All my life I've misheard things. "Did you feed the dog?" becomes to my ears "The toaster's in the garage," for example. When I turn to the people in my life and ask, "Ummmm, what did you just say?" they often won't tell me until I confess to what it is I think I've heard. From long association with me, they know my brain has come up with something improbable enough to alert me that nonsense is afoot, and they enjoy my discomfiture, good-naturedly enough that I've begun to enjoy it too. Sort of.
In the last ten years I've begun misreading things too. Once, for example, "peasants storming the Braille" caught my attention, and sent me back to the original, which had "Bastille" instead of "Braille." Recently I read the title of a novel (by Janette Turner Hospital) as The Last Michigan instead of The Last Magician, although I suppose it could have been The Last of the Mohicans too, only it wasn't.
So I keep a list of my more fantastical misreads and mishears and I insert them into poems. Why not? I might as well get some advantage from my periodical states of confusion. Sometimes when I've got a long list of misreads and mishears, I challenge myself to get them all into a single poem. And occasionally literary journals publish these poems. Go figure.
Apparently I'm not the only one who does this. Last month I read this in Andrei Codrescu's The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape:
"Mishearing is the true aristocrat of hearing. By extension, so are mistakes. How far into the new truth can one be taken by mistakes? 'Never let a typo go,' Ted Berrigan advised me, 'it may be the threshold of the new, the door into the unexpected.' Mishearing. Mistakes. Misunderstandings. Misgivings. Miscastings. All the pretty misses of discovery."
Because I am raising bilingual sons, I read a lot about second language acquisition. Some years ago I read (and I've forgotten the reference, I apologize) that one of the struggles for second language learners is the inability of their brains to fill in sounds that get lost in conversation. Background noise and simple movement in positioning of mouths and ears (the turning of the head, for example) mean that all of us miss syllables now and then when we are listening, but we often have no idea we missed a small bit of something, because our brains go ahead and fill it in, as though we had heard it in the first place. From years of hearing and reading things in context, our brains can often guess what syllable we missed, and whisper it to us. However, the brains of second language learners don't have years of examples stored up in their new language, and their brains cannot fill in the blanks, so they notice when they've missed a couple of phonemes here and there. They can't keep up.
So what does that mean for me, that my brain goes ahead and fills in the syllables I miss with, um, nonsense rather than searching out the most likely words that fit the context? According to Andrei Codrescu and Ted Berrigan (and who could be in better company than that?) it's a good thing, a chance to discover and maybe to create. I agree. I just wonder how many mishears and misreads I don't catch because they seem probable enough. Now that's scary.