I have begun to regard poetry as a refuge from the noise of contemporary living. The poetry section on my own bookshelf is an exclusive, elevated space, away from the gaggle of novels and non-fiction titles. I approach it with nothing short of reverence, although such readerly sanctimony would have embarrassed most of my beloved poets (imagine Baudelaire’s reaction to being revered by a reader). Even before I begin to read the words on the page, my sense of time and place is altered. My contact with a book of poems, and the sight of the sparsely printed text, is enough to disorientate me (in a good way). Then, the poet’s voice takes over as I begin to read the words out loud, and the air is filled with sweet music.
One of the reasons most people don’t read much poetry these days — and by extension, don’t write much either — has partly to do with the way we read today. Reading is becoming more of a solitary act than it ever was. This is not surprising; the process of reading is predicated on solitude. But the solitude of the modern reader has begun to verge towards loneliness. Today we are more alone than ever, so to speak, when reading a book because we are quickly losing our hold on the art of reading aloud.
Children are taught to read out letters and sentences when they are just beginning their acquaintance with language. The delight that kids feel in picking up new words and uttering them is palpable to those around them. Then they grow up, and having become refined, well-trained readers (well, some of them do), they learn to keep the words they read to themselves. In other words, they learn to sub-vocalise text and become, as most of us, silent readers.
Gore Vidal once made a memorable witticism in reference to the “McCarthy witch-hunts” of the 1950s in the United States, when a senator named Joseph McCarthy started rounding up Communist sympathisers and intellectuals in his state. Vidal said that anyone who could read the New York Times on the metro “without moving his lips” was seen by the McCarthyists as a leftwing revolutionary. This is typical Gore and contains multiple layers of humour. First, it satirises the draconian politics and paranoia that defined one phase of American history. And second, it brings to mind the hilarious image of a semi-literate man reading a newspaper while moving his lips.
Dropcap OnI see people reading papers on the Delhi metro all the time, and most of them are moving their lips as they read. But never have I seen someone with, say, a Thomas Mann novel — presumably a preserve of the serious reader — doing the same. The serious reader sits eclipsed behind the thick paperback, the expression on his face inert as though he was at a game of poker, giving away absolutely nothing, and his lips firmly pressed together in rapt concentration.
What happens when this august fellow, with his copy of Thomas Mann, chances upon a volume of poetry? What a shame it would be if he brings to bear all his years of training as a silent reader on the consumption of poetry? If ever on the metro I see someone reading poetry quietly, without vocalising the words, I am going to go up to this person, snatch the book from his hands and tell him to really shape up. Okay, if that’s too McCarthy-esque, I won’t do that. But I’d still go ahead and quote Ezra Pound to this reader: “LISTEN to the sound it makes.”
This comes from an essay in ABC of Reading, and that’s exactly how Pound wrote the word “listen” there, in capital letters. He was a great champion of the old English poets, like Samuel Butler and John Donne, whom no one remembers today, let alone reads. And one of the reasons for Pound’s love for them was the musicality of their language. He always laid great emphasis on listening to the sound of words rather than only seeing the images they imply.
The visual aspect is doubtless becoming more dominant in contemporary literature. I remember a Chinese poet once talking about how he chooses to compose plain, uncomplicated images in his original tongue, so that the work is smoothly transmitted across cultures through easy-to-make and easy-to-digest translations. So it’s either the common reader adapting to the image-heavy strain in recent writing, by reading quietly to himself. Or it is the other way around — the literary culture responding to the way we read now.
Meanwhile, the space for poetry, both in terms of publishing outlets and newspaper reviews, continues to shrink. Even when a new poetic voice makes itself heard once in a while — someone like Vijay Seshadri getting the Pulitzer, for instance — there is hardly anyone noticing. Those who do notice will anyway defeat the purpose of Seshadri’s poems by reading them, if at all and at best, under their breath, for that’s how most of our reading is done.
No one ever read Homer silently, except perhaps in a university library (a place more antithetical to the idea of poetry can’t be conceived). The point of Homer’s epics was that they had to be read aloud, often from a street corner to a small though attentive crowd of admirers. That’s exactly what used to happen in Ancient Greece. And in the Middle-Ages, there were the troubadours — poets who would sing aloud their lyric compositions in towns and cities as they merged together the best qualities of poetry and music.
So here’s a note to all serious readers: go back to reading text out loud, like children in a classroom, and liberate the written word from its black-and-white confinement within the page. Only then will reading become a more fulfilling (and less lonely) experience, and only then will we come to appreciate the essence of poetry, which is hidden somewhere within the sounds it makes. To listen to that sound, we must once again learn to use our voice.