Listening(!) to Poetry

Hello everyone! So I wanted to use this week’s blog to address a point made by Matthew Rubery in his journal Play It Again, Sam Weller: New Digital Audio Books and New Ways of Reading that I consider being key in how we read literature across multiple parts of the world. To preface my discussion, Rubery wrote the following:

“Although it would be easy to overstate the degree to which technology changes the way we communicate, there is nevertheless compelling evidence of its influence over the way people read that should not go unheard.25 Advances in audio technology have the potential to change the way we think about reading practices for two reasons. The first is that digital audio will turn more readers into listeners.” (Rubery 64)

That last sentence is key here, “The first is that digital audio will turn more readers into listeners” (Rubery 64). When we read, it is very difficult to pick up how something is supposed to sound. Thus, we may miss the point intended entirely. The context behind the things we say is what drives how we say it and the connotation of what we’re expressing. That brings me to the audiobook I have chosen to present to you all in class today:

The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe (read by Tom O’Bedlam)

An extraordinarily difficult poem to read, mostly because it’s hard to to represent the repetition of the words meaningfully – especially “Bells” I imagine t…

“The Bells,” a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, at first glance is a rather simplistic piece. As readers, we often just read through it or read it how we think it is supposed to be read. Especially for those of us who do not directly study English literature. However, upon taking a second look, and reading the poem out loud or having someone else read it to you, we can discover some unique characteristics of the piece before us. In each stanza of “The Bells,” Poe starts to describe another type of bell, and when reading to yourself it seems like a pretty flat piece, but when you bring audio tools into it you realize that with each stanza there exists a switch of mood and sound.

During the first stanza, Poe describes the experiences associated with silver bells. We all know that to be Christmas time, the holiday season. This stanza utilizes language in a way that portrays a sense of happiness, jolliness if you will. There are specific influxes in your voice when reading the language with the associated cheerful emotion that portrays the sound intended. Then he moves onto talking about golden bells, which we associate with weddings (also associated with wealth and love in general). This stanza uses calmness as a tool, a smooth and happy block of text symbolizing the long-term content that marriage/love brings us as humans. Finally, the brazen (bronze) bells, he uses them to create a sense of fear. There exists a lot of urgency in this stanza that strikes discomfort in the listener when reading how it was intended to be read. Rubery’s point was that listening is starkly different from just reading a text. It also helps to bring out the brilliance of the author. This especially applies when reading literature from other regions. Rhyme, for example, can only sometimes be deciphered when reading in a specific accent. For example, a New Yorker may not understand the audio cues of a poem written in Scotland.

Now, how can we do all of this sound analysis when there are situations where audiobooks/readings are unavailable? Lucky for us, there are digital tools out there being further developed to map these audio influxes in literature. Below I am attaching a screenshot of the tool Poemage, developed by the University of Utah, which is an incredible tool that takes the uploaded piece and shows you how each word is supposed to sound and where it overlaps with other words:

Unfortunately, the University of Utah took the download link down while they do some updates, so I cannot show you guys the extent of the tool. I used it back in late 2016 and it has only improved since. All in all, Rubery drew a line between reading and listening, and I agree. They both stimulate different parts of the brain simultaneously in order to further our understanding of literature and assisting with decoding the intention of the author (or a variation of the author’s intention).

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