Hallo to you as Spring tries to spring. Back in Ireland, there’s snow, and other friends are texting photos of either sun, or snow, too.
When I was about seven, I heard my older sister practicing her memorisation of a poem for class. “The Listeners,” by Walter de la Mare. It’s a poem about a “Traveller” — it’s capitalised in the poem — who has come, at night, to a building. “Is anybody there?” is the first sentence. He has a horse, and his horse is uneasy. There’s noise — a bird erupts from the building, and the Traveller knocks again. The point of view of the poem goes from the building, to the environment, to the man himself — his grey eyes, his pose.
Then the point of view changes and we see that the building isn’t empty. There are ghosts inside, ”a host of phantom listeners”. They listen — it’s they who give the poem its title — on the stair that goes down to the empty hall.
The Traveller knows that something’s listening. “He felt in his heart their strangeness,” and he keeps knocking, shouting, “Tell them I came, and no-one answered, / That I kept my word”. He had a message to give, and he gave the message to the listeners. The listeners, for their part, stayed silent, even as he left, and “the silence surged softly backward / When the plunging hoofs were gone”.
The poem has a friendly sense of horror to it: the phantoms, the ghost, the sound of the bird breaking the silence, the anxiety of the horse, the image of the ghosts thronging. The horror of it stays with me still. To my seven-year-old ears the poem was utterly thrilling. I could not wait until I was twelve and would need to learn it. I didn’t forget. By the summer before I was due to turn twelve, I’d looked through the poetry textbook for the year and saw “The Listeners” there. I knew it before the school year started. I know it still.
For all its appeal to children, and Walter de la Mare wrote many poems for children, it’s sophisticated, with the rhythmic beat undergoing delicious syncopations. Read it aloud to yourself — it’s below. The final rhyme is imperfect, with “stone” being rhymed with “gone”… when you read it aloud, you’re looking for something that’ll rhyme gorgeously, giving a sense of closure, so that visual but sonically imperfect link between “stone” and “gone” gives a mild sense of dissatisfaction and unresolve. What perfection. (It reminds me of how Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” ends on a chord that hasn’t been used anywhere else in the song. But, I digress. However, all praise to Joni.)
Sometimes I think the poem’s psychology is about time (I know, I know, I think every poem is about time) and I wonder what it is in a self that listens but doesn’t satisfy. Or, I think of what can never be said, the things for which there is no language.
I’d love to hear how you connect with it. Have a read — gird yourself with your best voce dramatis and intone it with rhythm and gusto! — and let me know what lines interest you.
I’m still in New York, although heading to Memphis this week, before Seattle and Florida in a few weeks after that (details below). So today, it’s the role of traveller that appeals to me. North American English spells it with one L, I know, but other Englishes spell it with two. I like that — another way in which we are strange to each other. From my travels to yours. Hallo.
The Listeners | Walter de la Mare
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
(This poem is in the public domain)
Poetry in the World
Poetry at Calvary Episcopal Church | Memphis, TN
I’ll be in Memphis this week offering a series of events in association with Calvary Episcopal Church, March 15-19. While the half-day retreat on Saturday is fully booked, you may wish to go on the waiting list. You can find more details on their website about the surrounding events of the week.
Seattle Arts & Lectures Series | Seattle, WA
On Monday, April 3, I’ll be interviewing Chris Abani, the magnificent novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright, as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series. If you’re in the Seattle area, I’d love to see you at the Rainier Arts Center. It’s also available to view live online. Tickets for whichever option is best for you can be found here. Whether in person or through the web, join us at 7:30pm PT.
Poetry Reading at Eckerd College | St. Petersburg, FL
On the evening of April 6, I’ll be giving a reading — followed by a Q&A and a signing — at Eckerd College in Florida. The details aren’t up yet, but I’ll include them here next week.
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.”
In addition to the whole snowy silence of the poem, these lines struck me. It makes me think about how our journeys are our journeys and we show up and we keep our integrity regardless of what the result is.
So today, I will show up, show up for myself on this journey of life. Others are welcome to open the door for me when I arrive, but I cannot force the door open, nor shall I make up the stories of why they did not open the door. But I have myself. And the sky. And the journey continues.
I like the line “ how the silence surged softly backwards” as the poem itself closes. I felt like a listener myself in the end.