The Poem Is a Frame for Silence

The bird opens its beak and sings its note
And then the beak comes together in silence.
So Nature and Living meet together in void
Like the closing of the bird’s beak
After its song.
Heaven and earth come together in the Unbegun,
And all is foolishness, all is unknown, all is like
The lights of an idiot, all is without mind!
To obey is to close the beak and fall into Unbeginning.

            Thomas Merton, from The Way of Chuang Tsu (1)


Silence is the mother of speech.

            From No Man Is an Island (2)


            I think that if a poem is true and we have read it well, it becomes a frame for silence. If a poem is true (as a poem is true and not as a fact is true) then it shapes the silence that follows so that the silence after the poem is different from the silence before.
            The poet-scholar-monk Thomas Merton has a great deal to say on the topic of silence. He wrote over fifty books and many of them comment extensively on silence: the need for silence, the benefits of silence, the frustrations of the absence of silence, the role of silence in the contemplative life, the relationship of silence to spirituality, the denigration of silence in the modern world, and the ultimate Reality that lies within silence. It would seem that there could not be that much to say on the subject of not-saying and that, in principle, if your subject is silence, the less said the better. You would think that someone who wants to preach the virtues of a thing should practice it. But Merton did practice what he preached. He lived the strict life of a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and spent most of his days in a silence broken only by what was demanded of him by his order.
            In other words, he lived in a silence broken by the chanting of the canonical hours, daily Mass, his instruction to novice monks, an occasional visitor, his work on the farm and forest of the abbey, cars out on Monks Road, and the achingly beautiful sounds of the surrounding Kentucky hills. His silence was also broken by what must have been the near constant scratching of his pen and the clatter of his typewriter: journal entries, letters, poems, reviews, studies, translations, and those indelible meditations on silence.
            That means a lot of breaking of the silence that he came to the abbey to seek and he complains about this often in the journals of his early years in the monastic life. In these journals, he often feels as if he were still too involved with the world and he speculates that perhaps his true mission is to leave the Gethsemani for an even stricter monastery or for life as a hermit. He wants very much, at times, to go off to a cabin in the woods and be quiet and alone with God. One senses in his journals a deep ambiguity about his role as a writer-monk. At one point, he ponders,

I think God does not want me to write any
more the way I have written before –taking
an idea and working it out in cold blood . . . If
God gives me something directly and spontaneously
about Himself, I will write it. Otherwise, I will
keep quiet. That means no more volumes of
poetry for a long time perhaps, and may well mean
little or no variety, and it might mean complete silence.”(3)

Later, in the same entry, he says,

I hope it means my withdrawal from the professional
poet field, magazines, etc. However, that doesn’t matter.
I’ll write what God gives me, not as a writer, but as a
Lover of God and for Him alone. Then if He wants it
printed, he can take it and print it.

            Merton might have surrendered the writing life altogether, if not for the intervention of his abbot, who knew that his gift as a monk was to write and teach. And so, he continued to scratch and clatter and we are all the better for it.
            But he continued to seek silence and eventually found great swatches of it in a cabin up in the woods above the abbey.
            “It is the silence of the world that is real,” he writes in No Man Is an Island. “Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all our fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion.” We live and make our living in a world dense with these illusions that are not just intrusions from without; much of this noise is self-created. And unless we can occasionally escape this external and internal noise, our result, Merton tells us, is spiritual barrenness.


            I think it is a blessing that Merton endured his doses of noise. How else could he tell us these wonderful and necessary things about silence if he knew nothing about noise, business, and propositions? He could not. A human being cannot live in community, even a silent, monastic community, without some of the noise of business; a human cannot live within his or her own mind without hearing the noise of purposes and propositions, all that clatter and clutter we use to stave off the silence which might reveal to us something unsettling about our busy, unsettled selves. Silence is a difficult state to attain and Merton spent a lifetime (an unfortunately shortened lifetime) studying the relationship between the state of noise and the state of silence. “There must be a time of day,” he tells us,  “when the man who has to speak falls very silent. And his mind forms no more propositions, and he asks himself: Did they have a meaning?”
            And he tells us later,

Life is not to be regarded as an uninterrupted flow of
words which is finally silenced by death. Its rhythm
develops in silence, comes to surface in moments of
necessary expression, returns to deeper silence,
culminates in a final declaration, then ascends
quietly into the silence of Heaven which resounds
with unending praise.

            Life is a rhythm, then, in which silence emerges from the interruption of the flow of words.
            No flow of words, no silence. No silence, no true declaration.
It would seem, then, that for Merton, silence and non-silence were not mere opposites or contraries, but parts of a whole and that one flows into and gives meaning to the other.


