CHILDSONG: ARE YOU LISTENING?
Some Poems by Carol Ann Duffy, Walter De La Mare, Blake & Lorca.,
Listening is basic to human communication. If we don’t listen to others we don’t hear them; although it is also true that we can hear without listening. Being a good listener is usually thought of as a virtue, even though it can be abused or seen as a fairly modest strength. ‘If nothing else, I can listen to what you have to say’–implies a certain limited passivity: ‘but there’s not much I can do … ‘. It can also imply, as in Liz Lochhead’s “Rap” — ‘A man likes a good listener/ A real man likes a real good listener’—that what the man looks for in his partner is someone he can dominate, verbally and physically. Being a good listener is different from being made to listen, or expected to listen and keep quiet. Nonetheless, being a good listener suggests sensitivity, a willingness to sympathise with the other person, to admit the other’s point of view in a way which doesn’t challenge, judge, dismiss or denigrate her experience. Counselling and some forms of psychiatric therapy begin with an act of listening, of paying attention, and thereby valuing the experience of the client/patient. “Attention, attention must finally be paid” says Linda Loman; though part of the tragedy of Willy Loman is that he wants to be heard but fails to hear, insists on being listened to but cannot or will not listen to what others say. Or misinterprets it.
To be asked to listen carries a different weight and tone, depending on the context. ‘Listen!’ can be an invitation to participate in an experience, to share a pleasure or insight. (For Whitman in “Out of the Cradle” it was the gateway to the profoundest of all insights and experiences: the knowledge of death.) The request can spring from and help to create a sense of intimacy, a coming together in love, friendship and solidarity. For the lover, it draws the beloved into the ‘secret’, as in the early Beatles’s song: “Listen, do you want to know a secret?/ Do you promise not to tell?” On the other side of love, however, it takes on a different tone and intention: “Listen, why do you never listen?” becomes an accusation of neglect, indifference and alienation. Equally, in the relationship of adult and child, it can be a taunt and reproach: ‘You just don’t listen, do you?’ or even a threat: ‘Listen! Just listen to me, you, and do as you’re told!’ Being told to listen, for some, defines the relationship between teacher and pupil or parent and child. At its extreme, it becomes an expression of or exercise in power, menace and personal oppressiveness. As I’ve suggested, it can also define certain adult relationships: ‘A real man likes a real good listener’.
Listening is also central to the pleasure and understanding of poetry, an act of attention which goes beyond passive hearing to include sensitivity to the rhythm, accent, tone and emotional nuance of words and versification. Although poetry often requires us to visualise a landscape, person or situation, or even to use the sense of touch and movement, listening to the voice is primary. If we don’t listen we can’t hear. And in that a poem also sets up a dialogue between speaker and addressee (reader or audience), listening is also part of the implicit or explicit drama of the poem. The dialectical relationship – in all its variants — between speaker and listener is integral to meaning. Love poems from Donne to Duffy demonstrate the point.
Sometimes, however, the listening is abusive and neglectful—as Sam Johnson has put it (ref. to blog), a “broken listening”, which means that the speaker in the poem –especially if s/he’s a child – is heard but not listened to, suffers because those listening either don’t want to hear or allow their own self-driven purposes and desires to get in the way of communication. The ego intervenes, and relationship –communion and common structures of feeling – is shown as broken or breaking down.
In recent poetry, Carol Ann Duffy’s “Lizzie, Six” is a poignant example of “broken listening”, of – in this case — the adult listener refusing to hear or misinterpreting what is heard and of the child destroyed by being unheard and ignored. The poem is a ‘song of innocence’ or of the conflict of innocence and experience. The voices of the many lost, abandoned and abused children in Blake’s Songs are powerfully recollected in Duffy’s poem; and this – along with echoes of Wordsworth here and elsewhere – demonstrates Duffy’s roots in a Romantic as well as modernist tradition. The Romantics after all invented the modern idea of the child and childhood and to that extent instigated the current tradition of children’s literature and literature focussed specifically on the experience of the child. (Although an streetwise adolescent rather than an innocent child, the eponymous hero of DBC Pierre’s
Duffy’s poem or song-ballad is written in tight, four-line stanzas. The last word in each of the five stanzas rhymes throughout and binds the poem together; whilst, ironically, the repetition of the same word in lines two and three of each stanza serves to emphasise that this exchange or dialogue is not a dialogue at all but a punitive clash between the innocence, naivety and imaginative longing of the child and the brutality and indifference of the adult. The repeated phrase “I’ll give you ..“ picks up on a common idiom of parent-child discourse (‘I’ll give you what for when I get hold of you!’) and exposes its menace and callousness. The child in “Lizzie, Six” seeks comfort, liberation and fulfilment – like Blake’s sweeps, an escape from a harsh and oppressive world; the adult insists on constraint and punishment. Imagination (‘moon’) and freedom (‘fields’) and ‘love’ are all undermined by sarcasm and denial in the first three stanzas and, in the last two stanzas, the child is plunged into a world where the “dark” is transformed into a place and opportunity for punishment and fear.
