Listen to T.S. Eliot Reflect on Poetry

On December 4, 1950, two years after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, T.S. Eliot stood behind a lectern in the Kaufmann Concert Hall at the 92nd Street Y and read some of his best work in front of hundreds of people.

Now the whole world can relive that moment: The 92nd Street Y has unearthed a never-before-heard recording ahead of a listening event on Monday night at 7:30 p.m. celebrating the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 80th anniversary.

Eliot had recorded several poems before his death in 1965. But on that winter night, before delving into titles including “Preludes” and “La Figlia che Piange,” he delivered a preamble on his craft, often rousing the crowd to laughter.

The clips below convey a more relaxed side to the modernist poet, one that’s thoughtful, humorous and self-effacing.

When explaining why he always reads in chronological order (because an author “tends to like what he’s written most recently and therefore reads it best”), he admits that he’s “embarrassed” by his enduring, first published poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

His ‘Adolescent’ Work

At one moment, he cautioned: “I want to impress upon you that I realize that nothing that I say in this way, and nothing that I’m saying at the moment, is of a slightest importance. At least, it is a matter of no importance whether anything I say is of importance or not.”

He goes on to say that he has reached the point where, in selecting poems for live readings, he chooses works that he likes rather than those others may want to hear. But he prefers to leave their meanings up for interpretation.

Hidden Meanings

He also discusses “the good deal of trouble” that went into some of his recorded work.

“One of the things he notes in the introduction about the experience of being in the recording studio is wanting to get it perfect,” said Bernard Schwartz, the director of the poetry center. But, he adds, “If you’re in a recording studio and you screw up, you can do another take — unless it’s post-World War II London and electricity is in short supply, which is something he also talks about.”

Noting that many of his recordings are available to the public, Eliot wonders why anyone would leave the comfort of their home to hear him speak in person.

Live Readings

Here, he offers advice for fellow poets and says that remarks between poems at live readings help both the reader and listener relax. For instance, during the event, he introduced each poem by placing it in a period of time or style in his career.


Mr. Schwartz and the poet Billy Collins, who is hosting Monday’s event, dusted off the recording while scouring the poetry center’s archive for clips of celebrated American poets at the venue. They boiled their search down to works by 24 poets that span 1949 to 2012.

“If you haven’t been to a poetry reading in the last 80 years, this is a great way to catch up,” Mr. Collins said.

Of the titles featured in the 1950 reading, Mr. Collins selected a section of “The Waste Land,” considered by many to be Eliot’s greatest poem. (The full recording is available on SoundCloud.)

“I think it signals, for one thing, the movement of poetry from nature to the city, from the country to the city,” Mr. Collins said. “The setting for the poem is not the field or the mountain or the woods. It’s the bridge, the street and the building.”

Mr. Collins will also unveil on Monday a 1953 reading of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight” by Dylan Thomas. Other poets to be included are E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost and Mary Oliver.

“This is a collection of voices that were captured and properly preserved, in some cases, over many, many decades,” Mr. Schwartz said. “When you hear them, the experience is as if you were there.”

More information is available at

80th Anniversary Listening Party

92nd Street Y

Monday, March 11

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