Adrian Blevin's Commentary on William Blake's "Infant Sorrow"

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Adrian Blevin's Commentary on William Blake's "Infant Sorrow"

When forced to articulate why it's as important to hear poetry read aloud, most people will make a case for the oral tradition, using the tribe's earliest communal rituals to talk about the various devices of language (like rhyme and narrative suspense) that assist memory.  The fact that our earliest poetry had to be contained in the mind because it could not yet be recorded is as true as the announcement that cows make milk, but this most practical explanation for why it's best to hear poetry read aloud does not really explain poetry's effect on the body, though that is where the magic really lies.  This is because, as A.E. Houseman says, "meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not."  If we depict poetry as a merely intellectual endeavor (as we do when we talk about memory and the mind), we get to only one third of what it really is, and thereby reject not only the ears on the side of the head, but also, as the poet Robert Bly has pointed out, those more veiled ears inside the heart, the gut, and the genitals.  In other words, because the very best poetry is composed out of a bodily listening, it must be heard with the body—it must violate the silence of the air with its understanding of sound and rhythm so that the euphony (and / or cacophony) of sounds might enter and alter the listener with what she also knows about living on the planet, which is that it's as discordant as it is sweet.  That is, there's the outside world, clashing and clanging its irrational, violent nonsense, and then the inside world, where all the cells divide, and this is the one she likes best—the one she remembers the most where she first heard the world's noise in the watery amniotic sac with the iambic clock above ticking and tocking in a black mass she could not see (this is the point) nor think about (more to the point) because the point is not the sight of the world or the thoughts we contrive about it, but the sound it makes—that swishing and swashing—for herein lies the path to feeling.  Now, there are nay-sayers: vast numbers of men and women of great learning throughout the tradition who contrive of poetry as a kind of mathematics or philosophy, draining it all down to numbers or belief systems about the nature of Language or Being or Self, but here again we return to the mind, which is almost always delusional, when all along we had the body.  It is with the body that we first taste, touch, smell, hear, see, and thereby understand the world.  It is via the vehicle of the body that we perceive how hungry we are—how forsaken or festive.  To hear poetry read aloud is, yes, to reenact the traditions of the tribe, but, far more importantly, to hear poetry read aloud is to infuse the body with the knowledge of the tribe, which says at the most fundamental level that we are predators, yes, but also exultant birds up in the trees, twittering our funny hearts out.

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