Friday, October 08, 2010


A gray, drizzily day. As I take my place in a quiet corner of the college Commons it is still dark. I open my laptop and there on the screen is the poem I was reading yesterday afternoon in the library, as I closed my laptop for the day: Silence, by Billy Collins.

These lines particularly resonate:
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.
When I was a young man I read a little book by the Swiss/German Roman Catholic convert Max Picard called The World of Silence. He said: "Poetry comes out of silence and yearns for silence. Like man himself, it travels from one silence to another."

I put my fingers to the keyboard. I break the silence that has been storing up all night in wakefulness and dream. Why? Why break so dear a thing?

Because we are human. To be human is to speak. Speech defines our humanness.

Certain orders of monks and nuns vow themselves to silence, but not unbroken silence. They bind themselves to an absence of chatter so that when they gather to sing the Divine Office their poetry will arch from silence to silence like the vault of their chapel.

The first of my books that could be said to be "poetic" was The Soul of the Night. The first chapter is called "Silence." It's about the moral silence of the universe, the great over-arching silence of the stars. If there is something in this universe that might be called God, it does not make a noise of sounding brass or Joshua's trumpets at Jericho. It hides in absolute and utter silence.

Silence has crept through everything I have written since, like a cat in a busy house. I recognize the irony of using speech to extol silence, but there it sits, on little cat feet, on silent haunches, demanding attention, and utterly, absolutely oblivious to whatever attention is paid.

Poetry -- music, art, science, creativity of any sort -- is the homage we pay to silence. When creativity becomes untethered from silence it is mere noise. Noise is silence in shards.

So it is with a certain sense of caution, humility, that I put fingers to the keyboard -- as the wet pines outside the window begin to glow with a mellow golden light -- knowing that silence deserves whatever gifts I might bring to the altar, but always aware that the gifts are unworthy of the thing itself.