Listening to Poetry — Part II

Basset hound with ears outstretched

(Click HERE for Part I -Listening to Poetry vs Reading Poetry, and last week’s videos.)

What happens when we listen to a poem? All kinds of stuff goes on in your brain when you’re actively listening. Scientifically, neurons in your brain fire in sync with the rhythmic structure of what you are listening to. Neurons like the rhythmic and process it exactly into your brain. On the other hand, the pitch of sounds might get distorted, and not process as well. 

So your brain is already wired to like poetry. The poet’s rhythm and pitch of voice during poetry readings cues your brain to encode the message. You pay better attention. There are some drawbacks of listening to a poem as opposed to reading it. Listening requires you to take in and process information as you listen. There is no ability to rewind and listen again. You have to hear the poem, interpret the poem, and understand what’s being said all at the same time. 

Poets that read their work to an audience are always told to slow down their reading. Listening comprehension is why. Just those few seconds of extra time to grasp and understand help the listener get what the reader is saying.

Listening is something that is happening to you, and you’re trying your best to figure out what’s going on. You have to remember what you heard, interpret it, attach it to what’s come before, anticipate what’s coming next, and analyze your response. That’s a lot to pay attention to. But there is value in training yourself to listen, as well as training yourself out of any anxiety you might have about reading to an audience.

Reading, by contrast, is more engaging to the brain, and comprehension comes at a faster clip. It’s all up there in your head without audio input filtering. Sure you still have to analyze and decipher, but you’re doing it at your own pace, not the poet’s. I know when I’m listening to a poet, I may get so caught up in a beautiful turn of phrase, I don’t even hear the next few lines. 

Reading poetry is a performance art and some of us are not great actors. Or even good readers. I admire those that can delve deep into a poem and use their voice and mannerisms to help us feel and understand. Emotions are powerful, and that may be what helps when we listen to a poem being read, as opposed to just engaging with it on the page. We don’t have time to pause and reflect, we have to go with the moment, live in it, and become it.

In the hands of a masterful poet, the room becomes electric. I’d like to leave my poems on the page, all tidy with their punctuation and spaces, but after listening to some of the poets I listed in last week’s videos, like Maya Angelou, and Rudy Francisco, I’m stirred to evaluate my presentation, and consider what’s important to both listening and writing—touching the audience with your words. 

Click HERE for Part I – Listening to Poetry vs Reading Poetry, and last week’s videos.