Silence seems a paradoxical and perhaps daunting theme for writers, yet it strikes me as tantalizingly hospitable too. It was pleasing that 494 writers took up the challenge, submitting some 1100 poems; my warm thanks to you all. This high volume meant that a number of fine poems had to be regretfully declined. A common element in those I finally selected was assurance and presence, the sense of a person thinking through the poem – and of the poem thinking through the person. Precision, energy, surprise and an unlikely angle were other touchstones. Feeling, too, of course; silence, actual or metaphoric, can certainly be neutral, but more often it affects us either negatively or positively: as nothingness, dread, loss, denial and oppression, or else as affirmation, safety, intuitive understanding, intimacy, transcendence, and so on. For me, as for many of those submitting, the theme summons up death – the lost voices – but also a sense of mysterious imminence and immanence.
In speaking of silence, do we destroy it or affirm it? Shape it or dialogue with it? In everyday terms, the word ‘silence’ denotes an absence of sound-waves as translated by the ear, but instinct and intellect both strive to sound its mystery, for it’s a wild thing, a hybrid of actual absence and metaphorical presence. Pascal experienced the immensity of silence and infinite space as one overpowering concept. Edmond Jabès, also writing from a theological viewpoint, spoke of ‘the infinite nothingness that is the secret, silent essence of words.’ He did attempt the unnameable though, just as his friend Celan tackled the unspeakable. Other post-Holocaust poets such as Różewicz and Herbert sculpted their minimalist irony from a bleak grey silence. The postmodernists exploring the echo chamber of language based their poetics on the secret resources of silence, and even though the fact of the signifier being forever cut off from the signified is tinged with anxiety for some, it is, after all, what gives us room to think and freedom to create. I’m happy enough with the gap between world and word. Yesterday I read that the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey at Penn State has just established the distance to galaxies more than 6 billion light years away, to an accuracy of one percent. What rejoicing at that particular gap! Maybe silence stands in the same relation to sound as dark energy does to the universe, and our poetic equivalent is a measure of the furthest known limits of saying. Rilke approaches the ineffable in the Duino Elegies while honouring language too:
Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Fruit tree, Window, – possibly: Pillar, Tower?. . .but for saying, remember, `oh, for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be.
It has been suggested that poetry, poesis, originates in a space of mind beyond the noise of daily thought. It does often seem to come through a deep attention, a listening to what Heidegger calls ‘the command of stillness.’ Poetry writes out of and into this space, so that much of the power of a poem may indeed come from the essential silence at its heart, from how the poem oddly suggests and acknowledges the unsaid or unsayable while pushing back that frontier. I think of the Taoist idea that the use of a building depends on the space where nothing is. So the space of no sound is the matrix for music, poetry, and language itself, endlessly spiralling out new words from ‘Dasein’ to ‘Dada’, that joyfully obsessive way of breaking the silence. A feeling for pace and timing, for the effect and affect of a generous emptiness, for the thought pause as well as the breath pause, seems to me a vital strength in a poet, as in a musician. I like Artur Schnabel’s remark: ‘The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides.’ Debussy put it even more forcefully: ‘Music is the silence between the notes.’ How much of poetry, too, depends upon the pauses between, and upon each word’s particular core and aura of silence, in order to be fluidly accessible to the attentive reader. I do not know which to prefer, the silence of a Harwood poem or the silence of a Stevens poem, ‘The blackbird whistling / Or just after.’
In practical terms, a sensitive deployment of sound and silence by the poet depends on listening to the poem as it is written – assessing and balancing its implications, rhythms and line breaks – so the reader, too, will experience it as a dialogue. As a reader, I found that the anonymous nature of the submission process sharpened my focus on voice and tone, and, given the theme, I was particularly tuned in to the sound of each poem as I read it. Almost all those I have chosen are in free verse – with its less predictable and often unsettling silences – though it would have been nice to find a few more that effectively patterned pause and word with metre and rhyme. The final selection offers very divergent approaches and voices, moments of empathy, sensitive and sometimes virtuosic engagements with language, as well as some exhilarating leaps of imagination.
We have poems with sweep and exuberance, such as ‘The Snow’, as well as the circumscribed but deepening presence of ‘A Cup of Tea’; imagistic poems like the witty ‘Carte Blanche’; the surreal-domestic mix of ‘lip’; swift, incisive poems like ‘slick’; and wryly astute insights such as ‘A Silence’. It was good to be offered a Hafiz ghazal (‘the calculations of profit and loss are nothing.’); the latest from ‘The Book of the Dead Man’, a poem full of vigour and surprise; a chillingly effective poem on child abuse – ‘Nell’; and the finely turned sonnet, ‘New Glass’. I expect you will take in your stride the nihilistic humour of ‘Pope Innocent the Last Addresses the Crowd from the Gallows’, the idiosyncracy of ‘Mute in the corner of the Museum of Love’, and the half-dialogue of ‘Listening for Charlie’; and that you’ll be touched by the suffering and loss in ‘Penal colony no.14’,‘Pain Management 1 & 2’, and ‘Morphine’: ‘Morphine is a sister, is a saint. / In our blood and history they’ll trace the taint.’
I enjoyed the sardonic tone of ‘The Village, the Bathers, Dialectic’ with its sharp observations: ‘The battleships bite / their little bits of sky from the horizon, quarrying / the blue.’ There is more of the mute weight of distant ships in ‘Offshore’ with ‘tankers queuing up and down the coastline / sparkling in their sleep.’ The valiantly manic skirmish with silence, saying and meaning of ‘for Sherman’ was not to be passed up. I mean to say! ‘Finishing’ has a Rilkean feel: ‘when the long rhythms of the telling / lapse in a great easing fall / that finishes the whole, / prepare for a lift of startling fullness.’ Apt, the way the stretched-out, rarely overlapping lines of ‘Reaching’ mirror the subject. A woman’s silence is reinterpreted in ‘Eurydice speaks’, a restrained and therefore convincing retelling of the myth. A distilled diction is part of the grace of ‘trees are about you’ and ‘it is not the river carrying us away.’ Here, as in other poems, the images are intrinsic to the overall meaning, and serve to deepen the sense of silence and space since images, metaphors in particular, are not just bridges but rifts acknowledging absence and otherness.