            What do we mean when we speak of silence?
            In a pure sense, as pure as we get in real life, there is no such thing. I write this after midnight in August in a very small room in an elderly hotel in Montreal. I turned off the television an hour ago and the voices from the room next door went quiet shortly after. I have a very small window open to a very small courtyard and from that, I hear the steady exhalation of a blower. Moments ago, I heard, from the street, the cough of a car starting up. A short time ago, a mo-ped snarled up Rue Sherbrooke. Occasionally, I hear a voice, two voices. For what felt like a long time, there was the sound of a rap beat pumping, it felt, from the walls themselves.
            But that is gone with the television and now there are only the blower, the distant vehicles on the street, the occasional snatch of voice.
            Is this silence?
            It is, I think, if I make it so. The blower does not involve me; the vehicles passing on Sherbrooke do not involve me; the voices do not involve me. They only involve me if I choose to involve myself in them.
            Silence in the real world, I think, is not the absence of sound, but the state in which sound retreats and we do not follow.


            Of course, we can always replace external noise with internal noise. The person who meditates learns to let thoughts arise, take note of them, then let them go. But we do not always take this path. Thoughts arise and we catch them by the elbow and chatter them down the hall. We remember the call we were supposed to make; we remember the hurtful thing our supposed friend said; we want something, we fear something. We are like the host at a party who cannot let conversation lag. Someone is silent? Say something. Get a conversation going.
            Merton has something to say about this as well:

How tragic it is that they who have nothing to say are continually expressing themselves, like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark, where there is no enemy. The reason for their talk is death. Death is the enemy who seems to confront them at every moment in the deep darkness and silence of their own being.


            We cannot know silence, it seems, without noise. But there is noise and there is noise. There is a noise, the most common noise, which takes us away from silence, Merton’s “business, purposes, and fatuous statements about our business and purposes.” All those bursts of verbal and mental ammunition firing off into the dark. But there is also the “noise” which turns us in the direction of silence.
            Great musicians understand this. The rest, the pause is as much a part of a symphony as are the great, crashing chords and crescendos. In Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, there are great, wonderful rushes of sound in which the full orchestra goes sawing and bowing and blowing and drumming at full tilt. These passages alternate with solos so haunting and so whisperingly quiet next to all that drive and commotion they can nearly break your heart. It all ends miraculously with a silence that seems to announce the Great Silence that is the end of all. The silence that announces the unutterable.


            I am told that in Japanese philosophy, the sound of the universe is that of a constant exhalation. Something like my Montréal blower. Therefore, Aikido instructors, to teach their students to clear their lungs, clasp their hands, left over right, and exhale steadily between their teeth, shaking the closed hands slightly. The result is something between a whistle and a hiss. The great silent sound of the universe.


            But I was talking about poetry. Poems are made up of words, which count as noise in most corners. Poems can be declaimed noisily from a stage or read aloud in a room; but even read silently in a silent room, they declaim themselves from the page and offer themselves up to the mind. They qualify, therefore, as noise.
            If a poem is not true (as a poem can be true) or if we have not read the poem well, then of course the poem takes us nowhere. The poem is simply more noise and we remain barren, busy, puffed up with our propositions. We all know poets who love their own noise and are impatient of everything else. (Those of us who are poets have been these poets.)
            But I have said that a poem, if it is true and if we have read it well, is a frame for silence. How can such a thing work?


            Cid Corman offers us this poem:
                              1848 (4)

I can sympathize
with the barberry
whose business is

only to ripen
Its fruit (tho maybe
not sweeten it)

protect it with thorns
so all winter it
holds on unless

hungry crows come to
pluck it. I mean
merely spend words

enough to purchase
silence with – tho
few poets prize it.

            I have not yet met a barberry, nor do I have any idea what is the relation of this poem to the year 1848. But I am struck with the clarity of Corman’s purpose and with the silence it imposes. The poet will “merely spend words/ enough to purchase/ silence with . . . “ This economy of words is metaphorically like the economy of the barberry whose mute task and sole business is to nurture and thornily protect its silent, unsweetened fruit. Corman seems to purchase silence in this poem by the deliberate pace conditioned by his line breaks, by the pauses imposed by the separation of stanzas, and by the Apollonian leap from the barberry to his thesis, which has not been noisily argued but simply stated. The fruit of the poem is unsweetened, spare, guarded; it does not call for comment (not even all this comment). The poet, Corman seems to tell us, is in the business of ripening silence.


. . . tho

few poets prize it.

            I see many poems which seem to prize their own wordiness and lead us to no silence I can perceive, busy, propositional poems that seem to tease the brain but leave the soul untouched. These can be fine, useful poems, but they only go so far; they do not carry us out of ourselves or our prejudices; they disturb nothing.
            Are such poems true? They can be, but not as a poem is true. They can be true as propositions are true. Their truth can be vital, even essential, and I admire many of them and find them useful in my life, the poems of Pope, for example, as opposed to the poems of Swift. But these propositional poems are not true as poems are true. For the truth of a poem is in its silence that it frames.


            The room I am in has four walls, a floor, and a ceiling. I have a bed, a desk, a television, a dresser, but the rest is empty space. If the walls, floor, and ceiling had not formed this empty space, it would be of no use to me. I could not move within it; I could not breathe. I could be in the open air, and the open air is a good thing, but it would not be the same usable, knowable space as what has been created in this room. The emptiness of a room is what makes it useful. The frame is what makes empty space a room. It gives emptiness a shape, one that a human can find safe comforting, and usable.
            The carpenters who built this room framed empty air in the same useful manner as the poet frames silence.


