By Way of the Ear

May 17, 2009 § 2 Comments


(This is not another post about the cat. I got lazy about finding just the right picture.)

I resisted reading Verlyn Kinkenborg’s New York Times piece on reading aloud* because I thought it referred to the successful complaint from publishers that the Kindle’s computer-generated voice infringed on their audio rights. This is an argument that makes no sense, since my laptop can read aloud to me (I discourage it). The Kindle may sound better, but the real threat, in the publishers’ tiny minds, is that Jeff Bezos will soon make the Kindle sound much better, nearly human, maybe better than human, at which point audio book sales will fall off a cliff.

This won’t be soon. Until the New York Times pointed it out to Bezos, The Kindle was pronouncing ‘Barack Obama’ as ‘Black Alabama’.

Still, I’m the last person to pooh-pooh possible advances in this field. I’m hoping for the perfect robot pal to gently usher me through old age, not only doing the chores and chatting with me, not only reading me to sleep in my mother’s voice—the voice she had when she was 35, I mean, which exists nowhere but memory—but doing so without rancor, without muttering under its breath when I repeat myself (knowing I’m repeating myself, as the elderly generally do: they don’t care).

When that great leap forward has been made, new computers will come equipped with the technology and the publishers’ point will be moot. It was a silly waste of money to fight Bezos on this, although I think he caved pretty quickly. He needs publishers to feed the Kindle.

Back to Klinkenborg. He’s waxing nostalgic for the days when adults read aloud, not only to children but each other. When it was a drawing room activity, as in Jane Austen’s day. He’s right that it’s an educative, emotional, sometimes erotic experience to read something in front of even a small audience (this doesn’t include reading aloud instructions on how to put together a piece of furniture while your husband sweats and swears).

“Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body…”

He’s restating Charles Olson’s famous dictum: poetry comes from,  “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE/the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.”

When I was young, I knew a few people who liked to have poetry read aloud after dinner. Mainly it was one family—my friend Caitlin’s family—but I came across it on a couple of other occasions and instigated it myself a few times. In the right company, it’s the best way to end a good dinner.

Those dinners at Caitlin’s grandparents’ farm: steak with béarnaise sauce and several bottles of red wine, pretty women in long dresses, Julian with his cultured Argentinean accent nobody could understand though it was easier to pretend when you were drunk and so was he, summer in the country by a river.

I always blushed when it was my turn to read. I’d try to get someone to dim the lights, never admitting why. Mood and atmosphere mattered to them, so it was usually possible. “Is there enough light for you? Can you see?” I could see well enough. I just didn’t want them to see my red cheeks, which were an indicator of how scary and profoundly exciting attention was—a fact I found so embarrassing as to be nearly shameful.

I concentrated on reading well. The words were always strengthening. I remember reading Lorca. Yeats. I don’t know who else. And yes, it went through my whole body, brain to ear to heart to breath. Mouth, lips.  My head tipped over the book. My own voice and the poet’s in my blood. Breasts, hips, the pool of my long, flowered dress around my ankles. That particular audience—Caitlin, Tamsen, Julie, Julian, maybe Charles, maybe Annabel—would dim and the larger one emerge: the one I was waiting for, and the one I felt in surrounding night.

But audio books weren’t invented for nights like that. Reading aloud isn’t feasible if you’re commuting to work alone. I suppose the very rich could hire a reader to join him/her in the Mercedes, but the very rich don’t exist anymore, or so they’d like you to believe.

I don’t imagine it would be too popular on airplanes. Though if they start letting people use cellphones in the air, I’ll fight back by reading The Wasteland aloud. At the first complaint, I’ll call my answering machine. “It’s my husband,” I’ll say. “He’s having a panic attack. Hearing Eliot always soothes him.”

Some things need to be read aloud, even if you’re alone. This is especially true of poems (though Dickens and Hemingway also benefit). Reading poetry silently is not quite like reading notes of music on the page—I don’t think; I can’t read music—but it’s close. This is true of poems with lush gorgeous rhythms, like Keats’ odes or Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Dover Beach…or any of a thousand other poems…but also with Robert Creeley’s spare, odd poems.

The Rain

All night the sound had

come back again,

and again falls

this quite, persistent rain.

What am I to myself

that must be remembered,

insisted upon

so often? Is it

that never the ease,

even the hardness,

of rain falling

will have for me

something other than this,

something not so insistent–

am I to be locked in this

final uneasiness.

Love, if you love me,

lie next to me.

Be for me, like rain,

the getting out

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-

lust of intentional indifference.

Be wet

with a decent happiness.


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