Friday, December 12, 2014


Although they traffic in words, poets are not averse to offering paeans to silence.  Which, come to think of it, raises a question:  are the words of poets silent or spoken?  In the interest of full disclosure (and recognizing the spoken or sung origins of ancient poetry), I confess that I have no interest in hearing poets recite their poems.

As is so often the case, Philip Larkin hits the nail on the head:

"Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much -- the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end.  Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you're dragged along at the speaker's own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing 'there' and 'their' and things like that.  And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse.  For that matter, so may the audience. . . . When you write a poem, you put everything into it that's needed: the reader should 'hear' it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him.  And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax.  I don't think it stands up on the page."

Philip Larkin, "An Interview with Paris Review" (1982), in Philip Larkin, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1982), page 61 (italics in original).

It is not unlikely that Larkin, as he was wont to do, is engaging in a bit of interviewer-baiting here, as well as trying to perpetuate the curmudgeonly caricature that he fashioned for the media.  But he is exactly right.  Things have steadily worsened in the ensuing 30 years:  in addition to universities offering academic degrees in, of all things, the writing of poetry, we have a never-ending circuit of poetry readings in which poets become known for their entertainment value.  The dramatic posturing is horrendous and risible at the same time.  And wholly typical of our age.

Now that I have finished my own curmudgeonly rant, let's return to poets and silence.

David Young Cameron (1865-1945), "En Provence" (1922)

There are times when we each of us longs for "a little peace and quiet." Imagine a place without the background hum of modern civilization in your ears.  I have experienced such a silence a few times:  for instance, on an atoll in the Cook Islands, in the high desert of eastern Utah, up in the Sierra Nevada of California in the early 1970s, and on the Isle of Skye.  It takes some getting used to.

Poets are sometimes inclined to take this thought to its natural conclusion. But perhaps the ultimate silence of our "implacable fate" is not such a bad thing after all.

    Beata Solitudo

What land of Silence,
     Where pale stars shine
On apple-blossom
     And dew-drenched vine,
     Is yours and mine?

The silent valley
     That we will find,
Where all the voices
     Of humankind
     Are left behind.

There all forgetting,
     Forgotten quite,
We will repose us,
     With our delight
     Hid out of sight.

The world forsaken,
     And out of mind
Honour and labour,
     We shall not find
     The stars unkind.

And men shall travail,
     And laugh and weep;
But we have vistas
     Of gods asleep,
     With dreams as deep.

A land of Silence,
     Where pale stars shine
On apple-blossoms
     And dew-drenched vine,
     Be yours and mine!

Ernest Dowson, Verses (1896).  "Beata solitudo" may be translated as "blessed solitude."

An aside:  the phrases "laugh and weep" (line 22) and "with dreams as deep" (line 25) remind me that all of Ernest Dowson's poems seem to be a variation on the poem that captures the essence of his poetry (and of most of the poetry of the 1890s as well).  I say this with a genuine sense of affection, and not as a criticism.  I am very fond of Dowson's poetry, and there are times when I am in perfect sympathy with his view of the world. Here is the poem of which I speak (it has appeared here before, but it is always worth revisiting):

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
     Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
     We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
     Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
     Within a dream.

Ernest Downson, Ibid.  "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam" is a line from one of Horace's Odes (I.iv), and may be translated as:  "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in long-term hope."

David Young Cameron, "The Hill of the Winds" (c. 1913)

Ernest Dowson and Christina Rossetti could not be more different. Dowson, like many poets of the 1890s, flirted with Catholicism while living a dissolute life.  Catholicism held some sort of aesthetic attraction for these poets.  I sense that it added a measure of self-created drama to their lives, providing a contrast to the hedonistic, love-sick melancholy in which they found themselves.  Rossetti, in contrast, was a devout Christian.  She was a member of the Church of England, with ties to the Oxford Movement of the Victorian era.  A great deal of her poetry consists of devotional verse, and she wrote a number of devotional prose works.

Yet, when I read the following poem by Rossetti, I cannot help but think that she and Dowson do not sound so far apart.  Perhaps I am stretching the point, but if the poems were unknown to me, and if I was not told who had written them, it would not seem strange to me that Dowson wrote "Golden Silences" and that Rossetti wrote "Beata Solitudo."

               Golden Silences

There is silence that saith, "Ah me!"
     There is silence that nothing saith;
          One the silence of life forlorn,
     One the silence of death;
One is, and the other shall be.

One we know and have known for long,
     One we know not, but we shall know,
          All we who have ever been born;
     Even so, be it so, --
There is silence, despite a song.

Sowing day is a silent day,
     Resting night is a silent night;
          But whoso reaps the ripened corn
     Shall shout in his delight,
While silences vanish away.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).

David Young Cameron
"The Norman Arch" (c. 1918)

Rossetti and Dowson come from the ethereal side of silence.  On the other hand, and as one might expect, Thomas Hardy arrives at silence through the minute particulars of the World.


