On Hearing Poetry

As I prepare for a busy month of conferences in Limerick, Paris and London, I’m thinking more and more about the role of sound in poetry, specifically the way sounding a poem links with music or song. I’m focusing more and more on what poets (especially Baudelaire) have to say about hearing or listening, with such lines as “écouter la plainte éternelle” from ‘Le Jet d’eau’ suggesting that certain sounds (poetic ones?) don’t die away and that their effect on us is, somehow, permanent, or “Entends, ma chère, entends la douce nuit qui marche” from ‘Recueillement’, suggesting that it is easier (maybe?) to hear things that elude us during the noisy daytime if we bend our ears to what poetry emerges at nighttime.

The theme of the conference I’m presenting at in Limerick (the Tenth Annual Conference of the Society of Dix-Neuviémistes) is “The Senses”. So my attention to the role of sound and hearing in poetry is apposite. But I’ve also been whetting my appetite for the conference by reading other blogs by fellow dix-neuviémiste scholars. Cheryl Krueger (University of Virginia) blogs about scents, perfumes, smells (I love her post about the smell of the Paris metro), and Hannah Thompson (Royal Holloway University of London) blogs about blindness and its relationship to sight (her posts about erotic braille, and about audio description, are fascinating).

Because I focus so closely on the relationship between poetry and music (and therefore, for me, sound, voice, performance), I often leave the other senses out of the equation. Interestingly, that’s what Cheryl has also noticed: in her detailed attention to smell, sight and touch still feature, but sound is sidelined altogether (because of the intensity of the sensory experiences). For Hannah, detailed attention to senses  other than sight (hearing in audio description, touch in braille) seems to redouble the effect experienced. And I’m beginning to wonder if this is, in some way, what happens when we spend time focusing in so much detail on the soundscape of a poem: do we feel it in double? By the time I get to the conference I’m co-organising in London on Debussy (“Debussy Text and Idea”) at Gresham College , I will be working closely with the performers actually singing the song(s) I’m talking about (notably the soprano Sophie Bevan and her accompanist Seb Wybrew ). The more I explore the role of performance of poetry, the more intrigued I am by different performers’ experiences of that poem. For example, as a pianist, Seb never gets to sing the words (or melody) that Sophie sings, so he never ‘feels’ them on his lips, or in his mouth, in the way that Sophie does. But does that mean he inhabits the poem’s soundworld less intensively? My instinct suggests no, but there isn’t a clear rationale for that yet, unless what is actually going on is that there are always multiple different songs (constantly) emerging from the poem (in a “plainte éternelle”?) which form a perennial “song-alongside” (as I’ll clumsily call it for now) – in essence the heard experience of poem-as-song, or of poem-alongside-song. And what else could that “song-alongside” be other than, to use Genette’s terms “le fait de chanter à côté”, or, a parody (para + ôdè)?

One response to “On Hearing Poetry

  1. I very much enjoyed this post, and the way it built to an unexpected crescendo on parody.

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