A Poetics of Listening
Jennifer Elise Foerster, RWW Faculty
A Poetics of Listening
Jennifer Elise Foerster
I’ve spent a lot of time this spring doing everything but writing poems. This morning I was scrolling through news media in the usual anguish and tunnel-like anxiety and wondering why I do this. Every day I wonder why I do this, and yet I still do it, at almost regular intervals throughout the day. Twitter, for me, is the worst. I don’t follow friends or socials but, these days, climate and public health scientists. I respect the high-frequency of these scientists; they are doing one of the only things left to do when no one is listening—they are trying a different language. A chemist in a lab coat chains her neck to a bicycle stand in front of Chase bank and sends 280 all-caps characters shooting through the ether with the effect of a fast-dimming comet.
I am not, as I often criticize myself, really “doom-scrolling”—even if doom can be magnetic. No, I think I am frantically looking for a door out of my own tangle of worried thoughts. I am looking for a resting point, a place to stop, a story like a rock I can sit upon beneath an array of constellations and feel a fleeting understanding of the order of things at this moment in the universe. Yet I know such a state of recognition is an impossible outcome of this scrolling activity, which creates the opposite of the momentary stillness of comprehension I am seeking. Why do I do it, then? And why am I not writing?
I lived in Colorado Springs for several years as a child, and that is where I have my first memory of writing poems. I didn’t think of them, then, as poems, just scribblings of what I saw, trying to describe something I didn’t have the words for: how the mountain in my window would change daily through shifting swaths of light and clouds, shades of green, graystone, and snow. I felt, in watching the beauty of the changing seasons in the shadow of that mountain, a profound connection. The same system of wind that caused the branches to brush against my window drove the snow squall on the far mountain peak. The mountain breathed as I did. In Mvskoke, we call creator Hesaketvmese—the Breath-maker. We are all part of creation.
“I felt, in watching the beauty of the changing seasons in the shadow of that mountain, a profound connection.”
As a young person learning to write I realized that words could never translate the awe and power of that feeling of inter-connectivity the mountain-scene first embodied for me. Yet for some reason, I chose words as the means for generating awe, for sharing this awe with others. The impulse for my writing comes from a singular source: a desire to communicate the profound beauty of the earth and its systems.
I think about the chemist. Was her message comprehended as it flamed across the cosmos of our technological web? Did it make enough of a difference before it flickered out? I relate to the climate scientists who are now trying any way possible to communicate the profound beauty—and power—of the earth and its systems. But people aren’t listening, not enough so that awareness or concern translates into actions. Like scientists, journalists, teachers, many of us writers are asking how we can better communicate the state of our environment and the impacts of our actions so that it reaches people, so that it touches home. Not only must we ask how to language our changing environment, but how can we use language responsibly in our efforts to rebalance our humanity with the environment of the earth?
As someone who has dedicated her life to language, these questions propel me, and also halt and confound me. Is this why I’m not writing—because that first and guiding impulse—to communicate all this beauty—has an urgency now that is almost unbearable? Should I give it up, try some other way?
As a poet, I’m no stranger to being estranged from public discourse and communication, perhaps much like many climate scientists. Many will say poetry is too obscure, indirect, possibly deceptive. The problem with poetry, it is too often said, is one of comprehension. Such a perspective feels devastating to me, when the reason I write poetry is to expand the possibility of comprehension.
So I keep working at it, all the while asking myself if what I do, as a poet, can make a difference, can generate change, can indeed help us all to comprehend the future we are each day co-creating.
On good days, I settle on the hope that change comes from a place of awe, and poetry can generate awe. Awe elevates awareness. Awe enacts the deep knowing that earth’s systems are the very systems of breath and body that determine our lives as humans. Awe inspires that felt-knowledge of the interconnectivity that so many of us have forgotten.
On the more challenging days, I have to enact this hope, I have to re-activate my own deep-knowing, I have to return myself to the awe I remember as a child watching the mountain’s colors change. And scrolling the headlines can’t do this for me.
The other morning, after noting how easily half-an-hour had passed by as I scrolled, feeling increasingly useless about what to do in this world, I came up with a new rule. For every minute I scroll through news, I give myself that much time to sit outside in the yard and do absolutely nothing but listen.
That afternoon, I set a timer and put my phone far away under a tree. I moved the chair into the sun and imagined turning a tuning knob on my hearing. I heard a layer of something—a particular kind of grass in a wind gust. Then I listened for a layer beneath it—the rumble of an underground train—then a layer above it—bird shrills, the high-pitched ringing of the electrical wires. Whenever I started down a spiral of thinking, I turned the knob, attuned myself back to what I could hear.
“Whenever I started down a spiral of thinking, I turned the knob, attuned myself back to what I could hear.”
When the timer went off, I didn’t have any language to bring back to my desk. But that was ok.
All language-making must begin with listening—listening for the sounds beneath what we think we know.
Language is generated by our intelligence, but our intelligence can also override our intuition, just as it too often overrides our questioning. If I think I know what needs to be said, I’m not listening to what is occurring, and I’m not listening to the questions. Questions can help us to re-orient, to re-balance, to find our way back to what we already know, to our original knowing, our original interconnectedness.
