In Silence, Sounding Out the Words

Spoken Word

It’s Monday night of the last week in October, and I am at a poetry reading. It is taking place in the Barker Center’s Thompson Room. Henri Cole is reciting. Full disclosure: I don’t know much about poetry. I read poems, often, for their beauty, and for the truth found therein—for, after all, as John Keats wrote, “that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In terms of analysis, however, I admit incompetence. Connotation often eludes me. Sometimes even denotation, too.

When I eased open the paned glass door of the Thompson Room to attend my first reading last February, I felt at once like an intruder. Tweed and skinny jeans alternated on the plush quilted seats; tenured professors and hipster students interspersed, if not intermingling. The introduction was punctured by chuckles at jokes I didn’t understand. Every so often the couple in front of me exchanged knowing smirks at allusions whose meanings I also probably missed.

I don’t remember who the poet speaking was, and, more embarrassingly, I can’t recall any of the names of his poems, or any phrases from what he read. But I remember slipping out at the end with the feeling I always get when finishing a particularly good novel: satiated just as completely as after a filling meal, yet still plagued by a sort of drifting aching lack.

It’s the lack, I think, that has driven me back to the Thompson Room or Woodberry Room time and again, though I’m still as much the outsider I ever was.

On the Monday night in October, Henri Cole reads his poem “Poppies”: “The way in and the way out / are the same, essentially: emotions disrupting thought…”

Sometimes, when I read novels for class, I am delighted by the proliferation of new meanings and the exposure of new truths that comes from close analysis of a text. Other times it seems that I am merely hacking a work apart, leaving myself to survey the severed limbs of dismembered phrases, and I am dismayed by my own critical thought. I turn, then, back to the indulgence of novels read on my own time, but the mastery of reason over sentiment remains: one has been gained; the other, irrevocably lost.

I seek an alternative in poetry, perhaps because it is something I don’t easily understand. It is something in which mystery still lingers. Sometimes at poetry readings I lose track of the verses. A beguiling phrase sets me off on my own thoughts and lulls me along by the rhythm of the speaker’s speech, until my thoughts meander back to attention. I probably shouldn’t do this. It’s probably not what listening to poetry is all about.

Henri Cole, like many of the poets I’ve heard, impeccably enunciates each of his words. At the end of every verse his voice dips. It creates a tone of melancholy that I wonder if he sustains during regular speech. Cole talks a little about his international childhood: born in Japan to an American father and French mother, he was raised in the countryside of Virginia. In an interview, he recalls growing up in a household where three languages—French, Armenian, and English—were spoken, though he understood only one. He speaks about his resulting emphasis on and sensitivity to tone:

And hearing this braid of languages regularly spoken heightened my sense of words as a kind of loge in which desires were illuminated, memory was recovered and poems would be assembled.

Cole conceives of his poetry in part as an attempt to recast the link between language and emotion. Apparently, poets of the last few decades have shied away from the type of personal, sensation-driven work whose sources can perhaps be traced to Romanticism, in favor of ahistorical, a-sentimental verse. Nowhere is Cole’s challenge to this trend clearer to me than when he reads his works aloud.

From his poem “Dead Wren”:

Night—what beams does it clear away?

The rain falls. The sky is pained. All that breathes suffers.

Yet the waters of affliction are purifying.

The wounded soldier heals. There is new wine and oil.

Here, take my handkerchief as your hearse.

I do not understand all of what he says. I might understand it better if I were to sit, sharpened pencil in hand, parsing out the language and symbols and techniques. This would also be worthwhile.

For now, I sit in the back of the Thompson Room and listen to the lilting cadences. I fail to catch some words and meanings, but somehow feel less out of place. Navigating between language and emotion, between content and sentiment, I wander among the spoken words.

—Victoria A. Baena can be reached at vbaena@college.harvard.edu.

Tags