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'Best' Poems? Not Necessarily, but These Classics Are Fine Listening

April 22, 2001|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since April is National Poetry Month, it seemed an appropriate time to hear "The Best Poems of All Time," Parts 1 and 2, edited by Leslie Pockell. Pockell's print version of the collection, "The 100 Best Poems of All Time," was divided into two volumes for audio. Part 1 contains classics up to 1850; Part 2 features those from 1850 to the present. (Time Warner Audiobooks, unabridged selections; each is one cassette; 90 minutes; $9.98; read by various actors and professional narrators.)

The title sounds like hyperbole. Calling anything "the best" is always subjective. Each of us will certainly find titles in the collection that touch an emotional chord or stimulate intellectually, but that list will vary from listener to listener. However, each volume is well produced, and the content is varied, so there is much here to enjoy.

Part 1 begins with a selection from Homer's "Iliad" and ends with Emily Bronte's "Once Rebuked, Yet Always Returning." Other poets include Sappho, Ovid, Ben Johnson, William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Alfred Tennyson. Part 2 begins with a selection of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" and ends with Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise." Julia Ward Howe, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Robert Service, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda and Anne Sexton are just a few of the other poets included.

The publisher collected a range of voices and styles by asking narrators who were working on other projects to choose their favorite poems from the book and contribute to the collection. Audiophiles will recognize such names as Graeme Malcolm and Stefan Rudnicki, as well as singer Natalie Cole and actors D.B. Sweeney, Keith Szarabajka, Cynthia Nixon and Eric Stoltz.

With few exceptions, the readers were well-suited to the material. Rudnicki, who has a lush and deep voice, performs part of Chaucer's General Prologue to the "Canterbury Tales" in flawless Middle English. Leslie T. Lannom reads "Gunga Din" by Rudyard Kipling with a gritty Cockney accent. And most interestingly, Friedrich von Schiller's "Ode to Joy" and John Newton's "Amazing Grace" are both read and sung, giving us two interpretations of each piece.

Poetry fans will find two more collections of recently produced poetry on bookstore shelves. Caedmon Audio has released three titles in a series of unabridged poems read by the authors. These include Ezra Pound (one cassette, 90 minutes, $12), Carl Sandburg (four cassettes, three hours, $22) and cummings (three cassettes, three hours and 30 minutes, $22).

Random House Audio has released three more titles in their Voice of the Poet series. Each includes a companion booklet with the complete text of the poems and notes by editor J.D. McClatchy. These include Randall Jarrell (72 minutes), John Ashbery (67 minutes), and Louise Bogan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gertrude Stein and Muriel Rukeyser (57 minutes). Each is one cassette and costs $17.95.

*

The sad and timeless fable about matters of consequence by writer-poet-pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "The Little Prince," is always a delight, no matter how many times one has heard or read it. (Pocketaudio; unabridged fiction; one CD; 50 minutes; $16.95; read by Richard Gere, Haley Joel Osment and a full cast.)

This version is mostly narrated by Gere as the pilot whose plane has crashed in the Sahara and child actor Osment as the Little Prince. Gere sounds a bit too laid-back at first, but he picks up steam as the story progresses. Osment exemplifies the wise little prince, sounding energetic, guileless and sweet.

Though it doesn't have Saint-Exupery's charming and simple drawings, this production is paired with lovely music by Alexandre Stankevicius. Well-defined performances by cast members enhance the story with a regal and pompous king, a drunken businessman and an unctuous snake.

*

If you need a tale to stir your blood, check out the latest production of "King Richard III," by William Shakespeare, starring Kenneth Branagh in the title role. (Naxos Audio; unabridged dramatization; three cassettes; three hours and 20 minutes; $17.98; performed by a full cast. Also available on three CDs; three hours and 20 minutes; $19.98.)

A top-notch cast of British actors breathes fire and passion into one of Shakespeare's earliest plays. Branagh shines as the Machiavellian prince determined to have the throne of England for himself, destroying those who stand in his way. Branagh captures the character's brilliance and persuasiveness, as Richard is a clever man who believes he can overcome predetermination at any cost.

The rest of the cast, especially Michael Maloney, Stella Gonet and Celia Imrie, is equal to Branagh's performance. As with all Naxos productions, this is enlivened with classical music. Several pieces by Janacek and a Russian Chant for Vespers enhance the play without overpowering the dialogue.

A miscalculation, however, is the use of an echo to remind the listener that this is a staged play. Presumably, it is to recall the ambient noise of a live production, but it just comes across as annoying.

Naxos has recently redesigned its packaging. Much larger than before, it is sturdy and handsome and will last longer than the cardboard boxes containing pricier audio books.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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