On Saturday I met my daughter at Union Station in D.C. and we ended up at the National Portrait Gallery, standing in front of paintings until our feet ached. I’ve done the rounds there a few times but don’t remember seeing “The Hermit Thrush” (1890), above, by Thomas Dewing. I love those postures of keen, blissful listening. And the precision of the figures against the passionate blur of a landscape–they’re immersed in that meadow, melting into it as they listen.
Being a poet and poetry critic means focusing on verbal rather than visual representations of listening. The song of the hermit thrush is important near the end of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but what I thought of first was an earlier poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”–one of Whitman’s elegies for Lincoln. For Whitman, the thrush’s song is a “carol of death,” and yet he hears praise in it, and his own song echoes it.
“O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you…
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven…”
Why does Whitman’s poem, with its fragrance of lilac and cedars, absorb me more deeply than Dewing’s painting? Vision presupposes distance, while sound enters your body through the ears’ uncloseable portals–but after all, a poem in print only pretends
to sound, or at least, I only sound it mentally. A poem is, most days, a visual artifact. Maybe the answer lies in me, not any quality intrinsic to the artworks. After all, I wrote and drew and painted furiously as a kid, but poetry was the art that stuck–I’m just a reader more than a gazer. In any case, I do love Dewing’s luminous rendering of a practice so central to my life. (Not that I’ve ever heard a hermit thrush specifically, except here
Lately I’m cocking my ear to piles of criticism and theory, as I brush up the now-complete manuscript of Taking Poetry Personally and try to decide if I’ve missed some source that deserves a respectful endnote. I’ve also been listening to my own heart’s rhythms. “Premature ventricular contractions,” the Holter monitor told me, which rarely means anything serious, but it’s uncomfortable to have an unhappy bird in your rib cage. I’m logging symptoms and activities to see if I can get a handle on triggers (caffeine?) while I wait for the cardiology appointment. Tick, tock, nix my tea and I will balk.
I recommend Ecotone‘s new Sound issue
loudly, by the way, especially for anyone who’s obsessions echo mine. And I’m looking forward to doing some listening of my own next week at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Here’s where you can hear me: