“Let’s imagine that silence roams our world and sometimes inhabits a segment of space/time, effectively blotting out any sound that was there previously. And as an analogy, poetry roams our world as an innately wordless being, which sometimes inhabits a group of words, effectively banishing any prior ‘narrative’ meaning and instead infusing the words with an energy and meaning of their own. Poetry descends like the Archangel entering the soul of the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation.”—Anita Sullivan
On the Other Hand
By Anita Sullivan
“I am contented, for I know that Quiet/Wanders laughing and eating her wild heart/Among pigeons and bees.”—William Butler Yeats, from “In the Seven Woods”
Author’s Note: “This month, I’m sharing a chapter from my new book, The Rhythm of It: Poetry’s Hidden Dance. The opening chapter in the book is an essay titled ‘Tai Chi Time,’ which was published in Weekly Hubris on May 31, 2018. ‘The Silence of It,’ shared here below, is Chapter 10 in the book. This means that the book started from a ‘Weekly Hubris’ essay. Take heart, fellow Hubrisians: from small essays, entire books can grow!”
EUGENE Oregon—(Weekly Hubris) —November 2019—Poetry, like a unicorn, seems to require lots of silence in order to show up.
Or is it quiet I mean, instead of silence? The two words don’t seem to be interchangeable.
Isn’t quiet like an inland lake, protected from the chaos of the open sea? Such lakes are dotted here and there, mostly hidden and rather rare—magic even. A state of mind is often involved.
Silence is unenclosable; it was here first, pretty much before anything else, and hasn’t changed. It’s not really something humans can experience, at least for very long. We (those of us who are not cosmological physicists) don’t even have an inkling whether outer space is mostly noisy or mostly silent. Either, both, neither? We use the word “silence” to indicate absence of noise, which of course truly never happens for any one of us while we are conscious.
Yet I would imagine we carry shards of Original Silence (there is no other kind) around in our bodies as part of our construction formula—there being gobs of it available on Earth back in the day, and maybe it was handy to keep us from getting too dense. And while these shards are “parts” of the Original Silence, it is impossible for us to do more than tell ourselves the word over and over and define it—but we cannot find it or know it; silence is below our bottom line.
Leaving quiet out for the moment, let’s bumble along as we started, with the relationship of silence to poetry. Let’s say “Silence is to sound as poetry is to words.”
Let’s imagine that silence roams our world and sometimes inhabits a segment of space/time, effectively blotting out any sound that was there previously.
And as an analogy, poetry roams our world as an innately wordless being, which sometimes inhabits a group of words, effectively banishing any prior “narrative” meaning and instead infusing the words with an energy and meaning of their own. Poetry descends like the Archangel entering the soul of the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation.
Lack of sound may include silence, but does not completely define it, any more than “a poem” or “verse” (or set of formal devices) is a necessary condition for poetry.
So, it’s not silence that poetry requires in order to exist—rather, it’s quiet (which perhaps in this case, following Yeats’ example above, should be capitalized). Only by way of Quiet does poetry cross over from analogy (bound to narrative) to full metaphor. That would mean poetry doesn’t need silence to exist, but it does need Quiet as a transforming place—a womb.
Thus, a person sitting on a bench in the sun overlooking a marsh can experience Quiet even with the distant uneven whisper of traffic, the shrill sound of children’s voices, the passing whirr of bicycle wheels, and the constant soul-hammering knowledge of dwelling in a society in thrall to machines.
And continuing a bit farther, even a person not on a quiet bench, but constantly exposed to noise of the most virulent sort (prison routine, explosives, angry speech, automobile traffic, sirens, airplanes, or the hum of a generator at all hours of the day and night) can experience Quiet too, if she can develop the right filters, discover entry into the right parallel universe.
If we divide poets, for a moment, into those who tend to develop their poems by drawing the universal “down” into the particular, or by injecting the particular into an assumed universal, then if this chapter were hoping to turn into a poem, I would seem to be starting with the universal. In fact, this is not the case.
The precise question of how quiet and silence are related and how they figure in poetry, occurred to me in a particular place on a particular morning. I was out for a hike in the treeless public wetlands to the south of the city where I live, stopped to sit on a bench in the sun, closed my eyes and became a happy vegetable. In a few minutes I shifted spontaneously—without any input from my brain and its words—into a dreamlike state of animal listening.
Inevitably, my brain woke up and, hearing the various noises, I realized to my delight: At this very moment these sounds are not cancelling out the silence; I can still feel it around me! And then continued: “How does this differ from true silence? It feels the same.” I realized that yes, it did not differ at all in this particular time and place, even though there were plenty of sounds present. But then I quickly changed the word from “Silence” to “Quiet,” because I knew Quiet had stopped by.
Quiet cannot be found on any map, enclosed refuge though it may be. “Where” is not part of its description.
Might silence be the raw element out of which Quiet can sometimes be spun? And if so how? And from what necessity?