Essay: Listening for Stars

by Mina Gorji

Late at night. Everyone has gone to bed. You are sitting listening to the quiet. Now and then your ear picks up the hum of the fridge in the kitchen. The washing machine begins its final frantic acceleration, like a rocket preparing to launch. It is just after midsummer. Outside, the stars are silent. Venus has returned to the northern hemisphere. Gradually, fainter stars begin to emerge as your eyes get used to the dark. And your ears tune in to quiet. Listening out into that vast quiet distance. The stars are silent from where we stand. A pale moon appears. It is a new moon, a crescent moon, a quiet moon as it was once called.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had an ear tuned to quiet. Sitting up alone late at night in November 1803, he recorded his listening in a notebook: the ticking of his watch, “& the far lower note of the noise of the Fire— perpetual, yet seeming uncertain”. He hears in the faint crackle of the fire “the low voice of quiet change”, the voice “of Destruction doing its work by little & little”. Listening to quiet.

In his great poem ‘Frost at Midnight’, written in February 1798, under a new moon, Coleridge is listening. And inviting us to listen with him. To the silence of frost on a windless night. Broken by the call of an owlet. His ear notices that it’s an owlet, rather than an owl. A young owl. Inside the cottage, it is calm. His baby son Hartley slumbers in his arms. The poem that emerges is a listening meditation. Listen.

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
’Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

That repeated word “loud”, describing the “owlet’s cry”, primes our ears, or rather, our mind’s ear, or what Robert Frost called the imagining ear, to listen for a certain pitch of sound, heightening the shift into quiet that follows. Through the calm, the “strange and extreme silentness”, a thin blue flame comes into focus. Perfectly still. Not a quiver. Like the string of a lute, silent in stillness. Only the film of soot is moving now, fluttering on the grate, not still as in quiet, but, with a slight adjustment, still fluttering, moving, continuing to move, against the grate of the fire. It is “the sole unquiet thing”.

Coleridge invites us to listen and to think, and think again, about the music of quiet, and the words we use to describe it. Peaceful. Calm. Still. Hush. Dim. Secret. That word “secret” in the very first line of the poem would have suggested quiet to Coleridge’s first readers, since “secret” carried the sense, no longer current, of reticence, of quiet and closeness (keeping something close, keeping it secret). A secret is unsounded. Silent. The frost “performs a secret ministry”. We do not hear the icy patterns forming on the windowpane. Nor do we hear the poem’s first rhyme, between “ministry” and “cry”, it is an eye rhyme, silent.

Then, through that icy silence, an owlet’s cry. We feel as though we’re standing with Coleridge, listening with him as we shift from past tense “came loud” to the present “hark, again!”, moving from the distance of the past to the immediacy of HARK, give ear, listen! But to what? To the owlet. And then, the quiet. To the calm breathing of a baby. To the “strange and extreme silentness”, inaudible as dreams, to the flutter of soot, to the silence of icicles, and the quiet of the moon. The poem’s last lines imagine sounds beyond the frosted windowpane:

         whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

That word “heard” alerts us. To the sound of water dripping from the eaves, only audible in the “trances of the blast”, in the quiet pauses between gusts of wind. “[T]rances” suggests a state of suspension; Coleridge is using a term that describes a state of human consciousness, a liminal state, “between sleeping and waking; […] a stunned or dazed state” (OED), to describe the rhythm of the wind, the quiet between blasts, and doing so subtly conveys the mesmerising experience of listening. This is suggested in the rhythmic patterning of the line as well as semantically: there is a delicate shift of emphasis in the phrase “trances of the”, with its three unstressed beats in a row after tran (-ces of the) suggesting a quieting before the stressed word “blast” sounds at the end of the line. This moment of absorbed, focused listening prepares us for the distant echo in the next line. We are back to that “secret ministry of frost” we heard at the start of the poem. But now the frost is hanging up the water drops “in silent icicles”. Silent, because they no longer splash like water drops between “the trances of the blast”. They are frozen. “Silent icicles”.

That word “silent” invites our listening. Our ears become subtly attuned to the sounds of the word silence itself, which shifts, thaws gently into quiet. The line “quietly shining to the quiet moon”, picks up, echoes back, the i sound repeated in silent icicles, recalling the sound of that word silence even as it suggests something different. Quiet, not silent. It’s not, as it might have been, silently shining to the silent moon, but quietly shining to the quiet moon; and this shift suggests a slight adjustment, a thawing of silence into quiet sound. Because although quiet can sometimes mean silent, it usually suggests a low or subdued sound. Quietly shining to the quiet moon. As quietly dims into the shorter quiet, it draws our ear to listen in again, to the possibility of the moon’s quiet sound. How can we hear the moon across vast distances of sky? And as the distance opens up, the poem itself recedes. That last line is shorter, missing a stress. So that instead of the five-stress line our ears have become used to, here there are only four, quietly shining to the quiet moon. And we are left both with a sense of lack and anticipation, as we listen out for the missing stress. Listening in to the silence.

