Reading and Hearing

by abbamoses

W. B. Yeats

This post (by Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker‘s book blog) mentions several recordings of writers reading their own work, especially of Flannery O’Connor reading A Good Man is Hard to Find:

The most striking thing about it is the way in which O’Connor’s bone-dry Georgia drawl seems not merely to suit her writing perfectly, but also somehow to embody it. There’s a kind of bleak drollery inbuilt in her speech that seems to me to be the very voice of her fiction. The most remarkable thing about listening to this recording, though, was not getting to hear O’Connor herself talk, but rather the fact that when I when I went back to read her work, I would hear this voice echoing along in my head as I read the printed words. It brought a phantasmal new dimension to my experience of her writing.

He also mentions W. B. Yeat’s recording of “Lake Isle of Innisfree” (a recording that I have, and love):

I have, for instance, long been amused and slightly terrified by this recording of W. B. Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Once you’ve heard the tremulous, ghostly drone in which Yeats recites it, you think of the poem in a completely new way—as an incantation, an invocation, the casting of a spell of memory and desire—and, at least for me, it remains there as a background hum in any reading of his work.

The Yeats recording is a good example of how an author’s reading can seem to make a work entirely new. Hearing Yeats’ “tremulous, ghostly drone” brought home to me how strongly Yeats (especially the early Yeats) saw himself working in the bardic tradition, where poetry was chanted or sung. I had always read “Lake Isle” as a young man’s poem, spoken by a man pondering the future direction of his life and what he wants it to mean. The older Yeats’ reading turns the same words into a reflection by a man looking back, perhaps considering wrong turns and missed chances, perhaps wondering if he can still “arise and go” toward his yearnings.

From the New Yorker post I learned, too, that there’s a recording of Philip Larkin reading his chilling “Aubade” in the hopeless tone of a poet who understands the implications of his own atheism.

Not mentioned in the article are the wonderful recordings that Dylan Thomas made of his own works. His voice seems to me to be a perfect expression of them. In younger days I listened to his recording of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and since then I can’t read any of his poems without hearing that voice in my head.

As I thought about these recordings, it occurred to me that most modern writing really has to be read, not just listened to: O’Connor’s work is full of subtle images and turns of phrase that help to unlock them, but which I’m afraid would flash by me too quickly to be taken in if I were just listening to a spoken performance. I’d love to listen to the O’Connor reading, but I’d take it as a supplement to the printed text, not a substitute for it. For this reason I’ve never been much attracted to audio-books as an alternative to reading.

This density of text-based art is, I think, why works of art that come out of an oral tradition (Homer, Beowulf) make such heavy use of formula and repetition. Sometimes we read that the formulas helped the bard compose while performing. Probably so, but they also serve the listener who isn’t reading along in some text that allows him to go back and check what he just heard.

I once heard a monastic priest complain that modern-day worshipers feel a compulsion to read along (if given the opportunity) as they take part in the Church’s services. He felt that any gains in understanding were wiped out by distraction from worshipful attention to what was actually taking place around them. I’ve wondered about this. Certainly the services were not composed so that a roomful of people could stand with their noses buried in service books. But they’re quite heavy in content, and I can’t blame people for feeling the need for help in absorbing them. Probably the answer is that we’re meant to hear all the services repeatedly so that, over time, the words and their meaning sink into us without the help of books and handouts.