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Coming to your senses 

I’ve been thinking about the senses recently. Kit de Waal claimed  in a Guardian interview about her reading habits that audio books were now her preferred way of reading;

“I am a devotee of audiobooks. They reach you in a different way – not better, just different and for anyone who struggles with reading or holding a book, they are brilliant (and don’t forget you can use the fast-forward button). Plus they are the only books you can read with your eyes closed.”

I guess this works for fiction but one aspect of poetry is its shape on the page and some performances may not do justice to the sound either as I shall point out later.

The senses form the basis of the first assignment in OCA course The Art of Poetry but Writing Skills is equally dependent on getting students to use their senses as a basis for their writing. If we are to show, not tell, as students are encouraged to do across all modules, then the basis for showing is dependent on the senses. When Chekhov told his brother not to tell him the moon was shining but to show the glint of light on glass, then the writer and the reader have to use their eyes.

There is a poem by Evan Boland,  Hanging curtains with an abstract pattern in a child’s room where she uses the phrase “coming to your senses” with its double meaning of using your physical senses and at the same time acting rationally. Here is an extract:


                                        how the season enters pure line


                                        like a soul: all the signs we know

                                        are only ways


                                        of coming to our senses.

                                        I can see


                                        the distances off-loading colour now

                                        into angles as


                                        I hang their weather in

                                        your room.

But what if you are unable to come to your senses? I recently had a blind student in one of my community groups in Bristol who wrote an impressive description of the fantasy world in which one of his stories was set. When I asked him how he could do this when he would never have had the experience of seeing any of the components of his scene, he said he used sources available on the internet. Of course, in a fantasy story, a sighted person might never have seen the scenario they are describing but they probably will have experienced the components. I watched Tommy Edison, the American who has been blind from birth saying that colours, for example, mean absolutely nothing to him, and he knows that glass is transparent because he has been told you can see an object through it so he can say “Glass is transparent, “ but he has never experienced transparency.

A bit perhaps like me, with a poor understanding of maths. I can say the square root of minus one is the imaginary number, i. But I do not have enough experience of maths so it means absolutely nothing to me although it has been explained to me.

There are emotion and visual imagery thesauruses where writers, sighted or blind, can look up how to describe a character who is showing anger or fear; or where writers can find exemplar settings for their stories: eg what might be experienced through the senses in an antique shop. My first reaction to this is resistance: I’m ready to call out “cheat” but of course as writers we can’t have first-hand experience of everything we want to write about so we read, listen and google.

And this applies to all our senses even if sight is the most basic allowing us to use the metaphor “I see” for “I understand.” You might have no sense of smell but would be quite happy to say “I smell a rat” for I am suspicious.

Beethoven was able to compose music when he was deaf but he had experienced hearing and could imagine the sounds in his head. But what about the writer who is deaf? I have just read Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic which is a sequence of poems presented as a two act play. It reminds me most of Israeli poet Amos Oz’s The Sea in its form and structure and which I referred to in my blog a few months ago after Oz’s death in December 2018.  The similarities are not surprising, both poets being Jews originally whose antecedents are Russian .

Kaminsky is deaf himself so having gone to the USA as a teenager you can’t but hear the strong Russian/American accent in his voice and his deafness leaves him barking at his own print rather than performing it. The sound of poetry is missing in Kaminsky’s performance so it is best to read or perform it yourself. The narrative is about deafness being used as a political weapon by a group of people who feign deafness as a way of resisting a foreign occupying power. The writing is strong stuff. Here is an extract recounting the events the morning after the occupiers shot Petya, a deaf boy:

“Our country woke up the next morning and refused to hear soldiers.

In the name of Petya we refuse.

At six am the soldiers compliment girls in the alleyway, the girls slide by.. pointing to their ears.. At eight the bakery is shut in soldier Ivanoff’s face though he is their best customer. At ten Mama Galya chalks NO ONE HEARS YOU on the gates of the soldier’s barracks.”(P.14)

(From Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky  Faber 2019)

Kaminsky has himself said only hearing people know what silence is, rather like, to develop  Tommy Edison’s explanation, only sighted people can know what absence of colour is. To write well, we each have to come to our senses as best we can.

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Posted by author: Liz Cashdan
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One thought on “Coming to your senses 

  • I’m glad to hear of a writer who doesn’t look down on audio books. When I couldn’t read much for a year they saved me. But once upon a time people only had the oral tradition, and I believe they opposed writing things down at first, thinking it would stop people remembering stories. I find that other senses come into play when I’m listening to a book, like smell and touch. They’re imaginary, of course, but they are easier to imagine than when reading. Perhaps it is because I close my eyes?

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