The oral nature of poetry is particularly important. We must hear it even if we read silently. Note the following biblical passages:

  • Deuteronomy 31:13: "Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land . . . ."
  • Matthew 11:15: "He who has ears, let him hear."
  • John 8:47: "He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."
  • Romans 10:17: "Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ."

What is interesting about these passages is that they each make a vital assumption; namely, that "to hear" a matter is to be convinced of it, even to obedience. Sound is intriguing, because unlike the other senses, it has an immediateness to it. Sound is more present than perhaps even sight. All it takes to block out a picture is to close your eyes. To stop hearing a symphony takes more than simply shutting your ears. You'll need earplugs or a sound-chamber. To hear a matter is to be more accountable to it, because it is more fully alive to us. Perhaps this is why Jesus says that "the one who belongs to God hears what God says." Faith requires a full awareness, an involvement, a rapt attention to the nuances of a matter. Obedience is a result of being fully grasped by the immediateness of the command.

Most of us learn as children how to speak fluidly and effortlessly, yet most of us have to work hard to learn to read and write. And even then, what we can easily pick up from hearing a voice, takes practice "to hear" as we read. To really understand a work of literature, we have to learn to hear the voice captured in the print before us, and when we read aloud, we discover new things about a work we might otherwise have missed reading silently. This is especially the case with tone. Notice the way repetition enforces the speaker’s grief in J. Bottom’s "Dirge":

I should have deadened the street with straw,
I should have stopped the bedroom clock
and stilled the doorbell chimes with crepe,
I should have brought him quinine bark,
exotic simples packed in teak,
I should have had Te Deums sung
with banks of candles, cloistered nuns
to say their beads before he died. (1-8)

To read this poem aloud poorly is rob it of important aspects of its meaning: the worrying, returning doubt of regret, the stilted hesitancy of loss. Listen, as well, to the humor in Marilyn Nelson’s "Abba Jacob and the Businessman."

A businessman heard about Abba Jacob
and went to see him
about his difficulties
with mental prayer.
Abba Jacob
was planting trees.
When the businessman saw him
he said, Boy,
tell me where the cell
of Abba Jacob is.
Abba Jacob said:
What do you want with him?
The man is a fool.

Oh, said the businessman,
turning away.
I heard he
was holy.

Not only do we have to see the scene visually—imagining the monk at work and the ground and the proud businessman standing above him, we also need to hear the scorn and sense of power in the businessman’s voice, as well as the sly discernment in Abba Jacob’s. The oral nature of literature reminds us that texts are about more than expressing themselves; they are about making claims on us. Hearing a human, artistic voice asks us to faithfully consider what we have encountered. Unlike God's voice that we hear and follow, we should not automatically obey the voice we hear in a literary text, but neither should we at first blush shut our ears to it, refusing to give it a reception. Rather we should practice an open discernment.

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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding