Silence as poetry, poetry on silence

I get asked a lot why I’m attempting to write a book on silence, met with blank stares and puzzled brows, skeptical tones.

The short answer for me is that I hear silence as a form of communication that can be more powerful than a fumbled word.  In poetry, we are striving to set down what is ineffable or unknowable about the universe.  Call it God, call it transcendence, call it what you will.  Poets attempt to nail the moon down fast, as Wallace Stevens writes in a poem “This Solitude of Cataracts,” though we know such a task is impossible.  We write to communicate, though we know words are not enough, though they may tangentially graze some meaning that their black and white markers may inspire to bloom up in its reader.  

In literature and rhetoric studies, silence has for too long been connoted as passivity, absence, obedience, or erasure—when in reality, silence can, under the right circumstance, also be a place of strength, creativity, and communication with some of life’s most difficulty ineffable subject matters.   This is especially true in poetry, where white space reigns over line breaks and produces a meaning all its own as it enacts pauses on the page.   Silence has come to figure prominently in many pedagogical essays on craft that poets themselves write about their creative process. In an essay “Arts of the Possible,” for example, poet Adrienne Rich expands on the notion that silence does not always connote passivity or denial of a subaltern—in fact, quite contrarily, such “invisible holes in reality” that poetry makes its way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally—but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels.” She states that silence “is not always or necessarily a denial or extinguishing of some reality” (Rich, Arts 324). Rich elevates the unsaid and the unknown, stating “the matrix of a poet’s work consists not only what is there to be absorbed and worked-on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, and thus, unthinkable” (Rich, Arts 324). She insists on “the necessity to go on speaking of it [subjugation of women]…speaking where silence has been advised and enforced,” (Rich, Arts 67), but she also acknowledges, like many feminist rhetoricians, the many different kinds of silence that exist. “Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence,” Rich remarks, “and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken” (150). Depending upon the context, silence can be empowering or censoring, depending on who is allowed to speak and who chooses to listen. There is both danger and opportunity inherent in spaces of silence. In order to know what those dangers and opportunities are, we must, as Rich does, first ask ourselves about the context of the silence we are entering. Such questions can then lead us to better understand how we value silence as culture and what that value, or lack thereof, says about whether we value productive communication and understanding in poetry.

As Tracy K. Smith writes in her poem, “The Soul,” silence is a “door / punched through with light.” It is an entryway. Her use of the word punched connotes a sense of the danger and opportunity. “Punched” is a word with violent connotations, whereas door and light give a sense of illuminated possibility. Curiously, silence is put forth not just as a rhetorical stance, but as a place. Silence is, I therefore argue, an ecotone: a place of transition between two ecosystems, rife with both danger and opportunity. Ultimately, through the course of my project, with both creative and academic components, I seek to answer the critical question: how does writing about silence as place help us better understand the dangers and opportunities inherent in all types of communication, but especially those at work in poetry?


This video helps visualize the power I see/hear in white space on the page, in pauses in conversations, in the moment in classrooms where we all, student and teacher alike, let the power of what has just been unearthed from our selves mist up into the air, then settle down like snowflakes as we absorb it back, somehow familiar and new all at once.

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