PennSound Transforms How Poetry is Taught the World Over

Penn News
June 26, 2014

Photo Credit: Mark Stehle
Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein

PennSound, a University of Pennsylvania-based online audio poetry website, is revolutionizing the way that educators teach poetry. Since its launch ten years ago, PennSound has amassed one of the largest collections of noncommercial poetry sound files on the Internet.

The site offers more than 45,000 digital recordings of poems as song-length singles plus PennSound Radio, a 24-hour stream of readings and conversations from the PennSound poetry archive, PoemTalk podcasts, articles, reviews and recorded poetry readings and events held at Penn’s Kelly Writers House.

For K-12 teachers and college professors, PennSound has become a useful tool in the classroom. Millions of the MP3 audio files are downloaded each year.

Al Filreis, professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences and director of Penn’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, co-directs PennSound with Charles Bernstein, professor of English and comparative literature at Penn. Filreis believes that the project’s pedagogical implications are far reaching. He devoted a PennSound podcast episode to the topic.

“We get many enthusiastic responses from teachers,” says Bernstein. “In the classroom because you have the digital sound, you can look at features of the acoustic sound wave; you can see its amplitude; its pitch allows people to study the sound as you would the alphabetic version of a poem. So you have different opportunities.”

Basic bibliographic information is encoded into each file. A user may download the MP3 and key facts about the recording, including author, title, place and date of the recording, as well as copyright information.

Bernstein says: “The scale of what we have is enormous. PennSound contains an unprecedented amount of poetry sound files. Up until PennSound there were some recordings available, but by and large, 99 percent of recordings were quite inaccessible. We made all that material available.”

PennSound features the complete recordings of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and John Ashbery, and has significant collections of Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Louis Zukofsky and Anne Waldman, and includes recordings from a number of important long-running poetry reading series.

As part of the process, PennSound will contact poets by email to get permission to digitize their poems and post them online. “It’s amazing how easy it has been getting permission,” says Filreis, who is also faculty director at Writers House. “Almost no one said no.”

PennSound Classics, contemporary readings of poetry that predate audio recordings, include works by English poets John Keats, William Wordsworth and Sir Phillip Sydney, American poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, the ancient Greek poet Sappho and many others.

Filreis says around the country there are probably hundreds of tapes of recorded poetry readings waiting to be discovered and digitized.

PennSound’s operating costs are covered primarily by private donors and the content is produced by Kelly Writers House students, volunteers and staff. Last fall, the project’s 10th anniversary was marked with an event that was recorded as a podcast.