Not long ago, I was driving down a long, flat stretch of highway and listening on my iPod to an interview of Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, he of such soul-ripping lines as, “You will always be the bread and the knife, not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow — the wine.” In the interview, he kept saying things I wanted to remember, bits and pieces of sentences that I wanted to scratch out on tiny slips of paper and stuff into a phylactery and feel bouncing on my forehead as I walked through the day; phrases I wanted to tattoo on the underside of my eyelids so that I might fall asleep staring into their mystery and contemplating their magic; single words I wanted to turn into Tropical Fruit Life Savers and dissolve on my tongue in all their artificially colored sweetness.
I’ve been trying to cut down on writing while I drive, though, so instead of reaching for the pen and pad I keep in the console, I opened this relatively new app on my phone. It’s called Evernote. I heard about it from my preacher in a sermon he delivered back in the spring. (My church is cool like that. We talk about apps and stuff.) With Evernote, I can speak what I want to remember into the telephone, and its amazing technology translates my voice into words and saves them as a computer file.
So Billy Collins was saying that most writers talk about “writing what you know” but that poets are different. “We write what we hear,” he said. It was a succinctly beautiful line. I did not want to lose it. I picked up the phone, tapped the icon to begin recording and spoke slowly and loudly enough to overcome the road noise: “We write what we hear.”
I discovered later, when I got the opportunity to go back and review my dictation, that Evernote had some difficulty in understanding my South Georgia drawl. “We write what we hear” had morphed into “we write what be here.” I started laughing and then realized that, improper grammatical structure aside, there was equal truth in the scrambled version of the poet’s declaration.
The breath of a buck blowing hard in the blackness at the edge of the deck. My own heart beating in rhythm to the pulse of one small star penetrating that same blackness. A voice, long silenced, reciting words long remembered. The breath, the heartbeat, the voice overlaid like tracks of music — brass over percussion over strings. Those sounds, those distinct vibrations moving through the air as waves that get caught by the curve of my ear and pushed through narrow fissures of tissue to a brain that then declares, “Remember that other night when ... ?” We write what we hear.
But at the same time, in the same words, writing acknowledges the existence of “what be here” and, in so doing, makes it real to both writer and reader. When words are stitched, strung, woven or pasted together, the invisible becomes visible, the intangible concrete, the ephemeral lasting. It is why we excavate ruins for clay tablets and papyrus scrolls, present diplomas and proclamations, issue marriage licenses and birth certificates. We need to make a record to make our existence real.
Billy Collins wasn’t speaking just for poets, and Evernote wasn’t mistranscribing just for me. With each thought and smile and sigh offered up into the world, we are writing what we hear — and writing what be here in this challenging, astonishing, mysterious world.