - fluid, tactile and delicate textures are spun with drums, electronics and cello, while Silva pushes at the boundaries of what we might expect from language, in what The Wire describes as “vocal acrobatics”. ‘This Air’, the only acapella piece on this record, is the result of a commission from the National Poetry Library.
Tom Phillips - Words and Music
([Glendale, California] : Recital, 2018)
Tom Phillips’ A Humument is a seminal piece of erasure poetry, a Victorian novel in which Phillips drew, painted and collaged over the pages, keeping only a few words from the original text visible, resulting in a non-linear narrative about a character called Bill Toge. In 2015, the National Poetry Library hosted 'Illuminated Tweets', an exhibition exploring the development of A Humument through new media.
Side B of this LP, Words and Music, is dedicated entirely to readings from A Humument, and is a perfect sonic companion to the book. Originally released in 1975 and long out of print, this LP was recently repressed by Recital (who aptly describe Phillips’ “chestnut voice”), a label who are currently doing brilliant work in uncovering archival recordings from poets committed to experimentation - with an emphasis on sound poets.
Cerys Matthews, Hidden Orchestra & 10 Poets - We Come from the Sun
([London] : Decca Records, ©2020)
This compilation features heavyweights from the UK’s spoken word poetry scene - including Raymond Antrobus, Imtiaz Dharker, Anthony Anaxagorou and Liz Berry - reading their work to music composed by Cerys Matthews and the Hidden Orchestra. The selection of poets on this LP perfectly captures a very particular moment in UK poetry, and the musical accompaniment nicely reflects the range of voices here - while MA.MOYO is accompanied by simmering, bass-heavy beats on ‘Flame Lily’, Kayo Chingonyi reads over field recordings and delicate ambient textures on ‘Loch Long by Ardgarten, Argyll’.
The library may well have had a role in ensuring this project was successful - rumour has it that the producers came to borrow books by the poets to ensure they had copies to read from while recording at Abbey Road!
Nikki Giovanni - Truth is on its Way
(Nashville, TN : Modern Harmonic, )
A legendary American poet and a leading light in the Black Arts Movement, Nikki Giovanni was not only an amazing poet on the page, but was an excellent reader and collaborator, too - and nowhere is this more evident than in her musical releases from the 1970s, recently reissued by Modern Harmonic and collected by the library. A highlight among these is Truth is on its Way, which sees her reading her poems accompanied by the New York Community Choir. There is a joyous energy from start to finish on this LP, and to cap it off there are some great liner notes by Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother.
In 2019’s Poetry International festival, the Southbank Centre had the honour of hosting Giovanni, who sat down and talked about her life and work with British Ghanaian writer Bridget Minamore. You can listen to their conversation on Southbank Centre's Book Podcast: Nikki Giovanni at Poetry International.