University of Pennsylvania archive offers poetry for download

May 8, 2007

By: Kathy Matheson
The Associated Press

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PHILADELPHIA - When you're done loading your iPod with Better than Ezra and Carlos Santana, why not try a little Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams?

Recordings of the poets' works are available to the public through downloads on PennSound, an online audio archive developed by professors at the University of Pennsylvania.

PennSound is like iTunes for poetry , but each poem is free, said Charles Bernstein, an English professor and the site's co-director.

"It's unprecedented within poetry," Bernstein said, calling it the "first and the biggest site of its kind."

Started more than two years ago, PennSound features about 200 writers and more than 10,000 recordings contributed by poets, fans and scholars worldwide and converted to digital format. Some, such as Gertrude Stein recordings from 1934, date back decades.

The site mainly focuses on historical avant-garde and innovative contemporary poetry. So while you can hear Allen Ginsberg or current U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall, you won't find Maya Angelou.

Last month, PennSound announced the acquisition of rare readings by Ezra Pound, including previous unknown recordings made between 1962 and 1972. They include several of his Cantos as well as other material.

"These are really hard recordings to find," said Kenneth Goldsmith, a PennSound senior editor and creative writing professor. "For lovers of poetry, this is an amazing thing."

Hearing any poet can make for a different experience than reading that person's work, said Tree Swenson, director of the Academy of American Poets in New York.

"It makes the poems easier to move into, in some cases," Swenson said. "Our ears are less logical than our eyes, somehow."

Pound in particular, she said, "is a perfect example of a poet whose tone and phrasing is so distinctive."

Many Web sites, including that of the Academy of American Poets, stream poetry readings. What makes PennSound different, besides the depth of content, is that the files are downloadable MP3 files that can be played on computers and digital audio players like iPods, said Bernstein.

PennSound says it has permission from every poet, or their estate, to offer the recordings. There is such a small market for poetry readings that royalties are not as big a concern as they are in the music business, Bernstein said.

"There's very little commercial value in poetry recordings," he said. "What there is, is exchange value."

Emily Warn, editor of Chicago-based, called PennSound a "fabulous resource" that can help expand the audience for poetry.

"People are afraid of poetry. They don't know where to begin," Warn said. "They value it in general, they think it sharpens the intellect ... but they know very little about it."

PennSound co-director Al Filreis notes the site has had 8 million downloads in the last 12 months.

"To have a poetry archive in the United States in the 21st century and have 8 million (downloads) in a year ... that says something good," Filreis said.