Words are Meant to be Heard: A First-Year’s Reflections

I never loved poetry. It was agonizing to look over in class, always hiding a deeper meaning than the one I saw. I would reach, imagining that I was diving ever deeper into the text to catch some elusive epiphany, and when class ended I would gasp in relief as I came up for air, more often than not empty handed. I never gave up though, because by sheer luck I would sometimes catch


a shred of what my teacher thought was “the truth” of the poem, and that victory would carry me through the next deep sea swim. I want to be clear: I didn’t hate poetry. In fact, when I didn’t have to use a poem to analyze the meaning of life, I actually liked it. I thought poetry sounded beautiful. As Gary Dop read a selection of his poems in Lehman Auditorium [on September 15, 2016], he reminded me of that beauty. I enjoyed myself. So much so that I’ve come to a radical conclusion: words are meant to be heard. Language is meant to be listened to, not just because it is pretty but also because listening to words often reveals a meaning behind and within them. Dop’s poetry reveals the importance of the aural language experience, as it is in hearing words that we understand the true conflicts in a piece.


zeevveez from Jerusalem, Israel, פיסול בקרח (8373525680), CC BY 2.0

Dop’s first adventure into sound came in the poem “Pothead Pete’s English Presentation.” Through the manipulation of his voice, Dop creates a character completely confident in his misinformation. For example, when speaking about Queen Elizabeth, Dop has Pothead Pete slow his speech and take dramatic pauses before and after his comment, “who still isn’t dead.” The effect is a curious emphasis. Obviously, Pothead Pete has no idea who Shakespeare is or what his plays mean. What is not so obvious from reading the text, however, is Pete’s complete confidence that he is sharing accurate information, as the emphasis illustrates. Only by listening to the character Dop has created can we grasp Pete’s ignorance. The conflict of the poem then shifts from tension over a student’s misinformation to the tension over his blissful idiocy, a facet of the poem we could never grasp from the page.


By A. Burnham Shute – Moby-Dick edition – C. H. Simonds Co, Public Domain

We could also never grasp the complexity of “How To Pretend You’ve Read Moby Dick,” from simply reading. At first glance it seems nothing more than a funny guide to ensuring the survival of the ego, and it is. However, the fragility of that power relationship is again expressed only through the character that Dop creates as he performs. This time instead of portraying confidence Dop’s character stutters, betraying an insecurity and desperation to hold on to superiority. First, it is “I-I’m considering the sea,” relaying a lack of surety. Then it becomes, “I-I can’t even think of the name of the ship or the captain,” this time a forced nonchalance through Dop’s light tone of voice. Finally, “I-I spoke metaphorically,” that desperation clinging to a tense voice. These vocal cues to the audience are slight, but absolutely necessary in understanding the full breadth of Dop’s critique of what he calls in his introduction of the piece the “ridiculous platforms” of power.


When we listen to authors read their work, we gain insights to their passions and intent. Instead of drowning in metaphor I find myself wading into a pleasant lagoon of language meant to inspire or inquire or challenge or ravage. Writing without intent to read aloud seems to me to forfeit purpose to the snares of an over-zealous analyzer’s interpretation. Unless we don’t write for our own purpose, but for others. Unless we write only to ignite another writer’s imagination. Then of course the beauty is in the open-ended written word, like in a novel of Vonnegut or Hemingway, or like in an essay I will never present.

 Lindsay Acker is a first-year peacebuilding and development major from Williamsville, NY.