The following is an article from The Philadelphia City Paper. The article can be found here.

January 13-19, 2005

Free Verse

board: English professors Al Filreis (above) and  Charles Bernstein created the digital poetry
archive PennSound,  which Bernstein calls a
Sounding board: English professors Al Filreis (above) and Charles Bernstein created the digital poetry archive PennSound, which Bernstein calls a "library without walls." Photo By: Michael T. Regan
PennSound makes digital poems as available -- and as free -- as a top 10 single.

by Andrew Parks

Quick. You have one minute to name as many poets as possible, contemporary or classic.

Ready? Go! William Shakespeare? That's one. Allen Ginsberg and Langston Hughes? That's three. William S. Burroughs? He wrote a poetic form of fiction, but we'll take it.

Stop! Four it is. Not too bad. The only problem is … they're all dead. And poetry as an art form is not, despite what some might say.

"There is more excitement about poetry among students, teachers and non-university-affiliated Philadelphians than I've seen in the past two decades," says English professor Al Filreis, the director of Penn's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. "The 20- to 35-year-olds are out in force, pushing poetic practices in new directions."

As true as this may be, docudrama memoirs and The Da Vinci Code still routinely defeat poetry at Barnes & Noble and Borders. While that may never change, poetry could certainly gain a following outside of college syllabi and stanza junkies. On Jan. 1, Filreis and fellow English professor Charles Bernstein tapped this potential with PennSound, an online clearinghouse of recent and rare poetry readings ( While some nursed New Year's hangovers, the site received 5,687 hits, a number that has steadily grown ever since. Once the spring semester kicks in, Filreis says he expects about 10,000 a day.

The service's running start is no surprise, really. With more than 1,500 MP3 and Real Audio files available, the free archive offers the largest collection of poetry downloads on the Internet. Sifting through it all is an overwhelming but rewarding task; fortunately, the site is split into such sections as anthologies (suggested listen No. 1: Virginia Woolf, John Cage and Emily Dickinson as reinterpreted in an evening of "Modernism"), series (suggested listen No. 2: a WKCR-FM recording of punk poet Richard Hell), and Penn's Studio 111 show (suggested listen No. 3: a conversation between Penn students and Stephen King collaborator Peter Straub).

"For the first time, students of poetry and poetry lovers in general can go directly to an important poem they want to hear and study it," says Marjorie Perloff, longtime literary critic and author of 21st Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics (Blackwell Publishers). "This will certainly transform the way we process poetry."

"I really love how everything is made available in the best form we have it, and without cost to the user," adds PennSound collaborator Bernstein. "It is truly the library without walls."

Michael Basinski, curator of SUNY Buffalo's poetry collection, has already uploaded some of his own tapes and enjoyed the work of others on the site, which he calls "groundbreaking."

"I listened to Charles Olson and was surprised at his New England accent," says Basinski. "His cadences are now carved deeper in my mind."

If there's one thing PennSound offers that the written page cannot, it's the performance aspect of poetry: the way authors roll their Rs, pause from time to time, or emphasize specific syllables to added effect. Therein lies the true potential for growing beyond its built-in audience.

"Poets make no sizable money from the publication of their work," admits Basinski. "If someone hears a sample of their presentations, they might hire [him or her for a presentation]. Poetry and poets are, therefore, served. And the larger the poetry audience, the more each and every poet is served."

There is one inherent danger, though. Live recordings could devalue the power of the written word. After all, many of us can't carry a sentence off the page and into public conversations, so what happens when everyone expects a performance along with the poetry? The issue could spark a debate in the literary realm not unlike that of the music industry's struggle with MP3s. While some argue that music downloads depreciate an album's artwork and liner notes, the same could be said about eliminating the participatory action of reading a poem line for line.

Dennis Barone, an English professor at St. Joseph College of Connecticut, will be sharing the site in his advanced poetry-writing course this spring semester. Although he's excited to integrate it into classes, he does have some reservations.

"I may be old-fashioned, but I want to write so that my work can be appreciated without my voice," says Barone. "Books are books, however. And electronic media such as PennSound offers a new opportunity to speak to and to share one's work with new audiences and to revivify the audience that already exists."

"Hearing a poem recited or sung is historically basic to the human experience," explains Filreis. "We are not in the least setting ourselves against the poetry of the page. But spoken poetry is at least a complement to verse that is written and read."

There's one other issue at play here: Is PennSound the Napster of the literary world, since Apple and sites like Amazon sell audiobooks?

"If it has some value, Apple figures people will pay that amount," says Filreis. "Yes, poetry has little to no market value, but it has great value in other senses for people who love and want it. Thus, it is actually market logic to make it free. Make it free!"