Book Awards E-MAIL US


The Caedmon Poetry Collection
3 CDs

Amazon.com order now logo

Dylan Thomas: The Caedmon Collection
11 CDs

Editor's Note:
Click here to listen to Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night."
(An MP3 player is required.)

Amazon.com order now logo



Poets Speak Out
Caedmon Spoken-Word Recordings Go Digital

I finished college twenty years ago, but I'm pretty sure my roommate can still recite large chunks of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, no matter how much he'd like to forget it.

In a way, you can't blame me. The public library was a short walk away from our house, and it had an admirably complete collection of vintage Caedmon recordings. T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Gertrude Stein...obligatory watershed moments for all English majors. Unfortunately, while I was studying English lit., my roommate was an art major. And the Caedmon recordings--which I played nonstop, at every waking moment--nearly drove him crazy, although he was polite enough to keep this fact from me for nearly twenty years.

Although the house we shared was huge (it's amazing how much square footage you can get if you don't mind a few neighborhood shootings on the weekend), our bedrooms were side by side and even shared an interior door. So when I chose to fall asleep to The Wasteland, he, by default, did too--except for those rare moments when he'd make a special request.

"How about that 'good night' poem with the drunk Welsh guy?"

Personally, I wondered if he might be misinterpreting "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," but I'd slip the Dylan Thomas tape into the machine without complaint, and Thomas's voice would fill the house with an eerie, echoing intensity, as if we were two literary Jonahs floating inside the whale's cavernous belly. (Click here to listen to Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." An MP3 player is required.)

People say we set the parameters of the music we like for life when we're teenagers. Maybe it's true for poetry as well: no matter how my roommate felt, I still look back on those nights listening to the Caedmon recordings as seminal moments that decided distant choices.

I wasn't the city's only Caedmon addict. I knew a writer--he was so intense that we called him the Messianic Poet--who could recite both The Wasteland and the Four Quartets in a pitch-perfect imitation of Eliot's pinched, nasal delivery. And I know another writer whose appreciation for John Donne skyrocketed once he heard Richard Burton reading Donne on the Caedmon label.

He wasn't the only Donne-via-Burton convert. Even now, as I read Donne poems to my kids, it's hard to avoid Burton's mellifluous intonations. Trust me: once you hear the Caedmon recording of a poem, it's hard to read the poem to yourself without unconsciously falling into the recording's rhythms. Just ask my roommate to read The Wasteland aloud and see if he doesn't drop into that nasal voice like it was a comfortable old shoe.

Caedmon: The Early Years

By the time I stumbled onto them, Caedmon recordings were thirty years old, and they'd already turned an improbably large audience on to great writing.

It began in 1952, when Marianne Roney and Barbara Cohen, two young Hunter College graduates with degrees in Greek, approached Dylan Thomas in the bar of the Chelsea Hotel and asked if he'd be willing to record some of his poems for their new, as yet unnamed company. Perhaps improbably, he agreed (it was undoubtedly an astute move to meet him in a bar). By the time the studio date arrived, Roney and Cohen had named their new company 'Caedmon' after the first English poet to write in English rather than Latin.

It seemed like an auspicious start--only Thomas didn't show up. He had found the draw of the White Horse Tavern en route to the session to be too great to ignore.

A week later, Thomas finally made it to the rescheduled recording session, and after recording a handful of poems, Roney and Cohen agreed to fill out the LP record's B-side with "A Child's Christmas in Wales," a little-noticed Thomas story that had run in Harper's Bazaar. Ironically, Thomas's reading of "A Child's Christmas in Wales" helped cement Caedmon's future, just as it brought Thomas a far bigger audience than he ever could have attracted with his printed collections alone. "He wrote to the thunder of his voice," Roney wrote in 1999. "His poems are inconceivable without that voice."

With Roney and Cohen's seemingly unerring choices for recording material, they built Caedmon from their initial $1,500 investment to a $500,000 / year business by 1959. At first, the two women did all the work, from running the recording sessions to mailing out the orders. In time, their sales grew enough to hire a staff. The film director Mike Nichols was their first employee (he was hired to be the head shipping clerk), and Peter Bartok (Bela's son) was hired to be the recording engineer. William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings were among the writers who made seminal recordings for Caedmon over the next few years, and with the advent of stereo recording, the company branched out into distinguished ensemble cast recordings. For their recording of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, for example, they assembled the cast members from the original Broadway production (among them, an unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman).

Roney and Cohen sold Caedmon in 1970, and today it is a part of the HarperCollins publishing company.

Caedmon: Today

This year, Caedmon celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, and in addition to releasing new recordings of classic literature (like Philip K. Dick's The Minority Report and Other Stories, read by Keir Dullea), it continues to digitalize its backlist. Arthur Miller, Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Edgar Allan Poe are among the classic writers who have made it onto CDs, and the list is growing.

In the meantime, The Caedmon Poetry Collection is an excellent place for beginning collectors and poetry enthusiasts to start. It offers thirty-six poets reading their work, and the range is impressive. From William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas to Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings, it represents both sides of the modernist Atlantic well, and with Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott and Margaret Atwood, it has its contemporary elements as well. Perhaps best of all, it includes Eliot's reading of The Wasteland in its entirety. In all, the three audio CDs offer three hours of spoken verse.

It's a joy to sample so many poets' voices in such a convenient package. The sound is clean, with just enough scratchy quality to add a desirable patina. Some of the poets' delivery might strike contemporary listeners as odd, though: oratorical, at times; at others, almost incantatory, as if the poets believed their art evoked magic. How long has it been since poetry was considered so dangerously important? Often, the readings feel like sound waves from a distant time. Only James Agee--but of course, James Agee--delivers his poetry at a casual storyteller's gait.

Collectors looking for a more sustained presentation of a single poet should strongly consider The Dylan Thomas Collection (with an introduction by Billy Collins). Across eleven CDs, it offers every recording Thomas made for Caedmon, from the original recording sessions that launched Caedmon (A Child's Christmas in Wales and Five Poems) to his last recording--as a cast member of his 'play for voices,' Under Milk Wood. In addition to Thomas's recordings of his own work, the collection also includes recordings of him reading other authors' works (among them, Auden, Yeats, Shakespeare and D.H. Lawrence). Listen to these CDs and you'll understand what an incredibly astute decision it was to start a spoken-recording revolution with Thomas's lion voice.

Come to think of it...my college roommate's birthday is coming up. I wonder if he'd like a copy of the Thomas collection, just for old time's sake?

—Reviewed by Charlie Onion

Posted June 1, 2002


Caedmon celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with new recordings of classic literature as well as with digital collections from its extensive archives.

Caedmon founders Marianne Roney and Barbara Cohen.




Graphic Design by D.A. Frostick 
Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999-2005
riverrun enterprises, inc.