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.
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.
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. Thanks for being one of the Parlando Project’s listeners.