Poetry is not actually a language of speaking or writing, but a language of deep listening, listening for the questions and for the original knowledge towards which these questions guide us.
On one of my recent better days, I sat down to read the first chapter in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I found myself re-reading the same few pages where Bryson tells the story of two scientists who unknowingly found the outer edge of the visible universe in a “steady, streaming hiss” coming through a large communications antenna. It had been postulated by an astrophysicist, George Gamow, in the 1940s that “cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang” could exist, which would reach the earth in the form of microwaves, given the time and distance it would have to cross. As Bryson writes, these scientists “were ‘seeing’ the first photons—the most ancient light in the universe.” And they saw the edge of visible universe through sound.
When we are telling the story of our environment, sound is part of this story. Sound is what happens when our ear reacts to a certain range of vibrations. Sound is one of a poet’s—a communicator’s—responsibilities. We shape sounds and choreograph patterns for our disclosures. We make what Edgar Allan Poe calls, “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.” What pattern can we make to disclose the beautiful and unbeautiful truths? What pattern can we make to undo the patterns that have made their designs upon us—the patterns of injustice, violence, and fear?
“What pattern can we make to undo the patterns that have made their designs upon us—the patterns of injustice, violence, and fear?”
But what can cadence and rhythm really do? Can these concerns of sound change policy to reduce carbon emissions? Can they remind people of humility or compassion? We know cadence can enrage. It can rally. It can cause physical pain or soothe us into sleep. It can lift our spirits or break our hearts. So yes, it can change policy. It can change behavior. It can change the way we perceive the world and our place in it.
A poem is not sound, alone, of course. A poem can reorganize perception in many ways. The selection of imagery to hold meaningful experience, without foreclosing meaning, is one of these ways. When I tried to describe the sounds I heard during the first afternoon of my new “listening practice,” I relied on images. The motion of that breathing mountain was also a shifting image in a window frame that, try as I might, my words could not exactly describe.
Images are powerful because they are never singular. The image requires our imagination to exist. The image is always complex, always kaleidoscoping. In a poem, images are transformed through other images and refuse becoming static. Like life, everything below the surface of the poem is interacting with the surface. Just as every image on the news outlets and media streams has the potential to be controlled by the curation of surrounding images, imagery, like our imagination, is by nature dynamic.
Seeing the world as poetry is seeing the complex environments of lives and this planet’s life forms. This, to me, is the way poetry is an agent of change—it can help us see the interconnectivity of our world. When we understand how to see the world in this way, we can no longer see it as exploitable for our human interests alone. With poetry, we must see how connected we are, to everything, and how every act of exploitation is a harm against ourselves, as well. All our actions impact us, rippling through our human ecology. Poetry is water through which we can see and feel these ripples in motion.
“Poetry is water through which we can see and feel these ripples in motion.”
Poetry is challenging. It challenges dominant narratives because it is dynamic. It challenges legibility because it makes meaning in unordinary ways. I am not arguing for illegibility in general, or incomprehensibility as a way of being. Ironically, we live in a time when life seems increasingly incomprehensible. Yet we seem to have no problem comprehending, or at least reacting to and making decisions based on, ideas that are not logically, factually, scientifically, or even emotionally “sensical.” How is it sensible to be destroying ourselves? Shouldn’t our sensible course of action involve the senses?
Poetry is a method by which one can activate the senses, the felt experience, the deep knowledge of what is otherwise impossible to put into words. Poetry can transform comprehension; it does this not just by making meaning in unordinary ways, but connecting to our deep pasts, our shadowed interiors, our perceptions as living beings who are complex and intertwined. It can also, therefore, connect us to our futures.
Poetry may indeed, then, make a difference. As can all of our work and its methods make a difference in this kaleidoscope of life and time. Perhaps what I am suggesting, or offering, here, is simply an invitation to listen.
What if our work as communicators is not to communicate a message or information, but to open a space, or create the conditions, for listening. This is how I think about poetry: poetry is my attempt to create the conditions for listening. Listening is not just aural, but a sensation, a physical experience. Listening is intuition, insight, it is a perception wider and deeper than our intellectual scope.
Whether you are writing poems or stories or research, as we work to language our changing climate, our uncertain futures, we must not forget to listen. The universe, after all, began with sound, with heat and vibration. Our life begins and ends with a breath. Hesaketvmese—Creation, Breath-maker.
The anxiety of urgency has stymied me lately. But if I commit to this listening practice every day, then maybe I will find my way to that rock where the universe, for a moment, makes sense, and a few words, sounds, images might constellate around that sense, so that it can be shared. Then there will be a poem.
Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Broadway Books, 2003. pp 11–12.
Jennifer Elise Foerster is the author of three books of poetry, most recently, The Maybe Bird (The Song Cave, 2022). She is the recipient of a NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Writing Residency Fellowship, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford. She lives in San Francisco, holds a PhD in Literary Arts from the University of Denver, and teaches Poetry at the Rainier Writing Workshop.