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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
March 2005

Poetry and Audio Reviews

Last week Diane Rehm hosted US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser on her long-running National Public Radio show. At one point, a listener called in and asked Kooser, "How does one read poetry?" She was referring, with the bluntness of her question, to the challenge of understanding poetry, a task even for academics who study and teach it. Poetry is the art of arranging words musically to create a system of thought, and just as there are infinite kinds of music, there are infinite systems of thought. "Two Infinities" would be an interesting title for a poem on poetry. Perhaps the first line would be a question: "What is the sum of two infinities?"

Kooser replied unflinchingly that the caller's question was a consequence of the way poetry is taught: "We believe there is more there than may even be." Immediately, a bell went off in my head -- metaphorically speaking, of course. On a semi-regular basis I answer inquiries from readers about statements in my reviews. The gist of many of these is, "Please let me know what you really think, what's written between the lines."

Such questions are the product of many things, including a reviewing community in which the idea of accurate reporting takes a backseat to presenting strong opinion. Being an audio guru -- thinking that one's words alone should and will move consumers to buy -- is the goal of far too many audio writers, and it's a practice that does the audio industry no good. It implies that there are no standards for musical reproduction outside a writer's belief system, and therefore everything sonic is relative. Years ago when I taught poetry, I read more than a few student papers that were based on premises that the work of literature discussed -- the words on the page -- would not support. Likewise, I've read more than a few audio reviews whose qualitative judgments certainly didn't align with what I've experienced from the same products.

But there's another reason readers believe that reviewers don't say everything in their reviews: Reviewers don't say everything in their reviews. Those audio writers who believe in accurate reporting above unadulterated opinion have to do something that requires a poet's skill: translate sound into words. Inexactness is inherent to this translation, as is the brevity that deadlines demand. Thus, there may actually be information missing from reviews, but it's not due to any deep, dark conspiracy or hidden agenda. It's a matter of time and a writer's skill. We audio reviewers are direct -- we try to convey everything we hear -- but we are not always precise.

Therefore, audio reviews, like poetry, require some participation from the reader. Kooser counseled the woman who called in that poetry can be read "as experience." "The poet presents us with an experience, and we can do with it what we wish." Audio reviews, useful ones, are also the product of experience, including your experience, which is vital to the process of discovering good and great audio equipment.

Kooser ended his segment in a meaningful way, by reading some of his work. This underscored the fact that poetry, like high-end audio, is an auditory art.

...Marc Mickelson

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