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Learning to Hear: Modern Poetry's Acoustic Educations


In the lived day-to-day of literature classrooms and poetry seminars, the line between literal and figurative calls to “hear” can be notoriously hard to decipher. More often than not, the “ears” that are called upon are less metaphorical than metonymic, actual organs of audition undistinguished in language from the complex physiological and neurological processes they can potentially enable. Their repeated solicitation not only suggests but actively promotes a relationship between poetry and sound from which some readers are, by nature, excluded. This project asks what we truly need to know about hearing, language, and human physiology in order to consider new possibilities for communication about sound with respect to poetry. What do we need to change about our critical and pedagogical practice? By interrogating the hearing and learning processes of several literary figures whose lives, communities, and readerships owed much to public and personal conceptions of their “ears,” this project examines how our beliefs about hearing (born of our respective experiences with sound) impact what we think language can do. The acoustic educations formative to modern poetry, it argues, are no different from our own. What the readings of this project embody is a form of attention that might be called “distance listening”: a mode of listening and critical analysis that interrogates and makes apparent individual capacities to perceive and imagine highly particularized acoustic conditions. These are conditions not merely of learned speech but also of temporally located environments, bodies, texts, and spaces. Ultimately, this project seeks to know how we can recognize the labor and forms of access that precede individual imaginative acts. A robust and diverse readership for poetry, it contends, relies heavily on the willingness of hearing poets, scholars, and educators to resist simply seeking out or subsisting on a community of sympathetic ears.

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