The Listeners

I have one more audio piece for our Halloween celebration, this one using a mysterious poem by Walter de la Mare. The way it goes about being scary is unusual—weird even.

After you read or hear it today, how would you describe what’s frightening about it to someone else who doesn’t know this poem, “The Listeners?”   Would you find that a hard task? Our previous two Halloween pieces have easy anchors to something describably frightening. Even though those two are short poems, you could point out their fright potential just as one could blurb a Stephen King novel or a horror genre film. Bronte’s “Spellbound”  has its character held unable to move as cold night approaches. While it’s not “spelled out” (and there’s a jump scare for you: boo! language play!) it is implied that this immobile state has the character suspended in the air. And Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  has poisons and weapons drawn and multiple deaths assured.

OK, now watch a movie in your mind of de la Mare’s “The Listeners”  with the sound off. A man rides up to a somewhat elaborate house in a woods at night. Close up: you see his hand knocks on the door. And he knocks again. And one more time—oh the heavy suspense—he knocks a third time. No one comes to the door. Back to wide shot: he rides off. Gripping! I was on the edge of my seat! Goosebumps!

Now of course suspense, fright, that sense of out-of-joint weirdness are all subjective feelings inside an audience. Nothing is assured to be delivered by any artist or writer’s work, no more than all readers will find something sexy, delicious, or beautiful. But almost nothing happens here, and that little is not unusual, at least in the days when the horse was unremarkable transportation, back before we Zoomed or IM’ed our associates instead of riding over to them.

But if you listen to “The Listeners”  (hey, is that title a clue?) you may get that ghost story jolt that de la Mare intended. After enjoying this as a poem (full text here) or in my song version, let’s look at some details of how de la Mare casts his spell.

First off, the poem is full of assertions of silence. For something that’s not a there, there—it won’t shut up about it. Helping us endure the author pointing and asking us to notice that, some of the descriptions of silence are quite nice I think, particularly the last one: “The silence surged softly backward.” And oddly, to enforce our sense of the silence, sound effects are used in a couple of places to richen the silence. We can hear the mouth of the horse grazing early in the poem as his rider goes to the door. And as the rider mounts up to leave, we can hear the sound of the leather stirrup strap stretching as his sole meets the stirrup and then the differing sound of the horse’s shoed hooves when they strike a rock in the forest trail away from the house. What we hear enforces the feeling of silence.

Dialog (strictly speaking, monologue) is used sparingly, but it finally tells with the rider’s final utterance. This is no chance encounter, though the rider is called “The Traveller” he’s not a curious passerby or a man looking for a cup of oats for his empty-tank horse. That this is an unexplained appointment is a wonderful choice! Like the silence it can let us fill it with detail.

I just got done exchanging new work this month with a small group of poets that have been doing this for decades. I’m sure many of my responses were suggestions to clear something up or to expand something the poem seems to start but doesn’t finish. And the same was likely said about my work. I thought my advice was valid when I gave it, if only from an example reader, but “The Listeners”  points out there’s no law that a poem needs to answer every expectation—maybe instead there’s a statute that says that at least in a small yet significant way it needs to surprise or even confound expectation.

And yes, that title: “The Listeners”  really helps here. The rider knows they’re there somehow, just not in the state or mood to answer. Like the silence, their nonappearance is silhouetted with outlines of absence.

The Listeners Turn2

She Don’t Care About Time. Walter de la Mare’s writing had an affinity for the weird, so David Crosby’s anachronistic cape seems fitting.

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I went with one of my favorite rock music sounds today, the 12-string electric guitar, an instrument made indispensable for a short time in my youth by The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. The 12-string electric is an unusual instrument today, as rare to see in a guitar store as a horseman is on the road now. I bought mine a couple of decades ago because I love the sound McGuinn and his engineers developed for it, which I exploit today. The player to hear my presentation of Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”  is below. if you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it. Thanks for being one of the Parlando Project’s listeners.

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Triad

I find it a wonderful “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet” coincidence that one of Christina Rossetti’s sonnets and one of David Crosby’s songs share a title, “Triad.”

David Crosby is a musician and songwriter who first came to prominence in The Byrds and then as part of another triad, Crosby Stills and Nash. When I first came upon his songwriting many years ago, I was attracted to his distinctive abstract melodic and harmonic sense. Almost no one before, and few since, wrote music for songs that sound like his did then, with the exception of some Joni Mitchell tunes. Lyrically Crosby styled himself as unconventional as well. His “Triad”  is a blissful ode to free love—well at least free love as long as David Crosby is the one explaining how things will be.

David Crosby

David Crosby’s song starts by asking “You want to know how it will be?” and then he mansplains it

 

Christina Rossetti was a pioneering British 19th century female poet. Her biographical triad was that she had two brothers William Mitchell Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, also writers, who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hmmm, “Brotherhood”—I wonder if girls get to join? Not officially, though she was used a model in some of their paintings.

Girlhood of Mary

Her brother Dante used Cristina Rossetti as the model for the Virgin Mary, far right.

 

Christina Rossetti’s “Triad”  is a not-so-happy look at romantic love, and the writer is none-so-sure how it should be either. Rossetti draws her portrait of three women who once sang together. One the stereotypical harlot, one the blue spinster, one the smooth compliant wife. Each of them finds the dead end of the limited paths available for passionate women. Conventionality decrees the hot harlot is shamed and the cold virgin dies for love, but Rossetti steps outside conventionality to tell us that the “temperate” spouse grew gross in her compromise until left with the devastating line droning “in sweetness like a fattened bee.” How much has changed since Rossetti’s Victorian England in this regard? Some things, not all things. New Rules are still rules, look at who makes them.

Musically here with our “Triad”,  the LYL Band somewhat refer to the psychedelic vibe of Crosby’s musical style to accompany Rossetti’s sad and lovely words. To hear it, use the player that appears below.