you like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poems so much, why didn't
you read them as they were written?
A: Well, that's your big question, isn't
it? And the answer is a paradox: I adapted the poems because I
want them to be heard the way the poet intended them. What reads
well on the page is not necessarily what reads well to the ear,
and increasingly we listen instead of read. I did not alter the
written texts; I reprint those exactly as they appear in Longfellow's
1885 Poetical Works. I have no intention of improving
the poems, I've simply adapted the written texts for reading aloud,
for listening. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow raised significant questions for us to consider; my role is to
phrase them so that they can be heard today. The themes of these
poems are universal and immortal; only the rhythm and the rhyme
are nineteenth-century American. But I chose not to modernize
the poems, or to minimize the intellectual demands they make,
or to soften their emotional impact.
Q: What's been
the reaction to the adaptations?
A: Most listeners are delighted, as you
can see in Reactions, but some are
horrified by the liberties I took. I may be guilty of outrageous
hubris, but I think that first group understands poetry to be
living communication, while the second group sees poetry as artifact,
to be preserved, like antique china that's too precious to use.
To those few who still know and love these poems in the original,
my changes may be jarring, and I understand that, but my adaptations
are done with deep respect for the poet and for the poems.
There was a time when nearly everyone could quote Longfellow.
Why is that no longer true? In "The Slave's Dream" he wrote: "...his
lifeless body lay, a worn-out fetter that the soul had broken
and thrown away." I want Longfellow's soul to be unfettered from
the lifeless body of nineteenth-century versification. I want
contemporary readers to experience the soul of these poemsthe
soul with which this man imbued them 150 years ago.
Q: Given the controversy,
would you still adapt the poems?
A: Yes, absolutely. My expertise lies not
in literature but in oral presentation, and I believe this is
how best to convey Longfellow today. To serve the poet, to encourage
reading him again, to bring his ideas and humanity to a new audiencethat's
the purpose of the adaptations. That's why I'm so committed to
themthey're my contribution. They're what brought me back
into the world.
the Recordings | Longfellow
and the Listener >