Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Thursday, May 07, 2009


Shhhhh! Or Else!

The soot-grayed lions of the New York Public Library
look snooty, their noses serenely arched,
their eyes deigning to be vaguely aware
of what goes on beneath their line
of stoned vision.

Symbols of wisdom? Or perhaps
guarding wisdom from our
voracious stupidity.

In any case, symbols, solid ones,
much in demand among those
who pore over insubstantial symbols
like these.

If you spend enough time with printed words,
they begin to seem to speak loudly,
but really they are so soft that a nearby whisper
drowns them out, exposes their silence,
shattering scholarly illusions and evoking
real roars that only one newly arrived
hears as soft, abrupt hisses.

Perhaps the lions represent the proud rage
pent up by disturbed scholars, who can only say
"Shush" and wring their eyebrows meaningfully.

Readers are like animal lovers, proud
that cats and dogs come to them and rub
against their legs. We are proud that books
talk to us. "See, Homer must like you.
He won't talk to everyone." A voice
in the library's noisy hush silences
our books. We fear they will not speak to us
again. We are furious.

We protect our libraries
with lions, each dangling a huge forepaw
over the edge, each relaxed, but formidable,
ready to defend with relentless silence
the gentler silence in which books
can be heard.

Notes: One day (I think as a teen), while reading, I realized that when I read, silently, I heard the words. I didn't hear them literally, with full audio perceptics, but I felt someone was talking to me. I felt the books had voices.

It's hard for me to articulate how this did and did not resemble an actual voice. (And one must make such distinctions, because people who "really hear voices" are often forced to take lethal medications, for some reason.) One way to put it is that while I didn't hear an actual voice, I'd instantly react with rejection if someone read the same text aloud to me in a "wrong" voice.

There's hearing and then there's hearing. When I was about 11 years old, I heard my voice on a tape recorder, and couldn't believe it. It was a child's voice (my body's voice hadn't changed yet). I grew up with radio, no TV until age 10. On the radio, people (that is adults) had deep voices. Occasionally there'd be a child on a show, and the child's shrill voice struck me as odd. Somehow, for eleven years, I imagined my own voice was not a child's voice. I didn't hear my own voice. I heard a far deeper voice, like an adult's.

Once when my Dad was talking angrily to my Mom, thinking to defend her, I (about 4 years old) yelled at him as loud as I could, and heard myself as having a voice much like his own, full and resonant. (Fortunately, my parents chose to find this laughable, and I lived to tell about it.) When we were kids, pretending to be adults, we would deepen our voices and hear them as deep, though a recording would have exposed them as the voices of small children one or two notes lowered in pitch.

Certainly when I was little, I could hear my own voice. I even remember some of the things I said. But I didn't hear it the way the tape machine did.

And when I read silently, the voice I gave the books I read (you might say, my own mental voice) was far deeper and more resonant than my own speaking voice. But different authors had different voices and different characters had different voices. Again, this becomes obvious to anyone who hears a work he's only read done aloud by others, whereupon he instantly recognizes which voices are "right" and which are "wrong."

(I suspect when one speed-reads, our internal voices lag behind the finger that sweeps down the page, poor breathless voices.)

In my library poem, I represent this ability (that comes with reading) to hear books talk to us as something odd, like the ability of the boy in the movie "The Sixth Sense": "I see dead people." Since many books are, indeed, the voices of dead people, that similarity is strengthened. Books are one way the dead are alive, and sometimes (for example, with most text books and way too many books of poetry) the way the live are deadened--both writers and readers.

Communication is lifeblood to the spirit. It's what all our games consist of. We grow starved for live communication--for example, real people saying real things to us. Books can be considered a desperate solution to the lack of live communication in our lives. Or, more positively, we can say that some of us have the gift to enjoy live communication from books, so that our lives are rich in communication--and perhaps when we read, the communication is two-way, the authors somehow getting our responses, our contributions to the worlds they create in their books. I know that when (as now) I feel I'm speaking to readers, I also feel I'm receiving something back from those readers. (And, if my work lasts, some of them may not be born yet--at least not born into the bodies that will read [are reading] this paragraph.

Why is silence enforced in libraries? Why are noises so distracting (to those who have not been raised in homes with lots of noisy younger siblings and quarreling parents and have not learned to study with the TV on and various arguments going on overhead and underfoot)? The poem proposes, fancifully (or do I believe it?) that when people in a library are reading, they are "hearing" the book, but not really, as I grew up "hearing" my childish voice, but not really. When someone nearby talks or even whispers in a "real" voice or even sets a book down too heavily, making a "real" noise, the "merely imaginary" voices and gun shots and screams of books are exposed as phonies, even the deep, cavernous tones of the classics being less than the tiny tinny hum of a mosquito when compared to whispers from across the library table. The readers feel as I did, hearing my "real" eleven-year-old voice on the tape-recorder: They reject it. That's not the real voice of the books!

And they reject the distractions that expose their internal voices as tiny things.

Quite rightly, too. Our loudest screams and strongest laughter, our most eloquent perorations are often (to others) inaudible. But they are huge. We live in them. It's a matter of convention, like considering something bad manners or good manners, that we grant to the sounds everyone hears the bigness and loudness that makes them a distraction. When I was eleven, the voice on the tape recorder was wrong. I had my own voice. Can you hear it here? For it is here that I lay claim to my own voice--and to yours.

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