I have a friend who has published an award-winning book of poems titled “Having Listened.” He writes in the shadow of Boston, near the Arnold Arboretum, designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted.
We walked there recently, a patrician park overseen by Harvard University. It has no end of whispering trees and rolling paths. It’s quiet; it’s easy to listen.
His roots are in the prairie land of Eastern Montana, where he grew up on a working ranch of thousands of acres. He knows the sounds of cows and horses, chickens and the occasional truck off on a distant road. But he learned to listen there also for winds and for whatever sang in the creek-beds, even when pretty dry.
I think his eyes listened. He watched for the lessons of his father’s cigarette, what it told him, or the lessons of his father’s easing a calf out onto the hay on the barn’s floor. What was seen was heard as a lesson. What was heard and smelled and touched was a lesson. And lessons fall short without listening. He listened for the response of his mare as his hand travelled her coat.
He listened for lessons from winter snow, from a family under blankets circled round the single heat-bearing stove, the lessons from long, long lines of mowing in late summer, and of endless lines of wire gripped by posts, exposed year in and year out: were they lonely? The wire wasn’t silent, nor was the post. And he listened to the poetry of things and creatures and prairie and sky.
Montana is cowboy country, full of action, hard work, and fighting the elements. So I wondered how my friend came to listen, and to write about listening to one’s listening, which is what one does in writing his kind of poetry.
Sure, he knew how to saddle up and keep the John Deere going straight, hour after hour, and how to remount after being thrown, and how to avoid the prairie dog tunnel openings, just the size of a horse’s hoof, and so a place to stumble. But listening, to my ear, just didn’t seem Cowboy! Life on the ranch is doing, action, rather than the stillness of listening.
It’s a culturally pervasive, even a so-called metaphysical fact, that mature adults are centers of effective action. They’re doers. On-lookers or listeners don’t measure up. If we do catch ourselves looking or listening, it’s instrumental. Is a car approaching the crosswalk? To be alive is to have an impact, and listeners and onlookers just sit on the sidelines.
Some strange birds might sit still for contemplative reasons. But by and large — so the story goes — the silence of listeners is the silence and vacuity of the pathetic “hollow men” or “lonely crowd.”
Now my friend is anything but a mere onlooker or member of a lonely crowd. He listens softly, quietly, without aiming to leave a mark. He’s is intensely human. The prejudice in favor of action-only as the mark of the human must be mistaken.
Yet let me linger with the prejudice against quietly listening. We rank speaking and speaking out over listening. We rank work over lolling. “Just do it, Man!” Inaction is a curse. Life is an emergency, and we must move!
As creatures of the Enlightenment, we shun submission to The Lord of the Manor or to God or his Priests, or to Kings or Dictators. To be human is never to yield, but to prize self-assertion.
Yet listening to children or the line of the tenors or to the beauty of wind — who would erase these moments of allure and fulfillment. We’re quiet before the symphony begins, and that’s a good thing. We can then set aside action, movement, resistance, and assertion. We yield or submit.
From a dismissive perspective, pausing to look or listen, when not instrumental (as in a detective’s work) is an aesthetic indulgence fit for museums or concerts. In short, for a culture of production and accomplishment, it’s a superfluous ornament.
To say, “look before you leap,” or “listen before you answer” are tips to make our actions better. We look for the target, listen for the culprit, size up a situation before diving ahead. We listen to others only as a prelude to assertive response, to staking out one’s own position.
But the kind of poetic listening my friend is cultivating is a slowing down toward a kind of inaction, toward a Taoist, meditative inaction.
And I wonder, is attention to others a kind of not doing, a quietness? (But we can try to attend better). Perhaps it’s a skill so primal that it’s invisible to we who listen — a kind of skill in not rushing in, in not-doing, in letting others and their worlds arrive.
To insist otherwise, that listening is a doing, would be to award the prize for the primary human virtue to action. It would blur or bury the many virtues of inaction, of stillness.
Listening, looking, and attention to others in a poetic vein — letting them arrive, letting beauty arrive, being content with waiting — is a kind of skilled non-doing, where we table agendas and plans of action.
Zen takes the highest skill in archery to be a kind of inaction: releasing the arrow without looking, being master of an effortless attention.
We are not just actors (though that’s a most important capability of persons). We act, and also suffer. We are quiet, take in beauty, and listen.
How interesting — and revealing — that we don’t have a fine, simple word for non-action!
To say we are actors and patients doesn’t quite work. We wait. “The readiness is all.”
Think of it
We get up but also fall asleep. We gear up but also unwind. We love but also hope to be loved. We speak and we listen. We run and we hide. Listening, falling asleep, being open to love, hiding, are inactions.
And they are quiet, non-self-assertive keys to well-being.
—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
Credits: Having Listened, Poems by Gary Whited, Homebound Publications 2013. Also, see “Poetry and Listening,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAG4pPdV1fQ. “The readiness is all,” Hamlet, act 5, scene 2. Some of these themes come up in my Wisdom as Sensuous Slowness, Zeteo 04.19.2015. Too late to incorporate in my thinking, I came across Doing and Nothing, Zeteo 05.21.2014, subtitled An exploration of Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden and the possibility of renewing ourselves and our environment through not doing, By Vanessa Badagliacca. Thanks to Google Images.