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This review is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

Having Ears
Angela Leighton, Hearing Things: The Work of Sound in Literature (Belknap Press), £25.95
This is a book primarily about the theme of listening in Anglophone poetry. Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, and (very briefly) Toni Morrison, extend it beyond verse: the author argues for a lyric sensibility in fiction which surely all three of these writers share, a case particularly well made in Leighton’s treatment of Woolf, Tennyson and To The Lighthouse.

Questions Leighton asks include: How can birdsong in generations of verse mark key differences in sensibility as well as continuities of tradition? What might it mean to listen to a house? Why are horses heard through centuries of poetry? In what ways do poets who love and hate each other make inscribed acts of listening part of their strange exchange?

There are also intriguing questions raised about poetry as a listening and communicating device itself: well beyond poetry’s ability to impart recently gleaned information, Leighton asks if poetry’s peculiar ways of expressing things might themselves constitute a form of knowledge. She is tentative in asking this question, and tentative in answering it, almost as if the nature of the enquiry is actually at cross-purposes with the nature of poetry. As Leighton notes, Derek Attridge has suggested that poetry can be a way of performing knowledge – as music is – but cannot easily be a way of knowing itself, unless the terms of knowing have to be revised beyond the emphasis on imparting information which ‘knowledge’ tends to carry by convention. Perhaps an animal kind of knowledge is what this is about. If learning to love watching ...

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