Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llaregyb Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.
Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Ocky Milkman’s lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread’s bakery flying like black flour. It is to-night in Donkey Street, trotting silent, With seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.
Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.
Time passes. Listen. Time passes.
Come closer now.
Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the coms and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.
From where you are, you can hear their dreams.
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, 1954
No apologies will be made for including such an extensive quote from the opening monologue of Thomas’s ‘play for voices’. It is a beautiful piece of writing and a great example of an omniscient narrator making a pact with their audience just as Shakespeare had his chorus do at the opening of ‘Henry V‘. A dramatist’s device then, making conspirators of us all, implicating us as voyeurs, but does it not make us lean a little more forward in our seat? It is no great challenge to lend our ears to a storyteller, especially when that storyteller is as accomplished and poetic as the aforementioned playwrights.
Thomas’s play was written for the radio and it is telling that he used no fewer than five imperatives right from the off to focus his audience’s attention – “listen – listen – look – listen – come closer.” He wasn’t going to let his listeners off the hook easily and he made full use of his descriptive arsenal to paint a vivid picture of the sleepy Welsh village of his imagination; following his words is like watching the opening shots of a movie as a camera swoops down noiselessly on the rooftops and chimney pots of his creation, from the darkened fields above the village right down into not just the bedrooms of the sleeping residents but into their very dreams. And the last thing he did before the first of his character’s spoke? He bestowed on his attentive radio-side listeners a very special gift – the ability to hear the dreams of the denizens of Milk Wood. It was as if he was determined to ascribe to those listening a very particular status that they had earned only through the act of pulling up a chair, closing their mouths and opening their ears.
That’s another good trick, isn’t it. Make your listeners feel special and they will surely be more inclined to hang on your every word. Don’t we do that very naturally in our own conversations? Phrases come to mind such as “you’ll like this” or “see what you think of this” or “you’ll be a good person to share this with”. As listeners, we are somewhat flattered by the implied confidence and so we do listen a little more intently, determined to live up to expectations. But of course, just because you may be a good listener does not mean you necessarily want to hear what everyone has to say. A natural selection takes place where we categorise those we have to listen to, those we want to listen to and those we never want to listen to again. You could have fun compiling those lists! I think the more you can restrict yourself to the second group, the greater your chances of happiness.
So, who do we want to listen to, and why? Our wise elders, our lovers, our charges, our mentors, our peers, our friends and family, our beacons. Add to that list as you see fit. The ‘who’s is an easy roll call. The ‘why’s might be a little more complicated because that is all about relationships and their concomitant wants and needs. None of this is to belittle natural rapport or attraction or the more noble ideas of trust, respect and admiration. I do not want to suggest that there is an essentially mercenary quality to our interpersonal ‘transactions’ but I do not mind suggesting that in every exchange of speaking and listening someone’s needs are being satisfied and the other party’s consent or acuity may be utterly irrelevant. Listening is hard to quantify.
In the vernacular of English Language teaching, listening is what we call a receptive skill. But how, barring brain scanners, can we ever know what exactly is being received? We can’t. We look for signs of understanding, eye contact and body language, affirmative or demurring indicators but even with that, there is no guarantee. And yet, it is such a keystone of our survival – initially as animals in a world of predators and prey, and eventually as emotional and compassionate fellow travellers in the societies in which we live and in the relationships to which we have committed ourselves.
It is such a persuasive imperative. It demands our attention. We don’t know what’s coming next and we typically don’t want to miss out. There is an instant assumption that something worthwhile is about to be imparted. There is an assumption that we are part of a greater narrative and the next ‘listen!’ could set us on a new course. Or it might just be someone breaking wind.
But at what point is what we hear no longer revelatory? Or is that an unduly negative perspective? That saying, ‘nothing new under the sun’ – does it reflect an inclination towards cynicism and ennui or is it merely that our brains are locked in a holding pattern determined by the limitations of our imaginations? As if we have a finite number of formulae, of templates, that help us frame the world and once we’ve allocated them, we can’t take on board anything else. I mention this in the context of listening because if, as many current commentators would have us believe, we are more and more subject to the culture of the echo chamber, it means we are only listening to one thing. And if we are only listening to one thing, it means we are listening to nothing else.
We become victims of like-mindedness, to wit the unbelieving bewilderment of US Democrats as they digested the ascent to the Oval Office of someone they had categorically dismissed as a buffoon. Where were the voices of dissent? Who was saying that Trump should be taken seriously? The point being, it behoves us to listen for something that is more than a soundbite or a credo we have already told ourselves. If we are only capable of recognising our own rhetoric, our own framework, then we are in danger of at best, complacency and at worst, dishonesty. And this is far from being a battle waged only on the outside.
What about our own voice? When do we listen to ourselves? To say our brains are busy is something of an understatement. The figure of 70,000 thoughts a day in a typical human brain seems to be an anecdotally accepted minimum. That’s a lot of sifting to get to something resembling gold. Like the MacGuffins famously used by Alfred Hitchcock, so many of our thoughts, coming from various inner voices, are ‘misdirectors’, signposts pointing the wrong way, or else ‘distractors’ to suspend our progress.
I suggest it takes a very special quality of listening to isolate the voice worth hearing inside us. Perhaps we need some of that ‘dream-seeing’ quality referred to at the top of the post. Our daily thoughts merge with our weekly thoughts which become part of our monthly thoughts all of which are enmeshed in our yearly thoughts until we have to admit that our thoughts, perceptions, insights, voices, notions, memories, fancies and daydreams comprise a vast miasma of conscious and subconscious processes that are a testament to a life lived so far.
What truth is it possible to extract from that? Well, maybe it’s just a numbers game. The truth is the thoughts or insights or demons that have been given most air time. It is up to each of us to work out why we’ve admitted some truths more often than others. It’s not truth then, it’s just traffic. But it’s our city. Our roads. We can decide which roads we close and which ones stay open.
Or maybe they’re not roads – maybe they’re train tracks? Listen –
Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance
Everybody thinks it’s true.
Keep your ears and eyes open. Listen with intent. Listen out and listen in.