Hello, reader. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about silence.
silence n. 1. complete absence of sound. 2. the fact or state of abstaining from speech > the avoidance of mentioning or discussing something. v. 1. make silent. 2. fit with a silencer.
From the from Latin silentium “a being silent,” from silens, present participle of silere “be quiet or still,” of unknown origin.
I’ve been thinking about two different forms of silence:
silence the first The first is that silence that sometimes descends upon a writer. I’m in the midst of one of these silences now—nothing’s flowing and the stillborn lines are piling up in my notebook.
How fitting, in this case, that at its deepest root silence is “of unknown origin.”
These silence are always excruciating, and when I’m in the midst of one I always make sure to remind myself that I’m not the only one who has hit quiet patches. Here’s Louise Glück in her essay “Education of the Poet”:
“I have wished, since I was in my early teens, to be a poet; over a period of more than thirty years, I have had to get through extended silences. By silences I mean periods, sometimes two years in duration, during which I have written nothing. Not written badly, written nothing. Nor do such periods feel like fruitful dormancy.”
I also remind myself of the things I do to keep moving forward amidst the silence and stillborn lines:
- read, and while I’m reading,
- write down lines grab my attention
- work in my lexicon
- copy poems I love into my notebook by hand
- keep adding to my lists
- look back in my notebooks (often I will find a line or a fragment that shakes something loose in me)
- accept the obstacle in the path as the path: rather than write, revise, send out poems, do other writerly things that are not writing
- write anyway (I have been this time)
- read a lot of craft essays…
…which brings me to:
silence the second The other silence I’ve been thinking about is the silence of the unsaid in a poem. My favorite poems are so often those that don’t hand over everything, that use silence as a tool, that suggest rather than declare. Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snowman” ends with this stanza:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
The kind of silence I’m thinking about is “the nothing that is.” A silence that makes itself felt in the poem, a bodied silence. Conveniently, Louise Glück also writes about this kind of silence in her essay “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence”:
“The unsaid for me exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made from this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.”
Yes, this is what I want to do with silence in my poems. Not that I know how. Glück also writes:
“All earthly experience is partial.”
If you have favorite poems that employ a felt silence, I hope you’ll share them in comments.
P.S. Both of the Glück essays referred to are in her book Proofs & Theories.
hands O, hands. Having a certain, long-standing relationship with inflammatory arthritis (thank you, Lupus), I have a very fraught relationship with hands. Especially my own hands. I will never forget this exchange with one of my doctors years ago:
Him: Do you drop things?
Him: Hopefully not the baby!
But recently I read Aracelis Girmay‘s book Kingdom Animalia. This poet has taken hold of hands, and her hands, and all hands. There are so many hands in her poems, that I began to love hands in a whole new way. I love it when a poet takes possession of something like this. Also: read this book. It is so good. Anyway, one of my favorite poems in the book is called “Portrait of the Woman as a Skein.” It’s a long poem in sections, and sadly I’ve not been able to find a version that’s link-to-able online. So I’m going to give you one section of it, and I think you will see why I love this book:
from PORTRAIT OF THE WOMAN AS A SKEIN
Last night, the dream of you standing
in the doorway like a lighthouse
calling for your hands to come back
home, & from a great distance, them
running towards you, two
children or two dogs. What scared you then,
you also called it beautiful—
the way their breath flew out of them like clouds,
the way they reached the dark yard panting & stood
deciding between the body & the woods.
Between the body and the woods. Oh my goodness.
Have a wonderful weekend, reader, and may all your silences have the power of ruins. Thanks for reading!