And it’s this impossible listening, for a sound that we can never hear, which stirs imagination. A great poet, Coleridge explained, in a letter to his friend William Sotheby, should be able to listen with “the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent Desart”. Listening. But for what? It is the state of listening itself, this hearkening that Coleridge is describing. Listening at night in his cottage in Nether Stowey, under a quiet moon, he invites us to listen too.

. . .

the first whisper of stars is a faint thing

Down the road, metal ears are listening for stars. One of the first radio telescopes – the 4C Array – was built here, on the outskirts of Cambridge, in the 1950s. Captured German radio antennae repurposed to hear the faintest signals from space, radio waves sent out light-years ago, picked up like a whisper. In her poem ‘A Star Here and a Star There’, Alice Oswald tunes her ears to the frequency of stars:

Star sound carried across vast distances, amplified by the poet’s imagining ear, to the intimacy of a whisper, “a faint thing”, a candle’s gentle sputter, “too faint to read by”. Moving between eye and ear, light and sound, the poem explores what it means to perceive stars, shifting scale and register, oscillating between far away and intimate. ‘A Star Here and a Star There’ is the first of the concluding sequence of poems in Oswald’s third collection Woods etc. (2005) that explore the further reaches of our skies, from moon to the deep silence of space, including ‘Moon Hymn’, ‘Various Portents’, ‘Excursion to the Planet Mercury’, and ‘Sonnet’, the final poem in the collection, which describes “Spacecraft Voyager 1 boldly gone / into Deep Silence”.

In ‘A Star Here and a Star There’, the stars move in and out of our ken, in and out of focus. Oswald creates a sense of distance in a number of ways, shifting font size, for instance. In the first half of the poem she uses a smaller typeface for the repeated words from the title, a phrase that flickers and repeats in variations, transforming as it goes: “a star here / and a star there […] and a star / here and there / and / here and there the / start of a”. At first we hear it like the trace of a refrain, then like a message sounding intermittently, fading in and out. The smaller type creates a sense of distance, of visual perspective, giving the impression that these stars are smaller somehow, further away.

Oswald creates dynamic shifts of scale in other ways too, moving between linguistic registers, from the close domestic familiarity of the candle and its faint whisper, to the exotic names of faraway stars, those stars that rise “and give themselves airs”:

“Alkaid Mizar Alioth” are the names of stars that make up what’s commonly known as the Big Dipper in Ursa Major. The tail of the Great Bear, Alkaid is its most easterly star, one of the brightest in the night sky. Alkaid is also one of the fifteen Behenian stars used in medieval magic rituals; its name appearing in the poem introduces an incantatory, mysterious quality. “Phad Merak Muscida”, the names of more stars in Ursa Major, appear a few lines later, interrupting the simple linguistic register (“Here and there the / start of a”), so that the poem’s language moves from the familiar to the faraway, like a radio shifting between stations, from the everyday words “here and there”, to another more mysterious and higher linguistic frequency, before shifting back to the familiar and the bodily, “it’s like blowing a ring of cinders”. From the further reaches of Ursa Major, back to the closeness of the breath, and the warmth of cinders. The repeated in sounded in “blowing”, “ring” and “cinders” suggests the flare-up of light in sound, but also the flickering of a star far away, a moment of brightness, and then hesitation: will the ring of cinders light up, fade, flicker?

The repetition of words in the poem also suggests the intermittent light of stars seen across vast distances and time, “here and there / and / here and there the”. There is a flicker of rhythm, not quite gathering, patterns almost repeated, hinted, half-heard, the whispering flicker of a star. That unexpected word “hear” in “trying to make you hear who they once were” (how can a star make you hear?) is echoed in the repeated “here” in “here and there / and / here and there”, drawing our ear across the lines, and to the trace of star in “start”. The fragility of starlight viewed from our distant planet is played out and suggested across the sounds the poem makes, patterns appearing, fading, reappearing slightly altered, so that the poem’s shifts and flickerings serve as a vast receiving ear, a radio telescope picking up a signal far away, in and out of range.