            In “Dover Beach,”(5) Matthew Arnold spends words to create for us a silence within the narrative thrust of the poem itself, for he creates a scene in which silence is the key element.

The Sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full; the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window; sweet is the night air . . .

            The alternating sibilants (sea, straits, coast, strand) and hard consonants (gleams, gone, cliffs, glimmering, come) evoke for the reader what Arnold calls, a few lines later,

. . .  the grating roar
of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling
At their return, up the high strand.

            The poem is much thicker with words than “1848,” a plush Victorian couch next to Corman’s camp chair. But the words are ordered to evoke listening, to create within the mind of the reader a moment of silence. The poet has called the lover (and the reader) to the window, not to speak, primarily, but to listen. And, if we are reading well, that is exactly what we do: we stand with the lovers and listen to the mindless waves strike the shore.
            Of course, there follow more words, all that stuff about Sophocles and what he heard in his day and the shrinking Sea of Faith, but the words, to this ear at least, serve less to teach a lesson in philosophy than to reinforce what is wordless in the poem, the eternal note of sadness intoned by the infinite sea.
            If Arnold had left us here with these dismal notions about Sophocles and the Sea of Faith, “Dover Beach” would be a poem of interesting propositions that subvert the silence he creates in the first stanzas. But he concludes by posing the proposition that trumps all proposition:

Ah love, let us be true
To one another . . .

            We must be true for the world is false. The world has

. . . neither joy, nor love, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

            After these final, hopeless lines, we could return in our minds to the receding Sea of Faith and speculate on how Darwinism helped pull the plug, or speculate on what exactly in Sophocles Arnold is talking about. But if we have read this poem well, we say nothing. It is like the nothing intoned by Macbeth. It is like the moment when “all is foolishness, all is unknown, all is like/The lights of an idiot, all is without mind” in Merton’s rendering of Chuang Tzu. Nothing in argument can counter such poetic truth; even if one could argue that what Arnold says is not factually true, what he says is true as a poem is true and nothing more can be said.  Nothing need be said. Though there have been countless critiques and explications of this single poem and though there is a great deal about it to be learned by analysis and explication, nothing, at the moment we come to these lines, needs be said. Nor should be said. At the moment we complete our reading, we are left, if we have read the poem well, silent. Perhaps we remain silent for only a moment before we are retaken by the intrusion of the noise of business and proposition and our own thoughts about the “meaning” of the poem. But if we have read well, at least a moment of silence follows.


            What happens in such a silence?
            If only for a moment, we absorb the gift of the poem. Perhaps we read another, and if the poem is true and we have read it well, we are silent again. It is hard to say exactly what these doses of silence bring us.
            For one thing, we are saddened, for I think there is a great deal of sadness in all poems that have the truth of poems. The truth that Arnold brings to bear in “Dover Beach” is that this is an ugly, brutal, maddening world, and there is consolation only in love and the beloved. The consolation is not of words. There is no ready slogan to answer the sadness the poet feels. He does not ask the beloved to tell him anything or to make it better. The consolation comes only from the silent presence of the beloved. The lovers on the Dover cliffs say nothing that will make it better. So perhaps we are made aware of our sadness by the silence of a poem. Perhaps we are consoled by the silent presence within a poem.
            What else?
            I think that the silence of a true poem disorders us slightly. These doses of silence allow the disturbance of settled notions, complacencies, and prejudices. After reading such a poem, if we have read it well, we form no more propositions; we soften the edges of the propositions we hold.
            Again, if the poem is true (and I mean true in itself and to its own rules, as in a carpenter’s true, not as in a logician’s) the poem subtly re-orders us. If the poem is true and we have read it well, it makes us a little more true. I would like to think that we become more generous, more forgiving. I would like to think we become humbler, more malleable, more easily shaped into the true self we were meant to be.
            Does the silence make us better persons?
I would hope so. I would hope the silence that follows a true poem allows us to be less the nervous gunner firing off bursts of meaningless words and propositions and more the true person a true poem intends us to be.
            So perhaps it is time that the bird should close its beak.



1 The Way of Chuang Tzu (Shambhala, 2004) is Thomas Merton’s rendering of selections from the 3rd Century B.C. Chinese philosopher/sage. It is a series of brief poems, tales, and sayings. Merton calls it his favorite book.

2 Except where indicated, the Merton quotes in this essay are to be found in “Silence,” the final chapter in No Man Is an Island (Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1955).

3 From the entry for June 19, 1947, Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer, the Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Two, 1941 – 1947, Jonathan Montaldo, editor, Harper San Francisco, 1996.

4 Cid Corman, Nothing Doing (New Directions, 1999).

5 Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach,” The Norton Anthology of Poetry, (Norton, 1999).

Michael Henson (© 2008)