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Listening to Poetry
Listening—openly taking in the words of another being, while allowing the words to remain in the other being’s voice—is a simple and powerful secret, one that life reminds me of in ubiquitous ways. Parenting, for example. Listening to my children, I am amazed at the insights and solutions they have to offer, steadily ignored or discounted as this wisdom usually is by well-meaning teachers, not to mention by myself. As director of an MFA program, I am also constantly reminded of the power of listening. Every problem I’ve encountered can be seen as the result of barriers (external ones—technological and logistical, social ones–hierarchical and political, or internal ones—interpersonal and psychological) to listening. And every problem that has been solved has been solved, eventually, through listening.
In this context, an art that opens us to the words of another person while keeping the words in the other person’s voice is an art worth heeding. Do you ever hear poems aloud in your mind—maybe poems by others, or poems you are composing as you hear them? Judith Weissman’s book Of Two Minds: Poets Who Hear Voices traces this common phenomenon through centuries of poets.
Such internalized poetic voices seem akin to the internalized voices of the tribe leaders, goddesses, and gods that Julian Jaynes’ cult classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind describes as the first source of all civilization and religious tradition. Internalized voices, according to Jaynes, are not heard in the left side of the brain, where we hear speech and prose. They are heard in right side of the brain, where we hear music and metrical poetry—poetry which our brain processes the same way we process music. Whatever one thinks of Jaynes’ theories about the brain, i find this distinction between the two brains useful for talking about my own experience of reading poetic language in two different ways: one primarily by understanding it like prose, and one primarily by hearing it like music.
Poetry’s connection with the musical way of hearing language may be its basic identifying use and distinction as an art form, the reason it has survived through the millennia. And perhaps this essential connection is the reason that, after a century dominated so hugely by free verse, the caricature of poetry in the popular mind still remains, against all apparent reason and the weight of a century’s lived experience, inherently associated with meter (for a current example, note the role of meter and its aural companion, rhyme, in this news story: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-03-11/sully-is-a-poet/ Essentially, poetry is distinguished as an art not by its basis in thinking, reading, and understanding—all the processes we use to encounter other kinds of language—but in something both more humble and more refined than any of these: listening to the physical resonance of the words of the poem within the internal space of our own minds. The majority of poems in the English and American historical tradition, as in poetic traditions worldwide, are so much designed for listening and reading aloud—like little reading-aloud machines—that even when reading silently, it seems right to “read them aloud” inside one’s head, hearing the words physically as we go along.
But recently I had an experience suggesting that, in spite of the persistence of the old-fashioned caricature of poetry as an aural art in popular culture, the capacity to listen physically to poetry should no longer be taken for granted on the part of the educated reader. Am I wrong? I would be happy if someone would, as Rachel Maddow would put it, “talk me down.”
Several months ago, I was testing out a reader’s guide for a book of my poetry, which the publisher and I had planned to aim specifically at women’s groups (not book groups specifically, but spiritual/social support circles, the type documented in Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book The Millionth Circle. By agreement with the publisher, I arranged to visit a local women’s circle in my area to see what kinds of discussion questions would help them and people like them to get the most out of my book.
On the agreed-on snowy night, I arrived and found the group to be just the kind of sensitive, articulate “general audience,” attuned to nature and spiritual issues, who always seem to enjoy poetry readings from this book. But instead, this particular group seemed puzzled. They asked me to provide a “way in” to the poems. I was honestly baffled, because in all my reading tours, I had never encountered such a response. So I said the first thing that popped into my mind: “Did you read the poems aloud?” No,” they all said, as if it were an odd question. “Did you read them aloud to yourself, inside your head?” “No,” they all said again.
So I read one poem aloud, and then we read another poem aloud, taking stanzas around the circle. The floodgates opened. They wanted to read another aloud, and another. They were enthusiastic, talking about rhythms, the fertile power of mysteries in the language, and how they felt affected by the poems on a more physical level than the level of words. Analysis and interrogation gave way to wonder and paradox. The group had quite suddenly switched from one mode of reading to another, from the understanding mode we might call “left brain or free-verse brain” to the metrical, musical mode we might call “right brain or metrical brain.”
Metrical poetry, traditionally, offers up its riches to the receptive, listening mind. The meter itself guides, and the inner or outer ear has only to hear. Reading a metrical poem aloud is rather like performing a piece of music using the instrument of your voice (and just as in music, the degree of skill in composition will significantly affect the result). When John Donne opens a sonnet with “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for, thou are not so,” the weight and length of the stressed first syllable of each of these lines, in contrast to the unstressed syllable of the iambic openings of the rest of the lines in the poem, are very specifically determined. Because a metrical poem modulates individual phrases against the scaffolding of a rhythm and line-length that is mutually expected by both poet and reader, the poet can indicate, even on the page, the exact timber, tempo, and other physical characteristics the reading-aloud process should take at each point in the poem. The reader in receptive right-brain mode—in metrical brain—has only to follow, to channel, to open, in order to receive the poem, just as the members of the circle were finally doing. The effort of reading well is separate from the act of physically receiving the poem. Reading metrical poetry well consists in the quality of the attention, contemplation and reflection on what has been or is being received.
