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This report is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

On Not Listening Quietly Vahni Capildeo
‘Terrific, terrific, terrific,’ the tall lady with perfectly maintained blonde hair and a far from new, exquisitely tailored navy blazer roared. She was sitting in front of me at one of those curious events that gather poets and non-poets, sometimes the royal, or the very rich. Beginning as quiet as a wax museum figure, upright and polite, she had proceeded to liven up to real interest in the poetry being performed. You could see the rigid lines of her silhouette soften. Her breathing changed with her listening. She subsided a little in her seat. She paused. She seemed unsure how to show appreciation. Then she fell back on her accustomed vocabulary. ‘Terrific.’

Up to that point, less enthralled by the poetry, I had entertained myself by admiring the stitching on her clothes. Too much a craftsperson, I had dropped attention from the thin texts being offered up to the mixed public and turned to the art visible in delicate expensive textiles, the concept and structure brought into being by unknown persons’ handiwork. She, however, was feeling a thrill, like someone at a sports match. ‘Marvellous, marvellous, marvellous!’ She cried out as if we were at Wimbledon. She cried out as if the words released by the poet deserved a return of some kind, from the heart. And why not?

People talk about missing the live element from performance, during the pandemic, when events were relocated online or did not happen at all. Paradoxically, the live element was what I used to miss from in-person performances. Why was it that audiences seemed to coffin and confine themselves to the narrowest possible range of response, at least off the slam circuit? I refuse the easy answers, ‘respect’ and ‘culture’, as too sad, too deathly; as if respect had to take the form of mute submission, and as if culture were synonymous with blanking out the body. Have you been among people who shout ‘Preach!’ ‘Word!’ or ‘You lie!’? How often have you wanted to whoop, or stamp? Would you do this in contexts where poetry is not a million miles from revolution or parlour? What about in contexts where you want to bring the revolution or take the breeze in a parlour? What are the many little ways that a ‘reading’ can progress more like an encounter, less like a delivery? During Zoom sessions I enjoy seeing participants feel free to switch off their cameras. It encourages me to see absurd emojis redden and yellow the screen. Cartoon hearts float, signalling an audience full of bounce. Out of sight, they have freedom of movement.

Upright and polite, in-person audiences sit quiet as if being inoculated with poetry, not galvanized; as if being spoon-fed poetry, not plunging wilfully into a cold stream, gasping and drinking. What is the internal cost, or effect, of this? Is it a positive self-stilling, while the meditative interior comes alive? Is it self-censorship, a refusal to be moved, all present and correct? There was that violinist in Florence who threw his lion-head back and brought it forward to growl at his violin. He stamped back and forth, right to the edge of the stage. These sounds would have been edited out in a recording studio. They were not part of his ‘act’. The music, his idea of it, was picking him up and flinging him about. His connexion with his instrument was a full-body process. He breathed with his arm movements, as much an athlete as any unnamed pearl diver or sponsored Olympic swimmer. The sounds he made as a musician would not have been possible without the sounds he emitted as an embodied being, making music. Why don’t poetry lovers make sounds and movements back?

Perhaps, in getting away from the nonsense praise of verse as ‘full-blooded’, ‘muscular’ and ‘masculine’, or the nonsense idea that people’s physical lung capacity determines the reach of their poetic line, we are so much in flight from toxic celebrations of power that we forget that messy, rowdy, leaping joy does not have to indicate a lapse in care. On the other hand, perhaps practising contained forms of listening is paradoxically a way of opening oneself to extreme states of in-betweenness and fragility, words beyond body and silence beyond words; allowing oneself to be carried-towards or carried-with, rather than carried away. Perhaps quiet listening is highly political, not in the sense I earlier suspected, not a symptom of being schooled in deference, but in the sense of strengthening attention to what is slow and gradual as well as immediate, vulnerable as well as impulsive or superb. Shyness is not the same as reticence, which is not the same as suppression.

In the last stages of the winter lockdown spanning 2020 to 2021, the quiet fishing village where I live ceased to be quiet in the nights, only for short intervals, but repeatedly. As winter peaked, in February, and as midnight after midnight approached, people ran howling down the streets. It is a distinct way of producing the voice; full-bodied, from the ground up, full-breathed abdomen, lungs pumping with red sound. I had heard something like it coming over the mountains ahead of storms. I had heard something like it on pre-pandemic nights, when the clock slid over and groups moved from the pubs that had closed to the clubs that stayed open. I had not previously heard howling for its own sake. Men were turning into wolves or letting out the wolf in them. To what does a wolf respond?

In the relative local ease of summer 2021, walking through a port, I heard drumming and shouting from a junction. I looked for the drummers, imagining a festival. There was a group of men beating their chests. Beating their own chests ritually, they produced the rhythmic sound of great drums. No women accompanied them in any way. Instead of a festival of dancing, instead of channelling gods, shouting rather than singing, big men stood in a cluster. A smaller man quietly leafleted for some cause. I was tempted to talk to the leafleter, if only to add mixed voices in conversational exchange to the fringe of the rousing, obliterating soundscape. I did not stop. It struck me that the sound of their insides and the sound of their outsides had become one, and that sound was bouncing off the surrounding buildings. Anyone walking past listening to other music or talking to another person would become absorbed into that body of sound temporarily as they passed. Perhaps the well-behaved poetry audiences are wary of the continuous production of self-sound; then again, that might be a case for responding to the poets…

This report is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
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