Thomas Lux’s ‘The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently’

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To celebrate World Book Day last week I read the poem below, by Thomas Lux, to my students. 

It reminds me of the complexity and layeredness of reading as a skill and as a composite of attitudes and learned behaviours and history.

As Seamus Heaney says in his essay The Government of the Tongue ‘[the poem] does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused, ‘Now a solution will take place’, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves’ (The Governement of the Tongue, p.108).

The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently

is not silent, it is a speaking-
out-loud voice in your head; it is spoken,
a voice is saying it
as you read. It’s the writer’s words,
of course, in a literary sense
his or her voice but the sound
of that voice is the sound of your voice.
Not the sound your friends know
or the sound of a tape played back
but your voice
caught in the dark cathedral
of your skull, your voice heard
by an internal ear informed by internal abstracts
and what you know by feeling,
having felt. It is your voice
saying, for example, the word “barn”
that the writer wrote
but the “barn” you say
is a barn you know or knew. The voice
in your head, speaking as you read,
never says anything neutrally- some people
hated the barn they knew,
some people love the barn they know
so you hear the word loaded
and a sensory constellation
is lit: horse-gnawed stalls,
hayloft, black heat tape wrapping
a water pipe, a slippery
spilled chirr of oats from a split sack,
the bony, filthy haunches of cows…
And “barn” is only a noun- no verb
or subject has entered into the sentence yet!
The voice you hear when you read to yourself
is the clearest voice: you speak it
speaking to you.

Thomas Lux from New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995 (Mariner Books)

 

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