In the popular imagination, at least, where there is little room for poets in the first place, the Beats are probably the best known of the writers who came of age in the '60s. But even the most famous Beat poet — he of "Howl," witness to the best minds of his generation and all the rest — was too square for one of the most out-there literary series of its time. Poetry Out Loud, an audio "magazine" consisting of privately pressed LPs recorded and released between 1969 and 1977, never strayed from its vision — no matter who came knocking.
"We all had long discussions about what was poetry," says Patricia "Bebe" McGarry. "We all came to the conclusion that it had to go off the page."
What they aimed to do was return the human voice, not the printed word, to pre-eminence as the driving force in poetry. Poetry Out Loud — headed up by McGarry, then-husband Peter Harleman, Klyd Watkins and Linda Watkins — sought to unravel the cloistered, bookish thing that poetry had become. They improvised and experimented. They sought inspiration from jazz, from Gregorian chant, from Native American ritual, from Bob Dylan and Earth Opera and The Lone Ranger.
Klyd Watkins, who attended Peabody briefly in the '60s and has called Nashville home since the '80s, says that as he and Harleman walked the streets of St. Louis one weekend, they discussed Marshall McLuhan's idea — new and provocative at the time — that the medium and the message are one and the same. Harleman "argued ... that the tape recorder is the better device for making poetry," Watkins recalls. "I resisted passionately, but he won the argument. It was very exciting."
With equipment that had previously been housed in The Doors' studio, the Harlemans built a recording space in a spare bedroom in their New Jersey home. They utilized tape echo and reverb effects, along with repeated overdubbing, to create trippy, kaleidoscopic recordings. The poems often begin with the simple repetition of a single word or phrase, building, echoing and building some more — sometimes with two or more voices talking over each other, each pulsing like shouts into a vast canyon — into an overlapping, overpowering drone of language. Sometimes the dense mesh of words is pierced by shrieks or near-ecstatic moans.
For McGarry, it was radical art, and nothing short of an insurrection.
"You have to remember we were revolutionaries, taking poetry out of the norm, changing the culture of the art form," she says.
Watkins is a bit more measured in his assessment. "We were in opposition to the privacy that enclosed poetry," he says. "We continued to read and enjoy our writing contemporaries and the classics and such, but we thought injecting the human voice into poetry could transform it back into a communal art."
"Some people did not approve," McGarry says, "but many were intrigued and loved us."
Among their admirers was Beat figurehead Allen Ginsberg, who asked to be included in a Poetry Out Loud volume, but was rejected because, as McGarry puts it, "he wasn't off the page." Foregoing the recognition — not to mention the subscriptions — that Ginsberg's name would have brought wasn't easy. "I was always troubled with this decision," McGarry says, "but in my heart knew it was correct."
In time, the Poetry Out Loud star would rise anyway. Robert Palmer would write about them in Rolling Stone, calling attention both to their work — "strangely compelling," "enveloping," "overtly sensual" — and to their call for submissions, atypical then and utterly quaint now: "reel-to-reel quarter-inch tape, at 7½ ips."
The times being what they are, De Stijl Records has reissued the entire 10-edition run of Poetry Out Loud in electronic format. But analog purists can go to the label's website, destijlrecs.com, where they're selling the few surviving unopened copies of LPs 4, 6, 7, 9 and 10.
The records are both ahead of and of their time — precursors of performance poetry, aka spoken word, with its focus on voice (though it is much more linear, as a rule). Hip-hop has a similar spirit of improvisation in its freestyles (though it evolved independently, and without the incantatory leanings). The revolution the Out Loud poets tried to ignite never truly came to power — blame Auden for passing the torch to Ashbery — but you can see them as a part, however obscure, of the poetry continuum.
"You can say we failed on the grand scale," Watkins says, "but there were living rooms and coffeehouses and high schools and colleges and night clubs where we did indeed expand the intimacy of poetry into a group event."