The Art of Overhearing

Take a sharpie away from my three-year-old and she will invoke Whitman, will begin sounding her barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.


But plop her on the toilet and the scene is much more reminiscent of the Romantics – as she ponders philosophical questions, her imagination wandering wildly and her intonations somewhere between speech and song.


Just yesterday, she sat on her throne for a good twenty minutes, talking about where we go after we die and making up songs about tortillas. I could have sworn, at one point, she mentioned something about a host of golden daffodils.


And as my wife and I stood in the hallway, listening in, I was reminded of John Stuart Mill who offered us the image of the poet as a solitary figure lost in deep contemplation. If we may be excused the antithesis, wrote Mill, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard.


Yet there are times when overhearing can feel like an intrusive art – we read a poem and it feels as though we happened to be walking by the poet’s house when we spied him through his kitchen window singing Bad Blood and dancing in his tighty-whiteys.


And there are other times, too, when there’s simply too much distance between what the poem whispers and what we can perceive – as though the poet is our downstairs neighbor and has thrown a dinner party that he didn’t invite us to, and we can hear all the laughter but not any of the jokes.


It seems important, then, that as writers we learn the difference between naked and nude, between understatement and obfuscation; that we consider and reconsider our lives at just the right volume so that others will want to lean in.


Of course, that means we first have to learn the art of overhearing ourselves when we write – to quiet all the chatter in our minds so that we can catch the big fish, as David Lynch writes, that swims deep within the psyche.


It can be hard to find that kind of quiet.


But on those mornings when we are able to tune out all the distractions and doubts, we can almost hear what sounds like our essential voice – pondering philosophical questions, our imagination wandering wildly and our intonations somewhere between speech and song.

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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