Several of the poems in Woods etc. dramatise moments of listening: to stars, to the silence of clouds, to the rain crackling the air, to the smack of a skimming stone as it contacts the water, to the sound of trees in the river (“put your ear to the river you hear trees”), and the sound of the river widening in trees (“put your ear to the trees”). To the sound of an owl:

last night at the joint of dawn,
an owl’s call opened the darkness

miles away, more than a world beyond this room

and immediately, I was in the woods again,
poised, seeing my eyes seen,
hearing my listening heard

‘Owl’ is one of Oswald’s finest explorations of listening. Here, “at the joint of dawn”, she listens – not for an owl but for its call. The sound of that word call echoes the long a in dawn, giving the reader the sense of a double call, the doubled hooting of an owl. The poem plays with the doubling in various ways; in its sounds, but also in the doubling of perspective, so that the perceiving narrator becomes aware of being perceived, “seeing my eyes seen, / hearing my listening heard”. This pattern of doubling also plays in and through the poem’s sound patterns: that repeated d in dawn and darkness suggests another echoing call. The owl’s call is not sounded in the darkness, it opened the darkness, and doing so it transforms the darkness into something material, something which can be opened, rather than simply an absence of light. Opens into what? The edge of the line. As our eyes move into the white space after “darkness”, here is the possibility of dawn, flickering through the space between the poem’s lines, the empty space where words might have been, a sense of distance opening between the lines as it describes a distance, “miles away, more than a world beyond this room”.

Listening into space, into a pause, Oswald’s line also listens back in time, remembering Wordsworth as “he hung / Listening”, for an owl’s answering cry at the end of a line. Listening to the silence. Suspended. Listening out for owls:

And, when there came a pause
Of silence such as baffled his best skill:
Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

Wordsworth, remembering his own listening. In these lines from ‘There Was a Boy’, which Wordsworth returned to and recast in The Prelude, the boy of Winander is listening. Suspended in the silence, he hears a voice. Not hears, but receives. It is the voice not of owls, but of mountain-torrents. And he receives this sound, this voice, not in his ears, but in his heart. Not in his heart, but far into his heart. Those short words far and into open up great distances: a voice travelling over the hills, across the valleys. Then the surprise intimacy of heart. At once far off and near. The listening heart. The heart transformed, expanded, opened up by listening. By the voice of mountain waters. A voice which disembodies. Which opens up great distances, transforms the heart’s dimensions.

Reflecting on listening in her essay ‘The Universe in time of rain makes the world alive with noise’ (2000), Oswald describes it as

a way of forcing a poem open to what lies bodily beyond it. Because the eye is an instrument tuned to surfaces, but the ear tells you about volume, depth, content – like tapping a large iron shape to find if it’s full or not. The ear hears into, not just what surrounds it. And the whole challenge of poetry is to keep language open, so that what we don’t know yet can pass through it.

In ‘Owl’, the densely echoic language of the poem opens up the visceral experience of owl sound:

then out, until it touched the town’s lights,
an owl’s elsewhere swelled and questioned

twice, like you might lean and strike
two matches in the wind

Here the ow sound in out resounds, in owl’s, and then, at least visually, the w and l in owl’s recurs in swelled. The poem is dense in echoes; as well as the sound of the owl in these lines, the e in elsewhere returns in swelled and questioned. All of these repetitions are drawn out and amplified by that emphatic twice, appearing after a pause, at the start of a line, and emphasised by its placement above two in the next line, a semantic and acoustic echo at once. Twice is a key word in the poem, emphasised acoustically as it is underlined by repeated sounds, the i sound in night, miles, and in strike and echoing back the sound of lights from two lines earlier. The words strike and lights rhyme in sound and sense, since the strike of a match produces flame, and with it, light. And as our ear listens for echoes in the last line it picks up the m from might in matches, the t in two resounds the t in twice and the final repeated in in in and wind. But the poem’s concluding line leaves us listening for a final sound, since it is just slightly – a syllable – shorter than we have come to expect; this lack, along with the absence of closing punctuation, leaves us listening for more, into the wind, into white space.

In a lecture about Ted Hughes given at Oxford University in November 2020, and available online, Oswald describes the white space at the end of a line as a listening space: “A good poem gives up its knowingness at the end of each line, inhales, listens and then starts again.” The end of a line is figured as a moment of breathing, and of listening; the poem itself is listening, listening out, into the silence, into the whiteness of space; listening out for what will happen next.

                                                      I love
to stand among the last trees listening down
to the releasing branches where I’ve been –
the rain, thinking I’ve gone, crackles the air
and calls by name the leaves that aren’t yet there

These lines, this listening, is from Oswald’s sonnet ‘Wood not yet out’. The line break after “listening down” invites the reader to listen down to the next line, “to the releasing branches”. That word “down” in “listening down” gives direction to an act which is not usually directed downwards: we don’t usually “listen down the lane” as we might “look down the lane”, more usually we listen to or for something, sometimes listen up, or, perhaps, we might just listen.

. . .

