There’s a lot to say about silence.
In broad terms, silence has two meanings: the absence of any sound, and the absence of human speech. There’s no total silence in the natural world, except in the vacuum of outer space, but there are many poems that capture deep stillness in an actual scene–“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Transtromer’s poem “The Couple,” below.
Given the number of poems about silence and the essays written about it, the two seem to go hand in hand. If you search for it, dozens of poems about silence will pop up–ironically, many of them quite long. Billy Collins’ poem “Silence” lays out examples of it. Robert Bly titled a book of prose poems Silence in the Snowy Fields, and I’ve included his translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s poem “The Couple,” that vibrates with silence.
What I’m most interested in, though, is how poems contain and convey their own silences, and I don’t think that’s possible without white space. Most early Roman texts didn’t include spacing between words, and in those days (around the 5th century), people only read texts aloud. When Irish monks translated those texts in the 7th and 8th centuries, they began to add spaces between words. One author ties this to the shift to people reading silently, to themselves. But white space isn’t the only element of a poem that creates silence–what are some others?
My first thoughts about silence have to do with its mystery and power:
Wisława Szymborska; “When I pronounce the word Silence, I destroy it.”
Spanish proverb: “Open your mouth only if what you are going to say is more beautiful than the silence.”
Bob Dylan: “Sometimes the silence can be like thunder.”
Stanislaw Jerzy Lec: “There are grammatical errors even in his silence.”
Allen Grossman: “Every poem is spoken into a silence that precedes it.” I’d also say the silence that follows a poem is worth thinking about.
Glynn Maxwell: “Poets work with two materials…sound and silence.”
Someone once said Merwin’s poems seemed to have been written by a man walking across a glacier, sweeping away his footprints behind him as he went.
But of course there are also all the terrible silences–omission, suppression. Silencings. How do we speak of the unspeakable? One of the most exciting things to me about contemporary poetry is how much of it is speaking directly to and out of those silencings.
One of the poets most associated with silence is the German-speaking Romanian poet, Paul Celan, whose parents both died during the Holocaust. His best-known poem is “Todesfugue.” Over time, his poems got shorter, and filled more and more with silences and enigmatic, paradoxical imagery, before his ultimate silence, his suicide in 1970. One of his poems is below.
Look back through some earlier posts: Bishop’s “Sestina,” Simic’s prose poems, Kay Ryan’s poems, many others. I’m reposting Sylvia Plath’s poem “Axes” as an example. It’s particularly striking to me, because many of her poems are almost desperately talky, and though this one is about words it also feels full of silence. It’s one of the last poems she wrote.
Please add your own thoughts in Comments, and poems where silence is prominent.
There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.
The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the ﬂoor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.
The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.
The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.
And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night
like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.
They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.
Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.
It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.
trans. Robert Bly
W. S. Merwin, from ASIAN FIGURES (versions of Asian short poems, riddles, and proverbs)
All dressed up
walking in the dark
Even if the sky falls
there will be a little hole
to get out through
can’t hold water
A not admitting of the wound
Until it grew so wide
That all my Life had entered it
And there were troughs beside –
A closing of the simple lid that opened to the sun
Until the tender Carpenter
Perpetual nail it down –
After whose stroke the wood rings,
And the echoes!
Off from the center like horses.
Wells like tears, like the
To re-establish its mirror
Over the rock
That drops and turns,
A white skull,
Eaten by weedy greens.
Years later I
Encounter them on the road-
Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.
by Paul Celan:
into the thorn-covered
rock recess. (Get drunk
and call it
My shoulder frost-sealed;
rubble owls perched on it;
letters between my toes;
WORLD TO BE STUTTERED BY HEART
I shall have been a guest, a name
sweated down from the wall
a wound licks up
THE BROACHED YEAR
with its mouldering crusts
of delusion bread.
from my mouth.
So grateful for this discussion! Silence is something I’ve been thinking about lately. I recently listened to a craft talk by Linda Gregg (youtube, Jan. 2014 “Craft of the Invisible”) where she quotes Jack Gilbert: “…Silence gives substance to poems the way death does to life. It is the invisible parts of the poetry. It is the invisibility of what is about to appear, like a king in a play who is invisible, held up in the wings to build up the tension…. The invisible and the space go hand in hand in poetry. Like the night train pounding through the dark town in Texas as the dogs bark, silence is emptiness just a little afterward. Silence is what’s invisible until the poem makes it visible,. There is a huge silence built by implication. The silence that fills up our metaphors pretending one thing and meaning the invisible other. It is the silence of Basho’s haiku. It is what’s invisible in the fragments of Emily Dickinson. Silence is the invisible kingdom that the poet makes us see.”
Later in the talk she reads “The White Horse” by D.H. Lawrence:
The White Horse
The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent, they are in another world.
This takes me outside of the poem to wonder about the invisible part–that “other world” the poem evokes.
Here’s a poem by Linda Gregg, “Fishing in the Keep of Silence”
Fishing in the Keep of Silence
There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the egrets
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim in standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: there are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.
The word “keep” is so resonant– giving a sense of containment, of being swaddled as an infant is swaddled. Also the word “massive” sounds like a kind of hushing I am reminded of Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s story, “Goodnight Moon.”
Interesting that the word “silence” appears in these two poems. So I found one where it does not: “Where Without Whom” by Octavio Paz, translated by Eliot Weinberger:
There is not
A single soul among the trees
Don’t know where I’ve gone.
Thank you for that — I love Gregg and want to listen to that lecture. The poems here make me think about the importance of syntax and punctuation to silence … quiet sentences moving towards periods. You are almost forced to read them in a hushed way, so that we feel silence behind the words. Nothing rushed or jazzy. I think this is really important, as much or more than white space.
These comments and quotes are exactly on point, and really interesting. Silence and invisibility–yes. Anne mentioned Rothko’s paintings, which seem full of silence to me.
As Sharon knows, I worked on a lecture project involving how poets have written in response to Rothko paintings. It was the issue of silence that first got me thinking about that (returning me to an early intense interest in Rothko) — specifically, when Google turned up Diane Seuss’s poem “Silence is So Accurate, Rothko Wrote.” I love that quotation…. I’ll give the link to it, since the comments here lose away the spacing between stanzas which seems important. The poem interests and moves me, but I’m not sure what degree it contains silence itself, while referencing it; I love Seuss but don’t think of her as a poet of silence. https://poets.org/poem/silence-so-accurate-rothko-wrote