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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Lyric Ear: Romantic Poetics of Listening

  • Author(s): Stancek, Claire Marie
  • Advisor(s): Goodman, Kevis
  • et al.

My dissertation, Lyric Ear: Romantic Poetics of Listening, turns from a centuries-long critical focus on the “lyric voice” to consider instead what I am calling the lyric ear, or the speaking ear. I offer case studies in four nineteenth-century British and American poets, exploring how each develops poetics of listening that open up authorship, agency, and singularity—into unknown collaboration, receptive action, and multiplicity. By focusing on how lyric constructs the ear, rather than the voice, I argue that poetry expands participation to include bodies, objects, and surroundings that share physical space, rather than simply those who have the agency or the privilege to speak. Although the trope of the speaking ear works differently for each poet, certain characteristics remain constant: 1) the speaking ear involves a description of listening, which goes so far in its intensity or detail that it explicitly or implicitly figures the poem itself as an ear; 2) the construction of the poem-as-ear intensifies into a moment of apparent paradox, in which the actions of the mouth and the ear become interchangeable; 3) the descriptions of listening that extend into imaginations of the poem-as-ear propagate formal repetitions, which in all four chapters include refrain, repetition, and rhyme. The speaking ear makes an organ of receptivity also an instrument of speech, which demonstrates how the body and its parts work in unexpected, unpredictable ways. Unknowable collectivities of listeners construct alternative participations in speaking and in listening, vibrating across registers of music and noise, sharing verbs even as they share the space of a soundscape.

My first chapter, on Mary Robinson’s Lyrical Tales, posits gossip as a means of conceiving the speaking ear par excellence. According to gossip’s understudied generic conventions, the speaker is most importantly a listener. Gossip is collaborative, both in its construction and in its reception. Passed from ear to ear, gossip shares authors, just as it spreads in unpredictable ways. Throughout Robinson’s Lyrical Tales, the figure of gossip works to multiply and generalize the speaking voice and its affects, giving the impression that the story at hand is not authored by a single identity, but rather that it approximates and synthesizes the shared impressions of a community. My second chapter, on John Clare’s bird poems, picks up on the collaborative possibilities of the speaking ear to challenge authorship and brings these possibilities into the non-human world. Through poems that variously invite listening attention, and perform poetic impressions of birdsong, Clare asks what the terms of engagement are when there is no common language. In my third chapter, on perversity, occultism, and slow violence in the poetry of Edgar Alan Poe, I trace how the repetitious, inanimate “bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells” in Poe’s eponymous poem destabilize the environments they simultaneously enliven. I consider poetic effects such as rhyme and repetition as passive or barely-perceptible agents of quiet (but decidedly sonic) violence. My final chapter considers Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Spirit is the Conscious Ear,” as a prompt to the question: what, then, is the unconscious ear? To say that the Spirit is the Conscious Ear does not isolate the ear’s listening, but expands the ways the ear can work. Through the punning deictic here (hear), Dickinson turns the poem into a speaking ear, an organ of receptivity with diverse capacity for sounding and sensing, and strange powers of speech. The poem, like the ear, is a body for sound, a body of sound. I argue that Dickinson’s vibrational poetics are necessarily permeable, conducting an interpenetration between senses and sounds. By parsing differences between listening and hearing, I argue that the unconscious (in)attention of the dreaming body invites new and slippery ways of understanding how the sonic skips and disjunctions of puns, recurring rhymes, syntactic discontinuities, and fragmentary sound-bites illuminate Dickinson’s poetry and letters more broadly.

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