Jen Hadfield explores the spaces of listening a poem can offer in the concluding poem of The Stone Age (2021). In ‘(Sound travels so far)’, the space opened up in parentheses becomes a listening space. This is a listening which takes place in parenthesis, and describes the way sound travels on a quiet, misty evening: “(Sound travels so far on the quiet evenings especially in mist”. Are words held in parentheses quieter, sounded in a different key or tone, less emphatic? Lunulae: the word describes those crescent moon shapes bracketing words (…) in, out into a different voice, a different emphasis, a different time, a different volume? Not the main clause but an aside, quieter, perhaps. Several of the poems in The Stone Age use the parenthesis as a space for reflection, and Hadfield brackets out the titles too ‘(Lighthouse)’, ‘(Erratic)’, ‘(See how the leopard)’, ‘(You said what you said)’, ‘(Lunar transmission)’, ‘(Fear opens)’, ‘(Your tongue)’, and ‘(Sound travels so far)’, which only appear in the index and not above the poems themselves. The poems appear visually different from the others in the collection, printed in greyscale lettering of different shades and in varying sizes. Threading through the volume, they offer a change of pace and perception and shift how we read the poems in between.

In this short poem ‘(Sound travels so far)’, Hadfield plays with greyscale font of various sizes to suggest a state of heightened listening. The typographic variances also register shifts of volume, amplification and diminuendo. Like Oswald, she plays with graphic codes for volume. If the shrinking font in ‘A Star Here and a Star There’ suggests distance and quiet, in her later long poem, ‘Tithonus’, from Falling Awake (2016), Oswald uses fading coloured font to convey a dimming of sound, a visual language for quietening. In the poem’s final lines, the ink gradually fades, so that the concluding word, “appearing”, is almost invisible, printed in the very lightest shade of grey, as dawn, and light, appear. This fading out produces in visual language an aural effect, the suggestion of diminuendo, in the way that bold or capital letters, larger font size or italics can suggest a louder volume.

Hadfield takes this in a different direction. As we move through the evening poem, down the page, the size of the font increases and fades in colour to paler grey, as it describes sounds heard through the quiet, and through the mist: the strangely human cough of sheep and then, after the white space, we are drawn in to listen again; to the sound of a graveyard gate with its quiet hinge creaking. The increasing font size amplifies the intensity of the quiet sounds described, as if to bring the reader closer as we listen in; it is a kind of dramatic amplification, suggesting the way in which listening in quiet can intensify the sounds heard, heightening our experience of listening.

The size of the font increases again, and now swans (white) appear, and then a gap in the poem, a pause, white space, creating a sense of quiet suspense as we listen again in anticipation, before the poem shifts into another time. Hadfield plays with white space, indenting lines and adding space between lines instead of conventional punctuation to suggest pauses as well as shifts in sound:

The poem’s final image is not of the sound itself but an image of the sound, drifting through simile from bird to boat and out to sky’s shore, the sound of oars sounding in shore and again in hoarse and oarsmen. That “hoarse cry of the oarsmen”, reaches back into a distant Viking past. Hadfield lives on the isle of Shetland, which was colonised by Vikings in the ninth century. The poem describes how sound “travels so far”, reaching back, through the “graveyard gate”, back through the past, far back in time, across the evening and through the language.

Listening to the sounds of evening, Hadfield gestures at a longer Romantic tradition of evening-listening poems. Perhaps the best known of these is Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, which opens with the toll of the “curfew bell”, and travels through the sounds of evening into night, picking out the “lowing herd” and ploughman’s “plod”, the “droning flight” of the beetle, the “drowsy tinklings” of the distant fold, and the “moping owl” complaining to the moon. Hadfield’s poem calls up a different soundscape, and uses graphic techniques to dramatise the sounds, and the experience of listening. She varies font size and colour and uses the white space to create shifts in perception, moments which invite and expand our listening. Framing the sounds of evening in parentheses, she develops a new kind of syntax and language for listening.

Playing with the visual presentation of the poem – with the expressive possibilities of white space, scale and shade – Hadfield and Oswald explore how poetry can translate the experience of listening into new forms. Coleridge too is interested in how poetry can enable and invite new ways of listening. His poem tunes in to the imaginative frequencies of quiet, but also to the ambiguities and histories of words. And he explores the ways in which stress patterns and rhythmic shifts communicate and suggest – not only to our ears and our mind’s ears, but also somatically, drawing our bodies, our breathing, into new ways of thinking in and experiencing sound. These poems all begin with an act of listening – to the quiet of frost at midnight, to the cry of an owl, or the sounds of evening (heard through mist); but it is a listening that extends beyond the physiologically auditory – to where the imagining ear takes over – to hear the quiet of the moon, the voice of change, the distance of the past, the whisper of the stars.

Mina Gorji is Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge. Her debut collection is art of escape (Carcanet, 2020). This article was first published in The Poetry Review, 111:3, autumn 2021. © The Poetry Review and the author.