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The listening link

I sometimes wonder if I have lost the art of listening. When we attend poetry readings, the words are almost meaningless for the first half hour or so. I struggle to concentrate, to isolate the images and themes the poet is presenting from the clutter and intrusion of day-to-day existence that cause an almost impenetrable barrier. The emphasis on visual information and entertainment has become so dominant that I find it a struggle to sit and read a book for an hour. Yet as a child I could read for a whole afternoon and be completely absorbed.

There is a link, I feel, between reading in silence to oneself and listening, even though these two activities require different disciplines. When reading to yourself, you travel at any speed, you skip, you reread. You can pause for a mental debate with the writer, or stop to look up a word in the dictionary. But it is purely the printed word that is the cause of this enjoyment, or disagreement. The visual imposition is slight and the message or pictures the reader builds up are drawn with the reader's own imagination, and are seen with a unique and vivid inner eye.

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Listening to a reader requires more effort and mental agility. You can easily be left behind. Listening to poetry is, I believe, the most demanding activity. A prose story has the impetus and interest of plot, narrative, and characterization to keep the attention alert, though I have wondered what it would be like to hear someone read Virginia Woolf's novels, particularly later ones. A poem - which conveys ideas by image, rhythm, rhyme, carefully chosen words used in unexpected ways, and intensity of feeling - truly tests the ability and concentration of the listener.

I persevere because I'm sure listening needs to be learned and practiced like any other discipline, or, rather, it needs to be relearned. The children we once were knew how to listen and used this art constantly. Without effort we absorbed the patterns of language, stories, verse, and songs. Sometimes, when I am reading to my child, I find I am listening as the child I was, listening to my father reading the verse he so enjoyed, seeing and feeling in the same clear way. This happened the other evening. We had reached Humpty Dumpty's square in ''Alice Through the Looking-Glass'' and were chuckling over the nonsensical verse he was reciting. As I read, and then she read to me, because it was so funny, I heard from far back my father's deep voice, felt the complete concentration of a child, and in that instant saw again the succession of images conjured up by the words.

A while ago we attended a meeting where a Yorkshire poet, Howard Sergeant, was reading selections from his work. As usual, I struggled to listen. Then he produced a slim volume that celebrated and defined his unique relationship with his grandfather, who had raised the poet for the first eight years of his life and who worked on the railways. In those days, to work on the railways carried such prestige and significance it was almost a religion.

Howard Sergeant read the whole sequence of poems from this booklet, ''Travelling Without a Valid Ticket.'' After the first few lines, my attention was caught and held. The struggle was no longer necessary. I just listened, with the ease and intent that used to come so naturally. Now I could catch the humor, the deft puns and double meanings, that lifted the poems above sentimentality yet thinly veiled the deep feeling the poet had for his subject.

I listened to love and reverence, I listened to the tempo of a way of life that is part of history now and yet compels respect. I listened to understanding and gratitude. By the time we reached the seventh and last poem, ''The End of the Line,'' I felt the aura of that old man, and his devotion.

That evening I returned home encouraged. A good poet, who had something to share, impelled me and many others to listen. All I can say is thank you.

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