Last week, while reading remarks from the Irish novelist Kevin Barry in The Atlantic's By Heart series ("How Fiction Can Survive in a Distracted World"), I heard another writer's voice break in. Barry, who had spoken by phone with Atlantic contributor Joe Fassler, was discussing the various challenges to sustained readerly attention. "We’ve changed very much as readers of texts, in recent years. We’re much more impatient now — I think, primarily, because we’re all online, all the time." But, he reflected, the human voice "can still arrest us, slow us down, and stop us in our tracks." This was a preface to his specific appreciation for the captivating power of "Under Milk Wood," Dylan Thomas's "play for voices."
It was just after Barry had demonstrated the particularly inviting effects of the opening voice in the play, which asks us repeatedly to listen, that I was listening to Robert Frost's voice, talking from somewhere in my memory.
I went looking for the source, which turned out to be a letter Frost wrote from England in 1914 to John Bartlett, his friend and former student. Soon I had Barry talking in one browser window and Frost writing in another. And a minute later, Barry was standing on one side of an imagined stage, inside his home in County Sligo, the phone to his ear, while Frost sat writing at a desk on the other side. A bare space at center stage — and almost exactly a century — separated them, but still they conversed, in a way.
FROST: (voicing what he writes) The ear does it.
Barry pauses. Pulls the phone from his ear for a moment, as if he's heard something in the room.
FROST: The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.
BARRY: (continuing into the phone) I always think there are two kinds of readers. There are readers who read with their eyes —
FROST: Eye readers we call them. They can get the meaning by glances.
BARRY: — who process a text in images —
FROST: But they are bad readers because they miss the best part of what a good writer puts into his work.
BARRY: — and I think there are readers who read with their ears, who listen, as the sentences unfold across the page. I’m of the latter variety.
FROST: (nodding) You listen for the sentence sounds.
BARRY: My ear is my critical tool.... It’s what catches the false notes.
FROST: I wouldn’t be writing all this if I didn’t think it the most important thing I know.