Word for Word: Let the ears of your ears awake

Hearing a Philip Larkin poem on his car radio caused Roger McGough to pull in and weep uncontrollably

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock


Recent poetic interventions on RTÉ Radio 1 to celebrate the One City One Book programme are likely to have intrigued and beguiled listeners. Readers of poetry very often start out as listeners. Poetry on the airwaves can make for powerfully charged, intimate moments – the poet Roger McGough recalls that hearing a Philip Larkin poem on his car radio caused him to pull in suddenly and weep uncontrollably, such was the arresting force of Larkin’s voice and words.

McGough hosts Poetry Please, on BBC Radio 4, which has a million listeners each Sunday. (It’s interesting that Walter de la Mare’s poem The Listeners is eighth in its list of most popular requests.)

Radio has an exceptionally high listenership here, and Ireland is home to many attentive listeners, as visiting international writers often attest. The raft of festivals to unfold in the coming months will offer excellent listening opportunities. A very fine exhibition celebrating The Great Book of Ireland, currently running at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, in Cork, includes several listening posts.

For some poets, the act of listening is not confined to human beings. In Seamus Heaney’s magnificent poem Keeping Going (written for his brother Hugh) the bedroom takes on a listening role, and Vona Groarke’s outstanding poem 3, from her latest collection, X, sees her rooms listening to each other.

The English programme for the new junior cycle commendably suggests that the development of skills in speaking and listening should play as important a role as reading and writing. The art of listening is at last receiving some attention.

Close listening is an essential part of all writing, especially of the craft of poetry. And a good reader listens as closely as a writer writes, allowing the writer to find his or her voice. In Walt Whitman’s epic poem Leaves of Grass, his poet hero says, “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen and accrue what I hear into myself . . . and let sounds contribute towards me”.

In Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s brilliant poem Swineherd, her poet hero wants “to lie awake at night, Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug”. What a terrific image.

A flourishing poetry scene requires an abundance of listening opportunities. We know you’re listening, RTÉ.

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