The Early Years
We sometimes imagine, looking back, that change happens overnight. The BBC’s first Director-General John Reith, predicted that ‘broadcasting is a development with which the future must reckon and reckon seriously’. But when it began in 1922 few listeners can have foreseen how broadcast media would come to dominate our lives over the next hundred years.
New Voices Emerge
Similarly, in poetry, new voices emerge mingling with the forms and styles of earlier generations. The modernism of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) would have a revolutionary influence on twentieth-century poetry – but it could still be dismissed by contemporary readers as ‘so much waste paper’.
‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’, wrote Eliot in The Waste Land, and anyone reconstructing the first decade of poetry on the BBC must do the same. No original recordings of poetry from the Twenties survive, so the selection here has been made to reflect the different tastes and movements in poetry that characterised the first decade of the BBC’s life.
A classic of the ‘Georgian’ style of poetry fashionable in the previous decade, John Drinkwater’s ‘Moonlit Apples’, first read by the poet on the BBC in 1928, is a lyrical fantasia about English country life, which has remained popular with radio listeners. Looking back to the literature of the previous century, Walter de la Mare reads a rhyming tribute to the pastoral world of Thomas Hardy, inspired by meeting the octogenerian writer in June 1921.
Across the Atlantic
In the same month, across the Atlantic, Langston Hughes published ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ – a powerful expression of African-American pride that he would read on BBC radio in 1962 as the civil rights movement gathered momentum in the States. Another recording from 1962 gives us the voice of e.e. cummings, reading ‘next to god of course America i’ (1925), from a satirical sequence on the involvement of the USA in the First World War, inspired by his own experiences.
Echoing the Times
The soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon read on the BBC in 1929, but here he is represented by a recording from the 1950s, reading ‘Everyone Sang’ (1919), his poem about the mass outbreak of joy at the Armistice in 1918. And then there are Eliot’s fellow modernists, Yeats and Pound, with poems published during the war years that – like The Waste Land – more obliquely echo the death and disturbance of the times. Yeats steps aside from ‘the beating down of the wise’ to imagine the ‘wise and simple’ Irish fisherman for whom he aspires to write a poem ‘cold / And passionate as the dawn’, while Pound embarks on his epic poem, The Cantos, with a voyage to the underworld from Greek epic rewritten in an alliterative style inspired by Old English verse.
BBC 100 articles written by Sandy Balfour, David Nowell Smith and Jeremy Noel-Tod.