The Man with the Hearing Aid

October 4, 2007 at 2:20 pm 5 comments

Ted Kooser


A man takes out his hearing aid
and falls asleep, his good ear deep
in the pillow. Thousands of bats
fly out of the other ear.
All night they flutter and dive
through laughter, catching the punch lines,
their ears all blood and velvet.
At dawn they return. The weary squeaks
make the old stone cavern ring
with gibberish. As the man awakens,
the last of the bats fold into sleep.
His ear is thick with fur and silence.

What I love about this poem is the texture – the muffled, fur and velvet thickness of the start and end, contrasted with the freewheeling, ringing clarity of the center. And I’m awed by the directness with which Kooser connects to the imagination, the deftness with which he makes his poem come alive, so that bizarre as this image of an earful of bats is, you understand and even recognize it instantly, feeling immediately the rightness of the metaphor, its authenticity, its precision. Kooser is not really a surrealist, but this is what surrealism at its best feels like.


Entry filed under: English, Falstaff.

The Cat Howl

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Equivocal  |  October 4, 2007 at 4:49 pm

    Didn’t really think the phrase “catching the punchlines” was quite right. The image I get in my literalist’s mind is of bats catching a punchline with their ear as they fly– “catching” doesn’t feel right for even that image, and the mixing of the sound of laughter with the meaning of the punchline seems a little sloppy and juvenile. “with gibberish”, on the other hand, seems to be saying too much, explaining almost. “Weary squeak” also doesn’t sound quite right– what does a bat’s “weary squeak” sound like? Maybe I’m just being dense, but the middle part of this poem doesnt seem clear at all.

    I do like the startling opening of the first four lines, as also the last line, and I like the concept, which is essentially the inner ear or, as Les Murray puts it, “you can have an excellent ear and still be hard of hearing.” but something about this poem, about what happens in the middle, just doesn’t feel right. It sounds a bit like surrealism lite to me.

    Les Murray is hard for me to shake here– he has a poem about bats (bats ultrasound) and a poem about hearing (hearing loss) and both are far farfar better than this one.

    As I say– I’m not very familiar with Kooser’s work, so maybe I’m not properly attuned.

  • 2. falstaff  |  October 4, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    Equivocal: Yes, did feel “catching the punchlines” wasn’t quite right, though I didn’t have a problem with weary squeak or with gibberish. I guess for me what the middle section communicated was a sense of freedom, of the imagination released to swoop and hunt through the night, and then returning tired at dawn to crowd back to a narrow, gloomy reality. I wasn’t necessarily trying to picture the precise actions that Kooser describes.

    Haven’t read the Murray poems you mention (actually have read very little of Murray generally). Will look up.

    As for Kooser – you’re likely to see more of him on this site. I like him – he has aren’t pathbreaking or spectacular, but they’re short, simple, uncomplicated and, at their best, very beautiful.

  • 3. hoon  |  October 5, 2007 at 10:12 am

    The man’s an old man, because of the hearing aid but more specifically because the bats return to an “old stone cavern”. As such he is apt to miss the punch lines of jokes, among other things, in a social setting; and not just due to poor hearing but perhaps from slowing mental processes as well. Thus the central metaphor is between a bat catching insects and a mind catching the meaning of jokes amid the laughter of a social occasion. In his dreaming his youthful mind is restored, nimble as a bat’s flight, capturing everything, most importantly the merriment of social gibberish, and it sense of inclusion. “Their ears all blood and velvet” emphasizes the physical quality of the bats’ ears that make them so acutely sensitive to sound, in contrast to his own ears which are drying out. The figure of a flock of bats suggests the associative network of both mind and party where the making of many meanings are apt to be occuring simultaneously. The dreaming is, however, sadly compensatory, only partially satisfying, as it reminds us of the man’s growing infirmity and social isolation.

  • 4. Equivocal  |  October 5, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    Very interesting reading, Hoon. It helps a lot; though it doesn’t yet make the feeling of the poem being a bit off or a bit sloppy go away– but I perhaps that might come with time.

    I’d like to maybe post the 2 Les Murray poems I mentioned– my preference for them over this might well be that I came by them first, tho I do think that Murray is a great, great poet.

    Perhaps one could do a series on hearing?

  • 5. falstaff  |  October 5, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    hoon: Yes, I thought of the not being able to catch punchlines bit, but I still feel the line itself is awkward. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, it just feels a little too clever, a little too close to a pun. It detracts, for me, from the overall tone of the poem. But maybe that’s just me.

    Equivocal: A series on hearing? Hmmm…now that would be interesting.


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