When poet Susan Utting found, some two and a half years ago, that she could no longer hear in her right ear, there was no immediate cause for concern.
Multi-award winning Utting, who taught poetry and creative writing at Reading University for 17 years, and held a fellowship there, had previously experienced regular bouts of blocked Eustachian tube infections, and assumed that this was a particularly bad episode which would clear up naturally.
“But I was deafer than usual – and realised this was not going to right itself,” she says. “Perhaps the last straw was going to see a play in London I’d been looking forward to, and missing all the dialogue.”
Utting’s GP referred her for a precautionary MRI brain scan, which threw up no concerns, but hearing tests revealed a loss in both ears. That test, and the ‘wonderful moment’ of having her hearing aids switched on, inspired the poem Report to the Department of Audiology (see the full poem below) in her fourth and recently published collection, Half the Human Race.
Of the poem, Utting says, “I was trying to describe a life-changing moment, and wanted to communicate it in a celebratory way. I found the experience so moving I burst into tears of relief and joy! It felt important to write this, as I’d heard so many negative things about the NHS hearing test and hearing aids and how tricky and useless they are.
“None of my friends wore them, but several had husbands or knew people who had them but ‘couldn’t get on with them’. Nobody had a good word to say about them. I wanted to write something that set the record straight, to dispel the gloom and encourage people to get their hearing problems sorted out. (I have since discovered that the hearing aids people had trouble with were all from private suppliers, not the NHS.)
“I now have two hearing aids, both treasured possessions and life-savers. Without them, I would not be able to do any of the cornerstones of my professional and social life – giving and taking part in writing workshops, discussion groups and poetry readings or answering audience questions. “
Utting knows that aided hearing is never going to be quite the same as natural hearing – and she can’t appreciate or distinguish harmonies in music as she once could. But some of the advantages have been surprising.
While friends complain about the loudness of cinemas and live rock bands (she jives with a group), she can ‘adjust’ her ears. Equally, living not far from Heathrow, she can sleep undisturbed by the sound of early morning aircraft.
“I now relish the ability to hear sounds, even noisy ones I might previously have complained about. I am more aware of sound and hearing, of watching people’s mouths and gestures in conversations.
“I watch people chatting in cafes and try to guess what they’re talking about through their body language and facial expressions – it’s fascinating! Language and communication are about so much more than the speaking voice.”
Another poem in her latest collection, Lip Reading the Poets, (also below) explores language and communication more broadly, while celebrating the work of sign language interpreters.
“I find watching BSL fascinating – the whole body so vividly used to communicate not just words but whole vistas of emotion and meaning. The occasion of the poem was at the T S Eliot poetry prize reading in the Royal Festival Hall, where even hearing people were complaining about the poor sound quality. I was sitting quite far back, so had to watch for whole body language rather than just lip movements to get a sense of what was being read. “
Many aspects of hearing loss have surprised her since her diagnosis, not least the reactions when she tells people she uses aids. “You’d never know, you can’t see them,” said in a congratulatory way, has been a common response.
“I hadn’t realised there was such a stigma. I think I’m supposed to be ashamed and keep it a secret. One friend said she didn’t think of me as ‘the sort of person who would wear a hearing aid.’ Another said he saw me differently after learning I was deaf – I don’t think this was meant as a compliment! One well-meaning friend said she thought I was ‘very brave’. This brought home to me the aptness of the disability radio programme title No Tragedy, No Triumph.”
Since she has been writing about her experience of deafness, many people have revealed their own issues.
“Audience members have confided in me, sheepishly, after readings that they also wear hearing aids. I don’t understand this ‘guilty secret’ attitude. Glasses wearers don’t feel the same shame about their eyesight. But I’ve been touched, and happy to bond over our various stories. I’ve even made friends this way.”
Utting agrees that little has been written in the past about hearing loss in mainstream poetry.
“I think the lack of glamour, and the shame or embarrassment mentioned above could be the reason. But things are starting to happen. When I shared my audiology poem at a masterclass led by Welsh laureate Gillian Clarke, she turned out to be deaf too, and has written her own poem, Audiology.”
At the same time, Sean O’Brien published a poem about his (age-related) loss on the Guardian, while the poetry magazine Magma this spring run a competition inviting submissions for its forthcoming deaf issue.
“So maybe the stigma is disappearing. I hope so. I enjoy being ‘deaf proud’ – it helps me and I hope it helps others lose their fear and shame.”
Report to the Department of Audiology
My skin is glass paper, a gravelly rub, the tips
of my fingers are match heads; my leg-bones
click-clack, syncopate to the floorboards, their
whiplash and skitter. Stairs are a tap-dance,
metal-tipped; there’s a hum I’d forgotten,
a knock I can’t place, music I don’t remember.
I swallow; there’s an echo, liquid as liquid,
then high at the back, the plumbing’s hi-hatting,
tom-tomming. And my voice! It’s a reedy song
– hush-hush it girl, save it for later –
For now, plastic bags are maracas, tap water’s
Niagara, the plughole’s a Looney Toons glug.
Outside, I’m eavesdropping the world,
its chirrup and whoosh, its overhead roar,
its ten o’clock wail, tittle-tattle, its holler
and clank. A single magpie: its dirty croak
is a joy. I scratch an itch and my fingernails
thrill, I’m alight with the noise of myself.
At the flick of a switch I was wired.
Now I’ve fallen, coup de foudre, a sucker
– go on, say it girl! out loud! – a lover
of sound, head-over-heels with cacophony.
from Half the Human Race: New & Selected Poems
(Two Rivers Press) March 2017
Lip-reading the Poets
More than lips, it’s in the whole face,
meaning beyond the shape of a mouth,
more than puckering oos and grinning ees,
the open-wides of ah and eye
the press of emm and bee.
The whole body signifies –
steady as a sonnet’s pulse
then quick as a stop-frame animation.
There is no signing woman here
to spell out words, spring out her fingers
to say beautiful with everything she’s got,
but still from here I catch
the poignancy of a poet’s raised shoulders,
a torso’s earnest forward slope,
the raised chin of a challenge.
The signing woman isn’t here
to sweep her chest – one hand
for like, two crossed palms for love –
but still I see her raise her arms
high and wide, jazz-handing her applause.
from Half the Human Race: New & Selected Poems
(Two Rivers Press) March 2017
- Half the Human Race is published by Two Rivers Press. Susan Utting’s awards include an Arts Council Laureateship, Poetry Business, Berkshire Poetry and Peterloo prizes, and her work has been widely published in the national press and a range of poetry magazines.
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