Hearing Things Wrong: Ode Don’t

It can make it very difficult to take poetry seriously.

‘Ode’, for instance. Because I hear it as ‘owed’ and immediately I’m thinking debt, which is the wrong connotation entirely. 

But I think I may wilfully misconstrue, and that it’s a learned habit. I think I got it from my mother, who may have got it from hers. The women of our family have a tendency towards silliness and raucous laughter. It drove my father daft.

If you can hear a word two ways, I will hear the wrong one. I hear it wrong with my listening eye. That is to say, even when I’m reading.

Last night I witnessed it in action and it wasn’t even me. My other half saw Richard Scott’s new pamphlet Wound sitting on the settee where I had been reading it. ‘Wound?’ he said(to rhyme with sound and pound). ‘Wound what?’ He was looking from a distance so couldn’t see the battle scene etched in red. He was hearing ‘wound’ like wind-up, like a clock.

Which immediately made me think of the difficulty I’ve always had with John Donne’s  ‘And finde / What winde / Serves to advance an honest minde’. I always read ‘winde’ as wind (blow-the-wind-southerly) and then all the rhymes go askew.

I’ve just looked up Richard Burton’s reading of ‘Go and catch a falling starre’ and it’s not just me! If you look down the comment threads under the YouTube clip, you can see a lovely bit about the line ‘Till age snow white haires on thee’. One commenter had always had the wrong sort of hares in mind. Just imagine – a blizzard of mountain hares (they go white in winter, I’ve seen them) hurled at an old man’s head. This is really a sort of mondegreen, I think, which I’ve written about somewhere else, so I won’t start now.

The trouble is, once you’ve got the wrong image into your head, it’s impossible to undo the effect. Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture – you may have read it. A whole set of poems about a love affair that went amiss. So it starts with rapture, like the title suggests, and then things go wrong. They start to go wrong with a poem titled ‘Row’, of which the first line is ‘But when we rowed’, and this line is repeated as the first of the subsequent three stanzas. I’m in a boat. I have two oars in my hand and I’m rowing merrily.

It’s a pun, isn’t it? But it’s an unintended pun, which is what undoes so much. And I am a punster. I can’t help it. If a word can mean two things, I must have them both, and preferably the wrong one.

But in the right circumstances, this tendency can be liberating. It can demystify the over-awing seriousness of Literature. I can still see the astonishment on the faces of students in my college class when we talked about Shakespeare sonnet 135, and the recurrence of the word ‘Will’.

Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?

‘It’s a pun on his name, of course,’ I said. ‘Will Shakespeare. But what else? Come on. Someone tell me. It’s obvious.’ They didn’t get it. They hadn’t yet read the brutal translation on Gradesaver. They treated Shakespeare with respect. I had to say, ‘It’s his willy.’ Some were appalled. Others were delighted. It was a licence to be bad. And bad we went on to be.

 Picture of a soft toy stuffed white hair with huge ears and a slightly absurd expression, sitting up proudly. There is a real wood in the background.

(Hare pinned from Etsy.com)