- Poetry and the Listening Ear
In his seventh-century encyclopedic text The Etymologies, Isidore of Seville wrote that through letters 'the utterances of those who are absent speak to us without voice'. When Old English poets took up this idea in the vernacular riddles of the Exeter Book manuscript, copied in the tenth century, the relationship Isidore had suggested between writing and voice was transformed into a flight of fancy. Writing and writing implements reappear as solutions throughout the Old English riddles, veiled as birds seen in flight or wandering across the page, whose droppings or tracks might be pursued in the hunt for enlightenment. Emerging from a culture in which texts were circulated both orally and in manuscripts, these birds and the literary technologies they metaphorically represented were not silent markers: their dark, inky tracks were also records of voice designed to appeal to the auditory imagination.
In Hearing Things: The Work of Sound in Literature Angela Leighton examines a more modern literary tradition, reaching from the nineteenth century to the present and engaging with the work of figures such as Alfred Tennyson, W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Walter De La Mare, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Jorie Graham, and Alice Oswald. Leighton is nevertheless invested in reviving an awareness of the text as both visible and audible trace, a thing simultaneously bound to the page and tied to voice. This understanding was instinctive to the composers and scribes of the Old English riddles, but as Leighton notes, the visual is dominant in modern culture and our main critical metaphors continue to be derived from sight. In Hearing Things, Leighton offers a new philosophy of poetry that puts the ear before the eye:
Akin to a kind of aural vertigo – trances, faints, and weird seizures – such moments are a reminder that the ear might have its own designs on a story, and its own version of what or how it means. Paying [End Page 397] attention to those distracting acoustics in the text may confound what the reader wants to know precisely in order to insinuate a different order of knowing.(p. 64)
In this engaging and sometimes experimental study, Leighton combines close readings directed by her own poet's ear with critical meditations informed by philosophy and sound studies, offering us a manifesto of sorts on 'attentive listening' as literary criticism.
Leighton's introductory chapter offers a comprehensive survey of critical work on philosophies and phenomenologies of sound, including Murray Schafer's Soundscape and Don Ihde's Listening and Voice, before moving into firmer territory with literary studies by figures such as Eric Griffiths, Jonathan Culler, and Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin. She also sets the parameters of her own study here, justifying the decision not to extend her listening ear towards spoken-word poetry through an interest in the sound that 'stays silent on the page while shaping the labor of the ear through which it might, nevertheless, be heard' (p. 18). Borrowing Paul Klee's phrase 'to take a line for a walk' later in the monograph (via W. S. Graham's rich visual and verbal interests in his poetry), Leighton argues that
to take 'a line for a walk', then, is to parade it not only on paper, visibly, and not only along straight lines of signification, but also in the open vestibules of the listening ear. Poetry's lines, it seems, are also fault lines, between sound and sense, ear and eye, listening and speaking.(p. 196)
Leighton reminds us that despite the fact that poets often think in terms of sound, crafting an aural object that will be tested aloud before it is committed to the page, our critical encounters with poetry still fall short of accounting for this essential quality.
In 2009 Marjorie Perloff wrote that 'however central sound is to any and all poetry, no other poetic feature is currently as neglected'.1 Leighton reframes this lament slightly, claiming that it remains both true and untrue. Although almost all 'writers throughout...