Penn Offers Previously Unreleased Recordings of Robert Frost Reading His Poetry

Robert Frost enthusiasts are familiar with the poet’s written work, and perhaps some recordings of his performances, but now they can hear previously unreleased recordings on PennSound, the free, web-based archive offered by the University of Pennsylvania'Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.

The recordings, made in 1933 and 1934, were discovered by Penn Ph.D. student Chris Mustazza while working on his dissertation about the history of the practice of recording poets and the birth of the poetry audio archive. 

In 2014, Mustazza learned about the Frost recordings in Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“It had just been lying dormant in the archives, totally un-digitized, unbeknownst to most people,” says Mustazza, who’s also PennSound’s associate director and the IT director for Social Sciences Computing and Natural Sciences Computing in the School of Arts & Sciences.

The 22 Frost recordings on PennSound include his 1937 Pulitzer Prize Dinner speech and his readings of “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches” and “Mending Wall.”

“As he is speaking the parts of different characters in ‘Mending Wall,’ he’s actually mimicking the dialect of the different characters speaking,” says Mustazza. “You don’t get that from the printed page.”

The series of recordings were produced in Columbia’s Speech Lab where professors W. Cabell Greet, and George Hibbit made recordings of students and other participants reading and talking as part of the professors’ research on American dialects.

In the 1930s, few people had access to recording equipment and when poet Vachel Lindsay heard that the professors could make recordings, he asked them to record him reading his poetry.

Soon, the Columbia Speech Lab became a makeshift recording studio for other notable 20th century poets, including Frost, Gertrude Stein, James Weldon Johnson and T.S. Eliot. Mustazza has been reconstructing the collection, known as “The Speech Lab Recordings,” bringing them together for the first time on PennSound.

“This idea of sound recording equipment could help them to preserve and distribute the poems closer to what they believed was the actual poem, which for Lindsay and Greet is the actual performance,” says Mustazza. “They believed that the actual poem happens with the poet and the audience, and the poem being bellowed into the audience and the audience responding to it. It was like a kinetic, communal process.”

Mustazza and PennSound co-directors Charles Bernstein and Al Filreis began working with Columbia in 2014 to digitize the materials and make the recordings available on PennSound

The recordings of Lindsay, Stein and Johnson were added to PennSound’s archives in 2014 and 2015 after their estates granted permission. This year, the James Weldon Johnson Literary Foundation, formed by the Johnson estate, awarded Mustazza the 2016 James Weldon Johnson Legacy Award for contributions to literature and the arts for his editing of the Johnson recordings.

The Frost recordings became available on PennSound beginning in March.

Originally made on aluminum records, the sound quality isn’t perfect. Listeners will hear crackling noises while Frost is speaking.

I left in all of the recording noise,” says Mustazza. “I left in little imperfections in the recording, like car horns going off in the background when they’re trying to record. I leave them in there because I think it’s very important to situate these recordings in a particular, material reality where they’re happening.”

Mustazza also intentionally left in the poets’ comments during the recordings. They can be heard asking the person recording the segment “How are the levels on that?” and “Does that sound good?”

“I think that the way they recorded the poets is as important as the content that was recorded,” says Mustazza. “It was hard to make records at that time. Only the most resourced entities like the Victor Talking Machine Company and Columbia Records were able to produce records, and so it wasn’t easy to get access to this kind of sound recording equipment.”

Mustazza says they were using consumer-grade recording equipment to record this immensely important poetry.

“This is like an amateur production of extremely important material,” says Mustazza. “Otherwise it would not have gotten recorded. It was not being recorded by the record companies.”

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