Thursday, April 26, 2012


"Night is a dark factory making sounds." So says the speaker of an obscure Vernon Scannell poem, his voice sucked into a swirling musique concrète vortex. Poemsounds is an educational LP released in the UK in 1972, part of what publisher Harrap-Didier called a "new venture in poetry for middle schools." As the neologism in the title suggests, the record smashes poems and sounds together, pairing readings of lesser-known contemporary poems with willowy folk music and improvised, eerie abstractions courtesy of John Lewis and his merry men.

Like David Cain's mythical school drama LP The Seasons, Poemsounds is a relic from the peculiarly clunky modernism that had its heyday in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. As a resource for teachers it is practical, scholastic, and dead nerdy (the record is accompanied by a set of "poemcards" cross-referenced to individual tracks), but also refreshingly avant garde and experimental in its layerings of language and sound. Some of the poems -- like Jenny Joseph's "Warning" -- are popular favorites, but for the most part Poemsounds constitutes what Louis MacNeice might have called an "Elegy For Minor Poets": Patrick Kavanagh, Pamela Zinnemann, Douglas Dunn, etc. The kind of names you might see in a yellowed anthology of "Contemporary Poems" (meaning from the 60s) on your parents' bookshelves. There are poems read by children, a Greek lyric in translation, and a lilting medieval-ish Japanese folk song.

Many of the poems ask students to think about the mysteries of nature -- there are several about winter yielding to spring, about "brooks bursting forth boiling," about tall grasses "inviting the moonbeam to float upon their waves." I like how the poems move in and out of overlapping musical settings, so that one image bleeds into the next. And many of these "poemsounds" are to do with voices as much as recorders and drums. Some of the readers, like George MacBeth reading his own work, distort or elongate their vowels in the way I remember my favorite school librarian doing.

Extremely English is one way of describing it. And speaking of England, Joyce and I just bought tickets to London and a few other places in Europe this summer! Toys and Techniques hits the road!


  1. Man alive, this is brilliant! Where on Earth did you find it? I would murder for a copy!

  2. Hi Bollops! I'll keep my eye out for you.

  3. I really need to have a lie down now, that was incredible.

    Will my local WHSmith be able to order me a copy ¿¿¿¿¿