Free verse is different, and increasingly so as the progress of generations has removed it further from metrical tradition. To read free verse well with the musical /metrical part of the brain requires a significant degree of conscious effort, since it is up to the individual reader to determine how lines and syllables are read aloud and heard. For example, there are numerous patterns of stress, tempo, and pitch that would be appropriate for reading aloud Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow.” To choose and perform one of these is more like improvising a tune to accompany a piece of text than it is like performing a musical piece on a familiar instrument. Opening the mind to the meter of free verse is itself an act of contemplation and attention. To receive a free-verse poem into one’s right brain is a challenging skill, and most contemporary general readers have not cultivated the subtle techniques involved in reading a free verse poem with the metrical right brain: deciding on each phrase’s physical tempo, momentum, variations, and so on.
As the generational divide between metrical poetic tradition and free verse tradition has widened, the task of hearing free verse in the right brain has grown more daunting. The free verse of, say, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, or Lucille Clifton can be read quite easily with the right brain; ironically, one reason for this is that their generation knew meter too well to allow it to protrude too obtrusively into their free verse. Meter is an implicit “exoskeleton,” to use a term coined by David Cappala, within which their free verse poems play as they resonate within the musical space of the mind.
But now, two generations or so further removed from metrical tradition, meter is no longer an implied context when people read free verse. One piece of evidence for this is that meter is starting to come back into free verse, often in jarringly blatant passages of common meters, most often iambic pentameter. This obtrusion of meter can do violence to the experience of reading or hearing free verse, forcing the brain to careen between exoskeleton and endoskeleton mode, breaking the right-brain spell. Presumably poets let the meter in because it sounds fresh and interesting to them, and/or even more likely, because they no longer recognize it enough to avoid it. At any rate, It seems conclusive proof that readers are no longer expected to share an implied metrical framework with the free-verse poet as they were in the generation now starting to pass on.
Instead, general readers of free verse have now learned to read poetry with their left brains—the way they read prose—privileging ideas, images, and rhetorical shape over line, rhythm, and physical vibrancy. This is how the women’s circle had been reading my poetry before I arrived. Confronted with the printed poems, outside the typical context of a poetry reading, they had approached the book the same way they normally approach any piece of language: through thinking, reading, and understanding. They were reading not musically, but discursively. And this was a completely understandable way for earnest, educated general readers of the current day, trained as they have been by a century of free verse poetry and poetics, to approach an unknown book of poetry.
Had they encountered the book the way the shrinking number of general readers who read poetry now almost always encounter a book of poetry—at a reading—my performance itself would have provided them with an initial right-brain experience of receptivity and openness. In an age several generations into free verse, poets in performance are the ones who now claim creative control over readers’ physical receiving of poetry. Without the communicative scaffolding, the shared language, of a metrical template to convey the relative weight and tempo of spoken syllables, the only way to communicate the poet’s full intended experience of the poem’s physical body is to speak it aloud. Hence the indispensable power of the poetry reading in today’s poetry world: whatever general audience poetry still has is largely if not entirely dependent on the institution of the poetry reading, or technological equivalents (Def Poetry Jam, Bill Moyers videos, mp3s, CD’s) for their physical, right brain experience of poetry. This is one reason our publishers tell us that giving poetry readings is the most effective way to sell books.
How much of the soul of strongly rhythmical poems, whether in the metrical or free verse tradition, is lost when it no longer feels appropriate, safe, and worthwhile to approach an unfamiliar poem on the printed page by listening to it? Can this phenomenon also be the cause of the poetry-phobia that leads so many book groups to forgo reading books of poetry altogether? Do these general readers sense that they have lost their connection to the right brain mode of approach towards language which poetry is at base designed to engage?
Is it possible for poetry once again to inspire an audience of general readers to listen physically to a poem on a page? I hope so. It’s a pleasure I would hate to think was no longer available to readers. The women’s circle urged us to include in the reader’s guide explicit advice for readers to speak the poems aloud, even if only inside their own minds. They told us to stress that reading aloud was the key that would unlock the poems, transforming the encounter with the book from a mental experience to a holistic one. They even requested that some scansions be included, to guide readers in picking up on the rhythms of the poems. I was moved and encouraged that the group was so sure this would be helpful to others.
A friend asked me a few months ago, as I was discussing one of the poems I had been writing, “does it ever depress you, thinking that most people won’t know what you are doing with meter?” Maybe it should depress me, but honestly, it doesn’t. Meter just gives me too much joy for me to worry too much about it. After all, humans are still humans, with the same breaths and pulses that inspired meter in the first place. Meter is like music; you can enjoy it whether or not you understand why, and you can easily enjoy poems in meter by reading aloud to yourself, even if you are only used to reading free verse. As this group seemed to prove, it doesn’t take work, and it isn’t hard, to get back in touch with the enjoyment of listening to poetry. And hopefully, to listening to other kinds of communication too. In fact, hard as it feels sometimes, really on a basic level, it’s much easier than not listening.
Meanwhile, just in case, my publisher is busy producing an audio version of my book on CD.