(For Gloria Johnson) Dinner is done, and the dishes. Dog has eaten and gone outside. I sit now at my desk listening to classical music and trying to finish writing a quiz for American literature this fall while the sun goes down. My phone dings with an alert, which means I will pick it up, and I will get lost for 20 minutes checking the socials, all because I forgot to silence the damn thing, and so it is that right in the middle of writing the third of four possible answers on a multiple choice question, I learn that a grad school mentor is retiring, and I am suddenly struck with a sadness so deep that I forget to return to the question. Instead I sit in my room while voices from the radio intone Whitacre’s “Sleep,” which now sounds like a dirge, and the music and the dusk mix with my memories, and I can see the room and the desks, eager master’s candidates in a circle discussing Kazin’s “A Walker in the City,” and I remember being your student and how much you taught me with nary a quiz. © 2020 Deb Moore, All Rights Reserved
How many poems should an undergrad read? It’s not a riddle or a rhetorical question like licks on a lollipop or the number of years it would take one hundred monkeys to type Shakespeare. It is the dilemma I face again for the 25th or 42nd time devising a reading list for American Literature, 1865 to the Present. I’ve built it, shaped it, tweaked it, trimmed it. I took out Philip Roth and added Toni Cade Bambara. I took out Pound and added Ellison, de- colonizing my syllabus piece by piece, semester by semester. I add up the numbers one more time: white men 13, Black men 11, white women 8, Black women 4. I cling to Frost but release Eliot, trade Fitzgerald for Nella Larsen, and Twain for Chesnutt. I think about the works we’ve read, The voices we’ve heard, the ones we have allowed to shape us, tweak us. How much more we learn about our hidden shames, our hidden selves, from Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin than from the retyping of Hamlet or the mimicking of Faulkner. So I pile on Dunbar and Washington and Dubois, Wells and Johnson and McKay, Toomer and Cullen and Wright, I add in Hayden, Brooks, Morrison, Baraka, Lorde, Clifton and Walker, Wilson and Dove and Kincaid. It’s a lot, I know. So I try to ration, pare it down so the students won’t hate me, but how many Langston Hughes’ poems should an undergrad read? All of them. © 2020 Deb Moore, All Rights Reserved
I read out loud whenever I’m alone. My grandfather advised me to do this when I was just seven or eight. He told me it would improve not only my reading comprehension but also my speaking voice and vocabulary, so I have done this religiously ever since.
The satisfaction this brings is difficult to describe. When I recommend the practice to my students, I can read their eyes clearly. They think I’m crazy. They can’t imagine that anyone would actually do what I’m suggesting. I do my best to sell them by delineating the academic benefits they may derive. Perhaps I’m afraid that fully expressing the pure pleasure I get from reading aloud will forever damage my reputation with my students. I’ll be on the express train from cool professor who cusses and understands social media to virginal cat-lady whose punny allusions to Pope or Emerson are met with blank stares.
I could never tell them that not only do I read aloud, I often stand up and act out the parts. I could never tell them how many common household items have been used as a microphone. I could never tell them that Austen and Woolf and Wordsworth and Dickens must all be read with a British accent. And I could certainly never tell them that, because of all of the above, reading one of Shakespeare’s plays is practically a sexual experience.
How do I begin to describe how delicious the words are as they line up in my throat, roll around in my mouth, and bounce off my teeth?
Even before that, though, words begin in the eye. The very shape of them on the page cues cognition, emotion, mood, energy, lungs, diaphragm, sometimes even tiptoes. What do they ask in terms of volume, emphasis, feeling? How long is the sentence? Where is the next breath going to come?
The t. How could I ever express proper love for the t? An alliterative t is like a multiple orgasm. Two to tango. Trick or treat. Turn the tables. Trials and tribulations. Test of time. You can feel that in places only euphemistically acknowledged in polite company.
The t is so sexy that it makes other letters hotter than they would be alone. The h, for instance. All by itself, h is a lot like my Uncle Harold—warm, friendly, but not exceptionally exciting. If t is tantalizing, h is hearty. If t is tasty, h is healthy. No part of the mouth is actually required for h. Have a heart. Hem and haw. Happy holidays. But put a t with it, and now you’ve got something. Thick and thin. Thick as thieves. Think it through. Hither and thither. And throw me out with the bathwater if I fail to mention “thrust.” “Thrust” is so deeply satisfying that one almost needs to smoke a cigarette afterward.
