Thursday, July 1, 2010
Recently I heard a poet friend of mine remark in a conversation that listening was a language skill, perhaps the first. I had no chance to ask him to expand on that, but it remained in my own mind as I kept examining and pondering his statement. With the modern time’s emphasis on various communication skills, why are we concerned mostly with expression?
Our first contact with language is as a receiver. Long before we are able to express ourselves in words, we learn to differentiate and categorize the sounds we hear, to recognize what emotion is conveyed by what tone and timbre of a voice. The first understanding of sound groups as words comes long before we imitate and try to make our own. Our own development of language depends on what we hear: the language spoken, the sounds that are part of our environment. (An urban child will have a different understanding of the world than a rural child.) Vocabulary and grammar depend on what we hear more than on what we are taught. Every young child wants to hear stories, to learn about the world in structured sound.
Listening, the other half of a conversation as well as the most important response to a lecture or speech, and its associated activity contemplation have become lost art forms. We pride ourselves on how well we express ourselves. This is especially true of poets. We seldom worry about how and what the audience hear; we worry more about their understanding of the sounds we make, the marks we leave on paper.
I have a habit in conversation of listening to what is said. When I am asked a question, or if a remark requiring a response is directed to me, I don’t answer immediately. I take what I have heard, examine it with some care, and formulate a proper response. This may take from ten seconds to more than a minute; in the mind of the speaker I have ignored it and the conversations flow on without my input. It makes for difficult social chitchat. In a telephone conversation it may become almost paranoiac: “Are you still there? Hello! Hello!”
It seems that the only people we expect to listen are professionals, the therapists and others who get paid to carry out such roles. It seems unnatural that we leave half our language skills, the listening and interpreting, to others.
Perhaps poets can be the spearhead of a movement to reclaim the neglected part of language skills. I don’t mean that they should transcribe what they hear; we have technologies that can do that. But the combination of listening and interpreting, isn’t that what poetry is all about? Shouldn’t we spend more time listening so that our interpretation of the world is more meaningful? I would imagine our poetry would be stronger for it and the world a better place because of it.