Though it may not be the most obvious of mediums, in the National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, you can find a set of increasingly full shelves, packed with vinyl recordings of poetry from the 1950s to the present day. From straightforward readings to collaborations with musicians, and more experimental sound productions, the Vinyl Collection helps bring added life into works both familiar and new.
At the time of writing the National Poetry Library’s Vinyl Collection contains 248 records, but as will any collection in the NPL it grows all the time. And that growth isn’t just a result of fresh recordings from new performers, but through the hard work of the NPL’s librarians to unearth early recordings of well-known poets. Each record presents a distinct document of poets past and present, giving a greater insight to how they presented their own words, from the tone of their voices to where they place emphasis.
‘From the 1950s to the 1970s recording spoken word onto vinyl was a pretty common practice for well-established poets,’ explains Assistant Librarian Will René, ‘Labels such as Argo and Caedmon released LPs of well-known poets including T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and John Betjeman’.
These days vinyl is less of a go-to resource for poets, with the emergence of online audio and video platforms such as Soundcloud and YouTube meaning there’s no longer a need to have poetry pressed onto wax in order for fans to hear it in their own home. But despite the technological advances, poetry on vinyl isn’t the dying art some would have predicted. ‘Over the last few years, there has been a resurgence in poetry being released on vinyl,’ says René, ‘with labels like Nymphs & Thugs and the US-based Fonograf specialising in this type of release for new poets’.
So what can you expect to hear in the NPL’s Vinyl Collection? Is it mainly those mid-20th century recordings? ‘There are a few nice surprises waiting for anyone digging through our records,’ says René, ‘I won’t spoil the fun of the search, but among the Collection you can find a post-rock band fronted by Simon Armitage, Lana Del Rey’s spoken word LP, Ivor Cutler’s Peel Sessions, and a sublimely silly two hours of Tim Key’s poetry programme.’
To help get an idea of the breadth of the National Poetry Library’s Vinyl Collection we asked their librarians to pick out a favourite record from the shelves. Here, in no particular order, is their vinyl countdown.