Perhaps the best t is the one sandwiched between s’s. Exists. Dentists. Instrumentalists. Anti-capitalists. Linguists. Geneticists. This t is a bit of a sadomasochist. It’s in charge, but you’ll never really know that. At just the moment when it would drown completely in the stormy, sputtering, swelling seas, it pokes its head up and hisses, “Not without me, you don’t.” It broadcasts its existence in tiny bursts, like catalysts for suppressed sound.
The k or hard c sound is a kick in the pants as well. A comedian told me several years ago that this consonant sound is the secret to comedy. The word “fuck” isn’t favored by comedians because they all have potty mouths. The k sound is actually known to be the funniest sound in the English language. It hits the ear in a way that tickles. Even comedians who don’t cuss that often (do they exist?) will try to find a way to put that sound in most of their punchlines. A conk to the cranium is simply funnier than a blow to the head.
In the earlier reference to reading Shakespeare, I was tempted to describe it as “life-altering” or “transcendent,” mostly because I was concerned I might have too many sexual references in this piece. But, those choices would cause me to lose the hard k sound. The x is actually a plural k; it’s phonetically rendered as “eks.” So, while transcendence may be descriptive, sex is funny.
D, on the other hand, always means business. It’s a serious sound. It’s the strength of dad, the finality of death, the suing for damages. In order for d to be funny, it has to be doubled—diddly—or paired with z’s—dazzle, dizzy, drizzle.
R’s can be problematic. The Scottish part of my DNA wants to linger on them just a wee bit. They really should roll. R’s are more susceptible to accent variations than most other letters. They don’t exist in Boston. They’re inserted where they don’t belong in the American South and parts of the Midwest (warsh the car). The British soften it in the upper class and squawk it in the lower. Pirates rely on it almost exclusively. I don’t know what Bostonian pirates do, but if I ever meet one, I’ll be sure to listen closely, hoping against hope to hear, “Parrrrrrk the carrrrrr in Harrrrrrrvard Yarrrrrrrd.”
(Note: Those of you who think consideration of how pirates would pronounce an r is only included for comedic purposes have obviously never read Treasure Island aloud.)
Only people who read out loud—newscasters, actors, and me—take the time to extensively parse all 26 letters and all 44 sounds in the English language. We know how to make a humble n sing or sink. We know the treasure of an azure sea. We know that a caged giraffe and an edgy soldier have something in common, though we might have to exaggerate to prove it. We know that jilted brides put the bouquet back in the box. We know that yo-yo and hallelujah share no letters.
Knowing these things begs for the practice of them like the feel of a baseball seems to demand at least a toss in the air. The more it is practiced, the more pleasure it brings. A first sexual experience is rarely a virtuoso performance, but most of us still feel compelled to put in the time required to become an expert. And, much like copulation, reading aloud is a physical, cerebral, emotional, and spiritual experience. You will know this to be true when you read Wordsworth aloud to a class of sophomores and end through a voice cracking with tears. If you can read “Tintern Abbey” without feeling emotion, without expressing emotion, then you’re doing it wrong.
In fact, in my opinion, all teachers should take an acting class. Elocution alone is enough for Henry Higgins, but it took more than that for Rex Harrison to earn the Oscar. Proper enunciation will cause your students to understand your words; acting will make them believe you. And I’ll go one step further: really knowing what you’re saying — the words, the sounds, the meaning — will bring out your latent thespian tendencies.
Without the emotion, the complete surrender to every sound and meaning, Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” becomes as boring as photosynthesis. But with proper attention to intention and adherence to diction, with the well-placed breath and the correct rise and fall of volume and emotion, you will swear you can feel the “mystical moist night-air,” and see Andromeda on the ceiling of your classroom.
Sometimes I even forget, temporarily, that students are in the room with me. Perhaps in those moments when they see the exuberant joy, they get a brief glance at the cat lady. But, I believe, every now and then, one or two of them get it. I see it in their eyes, where the words begin and where they sometimes slip out the corners in liquid form. In that moment, I envision one of them, maybe, possibly, will someday stand in front of a classroom and encourage students to read aloud.
Purely for academic benefit, of course.
© 2020 Deb Moore, All Rights Reserved