ENO Word Series – Listen To This

Writer Helen Dunmore, Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and Channel 4’s Jon Snow came together on Monday 15th November in St-Martin-in-the-Fields to discuss with Francine Stock their fascination for a particular human voice that has inspired them.






Andrew Motion
Andrew Motion
The event, part of the ENO’s Word Series in association with English PEN, began with talks from the three participants in turn. In the intimate setting of the church, Andrew Motion started the evening by presenting a memory of a dance that was performed at a funeral service he had attended and how the simple, eloquent language of the body can remind us of the limitations of the human voice in expressing feelings of grief and loss.  The extent to which we truly know how much we are understood by, and understand, others was central to his discussion of the writings of Edward Thomas and the sense of pain and solitude they manage to express.

For Helen Dunmore it was the voice of Thomas Hardy that spoke to her from a young age, both through poetry and prose,






Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore

as she responded to their similarity of background and situation. She was interested greatly in the way in which the voice acts on the ear and to demonstrate read out loud Hardy’s moving poem The Voice (‘Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me…”). Of particular interest to her was how both the images and the rhythms in the poem, written for Hardy’s first wife, unite and encourage the reader to respond to Hardy’s haunting, ironical and powerful voice, a voice she compared to Orpheus’, briefly bringing life again to his lost Eurydice.






Jon Snow
Jon Snow
Jon Snow, fresh from reading the news, began with the idea that nostalgia is never stronger than when tripped by sound and entertained the audience with a Proustian barrage of memories – his mother playing Brahms, singing as a chorister in Winchester Cathedral, the screams of his children after birth, listening to the radio in foreign places and the energy of 60s music – conveyed by a rousing chorus of The Beatles’ “SHE LOVES YOU YEAH, YEAH, YEAH”! Pushed to name the single most inspirational voice, however, Jon Snow chose Mandela’s voice of hope and empowerment against oppression.

The Chair, Francine Stock, continued to explore the relationship between sound and sense from several aspects.






Francine Stock
Francine Stock
The importance of small-talk or chit-chat was recognised, which lead to the idea that perhaps it is the sound of the voice that makes an emotional connection far more greatly than the sentiment expressed in words. What happens when we speak on the telephone and there is only voice (a particular example being the intimate work of the Samaritans)?  Following these thoughts was a communal relief that technology has been unable so far to replicate the empathetic cadences of the human voice.

Questions from the audience broadened the discussion to the subject of forgotten voices – the unheard sounds of the lonely, the oppressed and neglected; Jon Snow responding to these thoughts beggared the question of whether we need to tune out certain voices – could we really cope if we really listened to the voices of grief? And yet, acknowledgement was made of the connective power of voice, even in the direst of times and situations.

Finally the guests were encouraged to choose their ‘Desert Island’ sound. Helen Dunmore chose the sound of a snatch of her daughter laughing, for Andrew Motion it was Philip Larkin reading his poem, and, ever the gregarious one, Jon Snow chose a choral heap of voices, to remind him in his solitude of the complex variety of human voices that we hear.

Many thanks to the ENO Word Series, Liam Browne, and all the speakers for making the evening possible.

Report by Louise Curran

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/listentothis/

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