Meaning: I Hear You

On Robert Creeley's Radio Play, Listen
Kyle Schlesinger

The year Creeley was born (1926), Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden (later known as Amos În' Andy) began performing radio skits on WGN out of Chicago. In the midst of the depression, the radio would certainly have been a qualifying source of information, comic and tragic, for the young poet. The radio projects voices without faces, sounds without objects and results without cause, leaving it to the listener's inductive imagination to abstract sense from sound. Years later, through some fluke, the broadcast signal from Cid Corman's radio show "This is Poetry" made its way from Boston to Creeley's chicken farm in Littleton, New Hampshire. After listening in, Creeley wrote to Corman, who in turn asked if he would read on the program, and that subsequently put him in touch with Charles Olson, etc.


    Perhaps it is the fact that Listen was written to be heard that it continues to carve in my memory's ear. Orality turned, and continues to turn, into writing because it fixes words in place by putting them in play on the page. Writing marks time, but more substantially, it marks our experience of it by casting language into a solid form of meaning-a form as solid as the air and airwaves surrounding it. It is this contrast between an experience of time, and the timelessness of experience that makes the mediums of Listen (print and sound) particularly apt environments for the deep ruminations exchanged between its two characters. It was performed for a London radio station with Creeley playing the part of "HE" and Bobbie Louise-Hawkins playing "SHE" in the early seventies.* While the clear frequencies of their thoughts run parallel to one another momentarily (like a transmitter and receiver) the course of the conversation is plotted by the static between stations. It is in these intervals of white noise that the listener turns the dial, moving from one significant course in the conversation to another. Like Beckett, Bachman and Federman's radio plays, Creeley takes full advantage of the absence of setting (as opposed to the play written for the stage) to make the unencumbered shifts between scenes move with the lucidity of the speakers' memories, hallucinations and respective imaginations. The affect is one of attention. Please read these words aloud:



I was thinking of you-I suppose in some ways being here again-even perhaps wondering whether memory's just this kind of insistent coming back and back. I don't even know really which one you are. It isn't a question of being afraid of something or being in various ways suspicious of whatever it is that does seem to come here. But, seeing people, out the window, looking at this kind of light, this fading pink, this fading blue, the trees towering up above this snow-I couldn't really be confident that something should so necessarily be wrong, always. Is it just a question of whether, let's say, it was right or wrong, always that kind of retrospective analysis or judgment? I suppose, very obviously, a question therefore, does the snow do what it's supposed to do?


    When I say you can't be "the same person forever," I mean I couldn't either, nor can I remember you as you were to me then and there without thinking of this you in the here and now-but how? The play assumes the form of a dialogue between the pronouns "HE" and "SHE" but it quickly becomes evident that this conversation can't converge. It isn't quite like two ships passing in the night, but more like a submarine passing below the Mayflower; two vessels vacillating between irreconcilable pasts. Where the constitution of one was once affirmed by its ability to address the other, they now share shards of a language they can never reinhabit together. HE says, "You didn't listen" and SHE says, "I was here." The uncanny juxtaposition of interior, if not impossible, histories intensifies the torque in the spiraling narrative, while the stage directions (which are actually read aloud by Creeley rather than executed) serve as a third interlocutor,  offering some comic relief to this "late-night movie mock-up of existential hearsay." Speaking under, or around, the auspices of conversation, one wonders if one has ever heard the other at all-if "they" or any of "us" could ever coinhabit a language or past.


    The activity of finding the words to locate the writer's place in time is constant for Creeley-from the half-fictitious condition of the protagonist of his early novel, The Island to his last collection of poems, If I Were Writing This-reading Creeley, I often have the sense that I am feeling for a vocabulary as one feels for a landing on a dark flight of stairs. Landing there, "You-I keep thinking it could have been different, it could have been different each time it could have been" and it is from that vantage that the poet's investigation of languages' potential to locate seems most possible.


    Later, HE reads from Wittgenstein, "'The I, the I is what is deeply mysterious!'" and SHE asks, "Do you have to read it over and over?" Earlier, SHE states, "I can't live without an actual place to live . . ." These passages are an accretion of monologues, the voices one hears in the room of one's own head after all these years. Elsewhere, Wittgenstein has written, "Language is the house that man lives in" and it is in that room that the echoes and edges of Creeley's language seem most at home. HE says, "I'm not really talking to myself?" and SHE says, "I'm not really talking to you. We're obviously-I'm not sitting here simply talking to you simply not talking-to me?" Throughout this endlessly elliptical situation entwined in time's substratum, the two suspiciously cast sidelong glances at one another, their gazes intersect for an instant, if only to contradict or buck. SHE says, "You were thinking of memory . . ." and HE retorts, "I think memory is thinking. I think memory is thinking memory . . ." The subject of memory becomes the activity of thinking, not a thing to think about--this is the way writing remembers. SHE says, "You were saying that you were sorry that you weren't where you were when you weren't there. That would be the way you would say it, wouldn't you." Here, you can be everywhere and nowhere at once.


    To listen is to give attention, just as the poet attends to the art of listening. That is what the poem (be it spoken or written) communicates, and this exchange is what "listening" is all about: the act of being attentive to the way you pause before asking a question, the width of the white space between her words or the way he staggers his "s" sounds. Listen up. It is not enough to say "I hear you" when you really mean "I've heard it all before" for listening is listing, to take notice or take out your pen to mark the particulars-to offer care by way of the ear. It is here, in the atmosphere of Listen that the reader watches it all through a transparent revolving door; "listening out" for the signal,  "listening in" on another conversation as it continues to turn. Tune in. Turn on. You hear.