In “Lizzie, Six”, the child’s desire for freedom, love and care is systematically crushes by the adult until, driven “deep in the wood”, which should offer adventure and imaginative escape, she cowers in fear of the surrounding dark and of the “dark” purposes of the adult: “I’ll give you the dark/ And I do not care”. It is appropriate to recall at this point that one of the events of Duffy’s own childhood which clearly had a profound impact on her attitude to her own childhood experience and that of others was the Moors murders. The voice of the last two lines of “Lizzie, Six”, just quoted, is surely recognisable as the voice of a number of speakers in Duffy’s poetry, culminating in the chillingly brutalised voice – at once alienated, supplicatory and self-excusing – of “The Devil’s Wife”.
In a discussion of Duffy’s poetry in The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: Choosing Tough Words (edited by Angelica Michelis & Antony Rowland), Stan Smith speaks of “Lizzie, Six” as a “plangent, Lorcaesque song”. The link is worth pursuing since it seems likely that Duffy knew Lorca’s poetry or at least drew on similar traditions of popular child’s songs and rhymes. There is a tradition of “bairnsangs” in
There is an English poet from the early 20th century whose work – whether by direct and conscious influence or childhood and educational familiarity – certainly does resemble Duffy in “Lizzie, Six” and that is Walter de la Mare. De la Mare is now mainly thought of as a children’s poet and encountered, if at all, more often in the school classroom than in the university lecture-hall. [20 years ago my daughter’s English teacher would offer ‘a daily dose of Walter’ to his pupils at registration, meaning nothing more worrying than a reading of one of his poems!] Some of his poems have become classics of anthologies of poems for children and “The Listeners” with its eerie and enigmatic narrative of a traveller returning to a house emptied of all but “phantom listeners” deserves its place there. The traveller’s call: “Is there anybody there?” is met with “strangeness” and “silence”. Characteristically, so far as De la Mare is concerned, the world of men, the ‘real’ world, is countered by a dreamlike world of fantasy and the unreal. Two other poems “Echo” – subtitled “A Memory of Childhood” – and “The House” carry this contrast between adult and child directly into what he calls, in a longish, reflective poem: “Dreams”, “childhood’s visioned hours”. For the most part, De la Mare’s poetry is old-fashioned in form and style and resists or denies contemporary poetic experiment and indeed the contemporary world. Rather like the boy-men – fearful and emotionally-arrested — in some of Duffy’s poems, the speakers in a number of De la Mare’s poems don’t really want to grow up and leave the cosy nursery – literal and metaphorical – of a pre-1914 middle-class childhood.
The cosiness, it’s true, sometimes gives way to a more anxious and challenging reality, as when nanny (thoroughly modern presumably) suggests that “Squirrels are only a kind of rat” (“Reserved”). This angst-ridden side of childhood is poignantly expressed in the two short lyrics or songs “Echo” and “The House”, leaving the child isolated and disturbed. In “Echo”, the child’s question: “Who called?”, after reverberating through “whispering glades” and “motionless brake”, returns “to mock” the child’s apprehension and desire for reassurance: “Who cares? Who cares?”. The child’s fear is answered only by a distorted or distorting “echo” from the adult world which, if less brutal and punitive than the world of “Lizzie, Six”, is equally isolating and disquieting. The same might be said about the broken dialogue (another example of “broken listening”) of “The House”. As in Duffy’s poem, the child’s initial cry (“’weep, ‘weep”) is picked up and perversely re-configured, first in an at least partially comforting way by the mother, but then by the “ghost” and “withering grass” –all that is left of the home and pastoral fields and gardens of childhood – in a way which serves only to reinforce the child’s (difficult not to suggest ‘the little boy’s’) fears and vulnerabilities.
Every poem has a history and it is plausible to suppose that the history of Duffy’s “Lizzie, Six” involves at least Blake, De la Mare and Lorca, if not through direct influence then through certain correspondences of form, perspective and language. In those terms, the links seem remarkable, and add both a clearer definition and a deeper resonance to Duffy’s innocent song.
There is another link, with Louis MacNiece’s poem “Autobiography”:
When I woke they did not care
Nobody, nobody was there
Come back early or never come
When my silent terror cried
Nobody, nobody replied
The pathos and isolation of the child – as it is expressed in the work of these poets – resonates with us all, not only in possibly recollecting our own childhood experience but also the continuing experience of children in a world of adult abuse, insouciance and atrocity.
The Woman in Black
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