I had the wonderful experience earlier this week of being a visiting poet at Santa Clara University. It was an enlivening experience, partly because it gave me a chance to reflect on my dual roles as poet and psychotherapist; but it was also enlivening because the students I encountered were such enthusiastic listeners. Twice during interviews, I was asked about the process of listening, especially how I think it is people become better listeners. I’ve tended to answer this question by referring to passive listening—noting the relation of sounds to silence, and the importance of becoming still enough (sometimes, also, brave enough) to recognize what sounds from the silence one has come to appreciate. But I’ve been remiss in not emphasizing also that we listen to what sounds in contrast to what else sounds—that listening is in many ways an active process wherein we turn attention away from the myriad of other sounds we can perceive (we listen to only a fraction of what we could hear), and we construe in some fashion particular sounds we have turned attention toward. And, as I have appreciated by way of years of education and experience—clinical and literary—we hear, but we learn to listen.
This was also brought to mind by an experience in a poetry reading group recently when we were discussed a poem by Brenda Hillman titled, “Phone Booth” (appearing originally in The New Yorker and reprinted in the 2008 Best American Poetry.) The poem is presented on the page in two columns of equal length side by side. One can read it best by reading down the left side first, and then the right; but two of us also tried reading the columns simultaneously. The effect was fascinating--both of us were attentive to the heightened effort involved in reading and comprehending our respective columns; and we each noticed how much more attentive we were to the sounds of a passing car or a door closing outside the office. The poem enacts something of the experience of carrying on a conversation while in a telephone booth—the focused attention to the other’s voice, and to our own—as well as the psychological phone booth we now create in using cellphones (such that we become hyper-attentive largely to the voice on the other end of the “line”.) By emphasizing passive listening (and the potential interferences with being able to hear what sounds from silence), I’d put in the background the remarkable screening we do during listening to keep ourselves from being distracted. And these days, to my mind, that is the more significant challenge.