Listening, again

I know of no better book to calm the shattered nerves of the contemporary poet than How To Be A Poet (Nine Arches Press, 2017), edited and largely written by my friends Jo Bell and Jane Commane. It covers a great deal of ground, from how to read (widely and with hope) to the fine arts of submission (to poetry magazines, although also to the muse), and gives wisdom and hope in equal measure. Some short pieces by other writers are included. One of these is a piece by me about listening to poetry. I have permission to re-print it here.

Listening, from How To Be A Poet

In his essay The Poet’s Point of View (1966), the poet Basil Bunting said:

“Reading in silence is the source of half the misconceptions that have caused the public to distrust poetry.”

It is a strange way to experience our art, in silence, that is true. If we were composers (and we are) then we would scarcely feel satisfied until we had heard our work aloud, either tinkling the ivories ourselves or sitting back and letting our local orchestra or busker belt it out. Music can be experienced in manuscript form, but it was made to be enjoyed aloud. The same is true of poetry. And that which is made of sound must be heard, which is where listening comes in. 

Listening is a skill and to hone this skill we are going to have to read less and listen more. Although text of some form has been going for quite a while and may even catch on, the sound of a human voice uttering words came first. And for most of us, words spoken or sung came early in life, which is why we still like to see the face of the speaker, to echo how we watched intently, as infants, the face of our mother or father. To appreciate the best poetry we need to go back to something of that formative relationship, to be watching even as the invisible words pour forth. Just as we did then, we will listen (and look) for shapes and patterns.

Poetry pleases the ear. Its sound structure both ‘locks in place’ and releases the sense of the poem. Prose may make its own functional music and song takes meaning in its arms and dances with it, but poetry knows that it is the setting and shifting of shapes and patterns that will allow the light to shine through the silence. The silence. Every sliver of sound we utter is placed into the silence. Think of the silence as thinking time. However gorgeous the deftly taken line-endings or cascade of consonants, in the silence lies the understanding.

If we are to understand poetry by listening, it needs to be spoken by someone. Sometimes the poet is good at this, although they are often hampered by knowing the work too well. We can do no better than have a novice reader who has had a couple of run-throughs and reads the poem as it is written, blending the sense and the structure and taking Hamlet’s advice to the Players. And, if all else fails, we can always speak poems to ourselves, privately or to friends and family. Of course our attention will be split between speaking and listening, but there are lessons to be learned from feeling the sounds leave the mouth. Ideally this should be done from memory, but life is short and (some) poems are long, so reading is an option.

The important thing is that we hear poetry. If we hear it we begin to understand how it places itself in the silence, how it is poetry and not public announcement or private speech.  And if that is known, if we develop an ear as listeners, then those who choose to go on to make poems may also develop an ear as poets. It will take some study. It will take some practice. But having developed an ear for poetry the rest is easy, secure in the knowledge that we are making work that will sound right, whether we are speaking it or a passing stranger. Poets, put down your megaphones and put away your dictionaries. Now listen.

Why this article was written & a declaration of connection:

Well, I’m to run a workshop at the Kendal Poetry Festival in February 2021 called Hearing Poetry. Due to Covid-19 it has been postponed twice and I confess I had forgotten exactly what I had promised to do. Whilst revising the plan and content, I remembered this article. I hoe that re-printing it might generate a few more sales for the workshop. Jo Bell and Jane Commane, as I mentioned, are both friends, and I like to do what I can to promote their work alongside that of many others. While they have some profile, including in Jane’s case by being Director/Editor of Nine Arches Press, they are known mostly for helping others, so its nice to be reminded that they are both excellent writers and thinkers about poetry.

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