There is the silence of a copse or croft
            When the wind sinks dumb,
            And of a belfry-loft
When the tenor after tolling stops its hum.

And there's the silence of a lonely pond
            Where a man was drowned,
            Nor nigh nor yond
A newt, frog, toad, to make the merest sound.

But the rapt silence of an empty house
            Where oneself was born,
            Dwelt, held carouse
With friends, is of all silences most forlorn!

Past are remembered songs and music-strains
            Once audible there:
            Roof, rafters, panes
Look absent-thoughted, tranced, or locked in prayer.

It seems no power on earth can waken it
            Or rouse its rooms,
            Or its past permit
The present to stir a torpor like a tomb's.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).

A side-note:  Hardy often recalled, and mused upon, what appears to have been a happy childhood.   Thus, "Silences" is reminiscent of an earlier poem of his which was also prompted by a visit to his old family home.

       The Self-Unseeing

Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.

Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (1901).

David Young Cameron, "A Little Town in Provence" (1922)


George said...

I don't go to poetry readings, yet I think it would be interesting to hear now and then the verse recited by the poet as he intended it to sound. When we read, we are hearing those words, whether we read aloud or not, and it would be enlightening to know how far our imagination of the sound is from the poet's, though I don't think that the poet's reading must be the controlling one. Once I heard on the radio a recording of Theodore Roethke (not my favorite poet) reading "My Father's Waltz" (not my favorite among his poems), and was struck by heavy rhythm and abrupt pauses at line ends. I would not recite it that way, yet it does slightly modify the way I hear it when I think about it.

Fred said...


I have a few places where I also found such silences. Fortunately one is very close, about a twenty minute drive out into the desert, and if I'm lucky, no one is there. All I can hear are the sounds of the wind and birds and silence itself.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz,

I have to agree with what you say here regarding poets reciting their poems. The few poets I've heard reading their poems have been awful to hear. There is either a complete absence of light and shade in their voice, or they engage in the most dreadful vocal theatrics.

Ironically perhaps one of the better readers of his own verse was Larkin himself. I have heard a number of recordings he made for the BBC, which in my opinion are really very good.

I do however agree with what he has to say about poetry readings. I mistakenly attended one many years ago. It was simply dire. I'm not sure I knew exactly what it was going to entail when I accepted the invitation. It even had some musical accompaniment with small hand drums and a saxophone!
An experience useful only in that it made me certain never to attend another.

I have been fortunate enough to have experienced those moments of quiet too. Exempt the busyness and noise of the modern world, they are to be truly cherished.

A few times in more remote parts of the Scottish Highlands, once in Northumberland on a beach when the sea mist was so heavy that the sea itself could only be located by the gentle sound it made lapping the shoreline. It used to be more possible in England, but nowadays with our rapidly increasing population and the consequent spread of development it is becoming an ever more difficult quality to find.

Here some more words from Thomas Merton which seem to fit with the tenor of this post.

"The world of men has forgotten the joys of silence, the peace of solitude which is necessary, to some extent, for the fullness of human living. Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from being perfectly at one with his own true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting. For he cannot go on happily for long unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul. If man is constantly exiled from his own home, locked out of his own spiritual solitude, he ceases to be a true person. He no longer lives as a man. He becomes a kind of automaton, living without joy because he has lost his spontaneity. He is no longer moved from within, but only from outside himself."

These words too, which I came across many years ago by the Alsatian artist Jean Arp seem a frighteningly accurate decription of todays's world. I believe they were originally written in the early 1950's.

"Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation".

Thank you for another wonderful post.

Ultra Monk said...

Your blog today is soothing to my soul.

Bruce Floyd said...

There is no Silence in the Earth - so silent
As that endured
Which uttered, would discourage Nature
And haunt the World.
--Emily Dickinson

In the end I suppose that dark night of the soul, the quick look into the abyss, the unalloyed truth of the human condition, even poetry fails us, and all we can do is endure silently--be patient, confident that before long poetry will work its wondrous legerdemain on us.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Your points are well taken. In fact, your opening thought exactly tracks something that Larkin said in the same interview: "I don't give readings, no, although I have recorded three of my collections, just to show how I should read them." And, as Mr Ashton mentions in his comment above, Larkin does read his poems well. (I confess that I have broken my own rule and listened to Larkin's readings on "The Sunday Sessions" CD that was issued a few years ago. I'm sure you're familiar with it.)

But I have also listened to recordings of Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Frost, and I was disappointed. In the case of Stevens and Eliot because they were too flat; in the case of Frost because of too much New England Yankee philosopher play-acting.

At any rate, as you no doubt perceived, my thoughts are mostly directed at the contemporary phenomenon of poets-as-performers. I realize that others feel differently, but it just seems odd to me.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your comments.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: You are lucky to have easy access to such spots. I mentioned the high desert of eastern Utah: it is amazing how you can get just a short distance away from roads out in the desert and find complete silence. I imagine it may be similar in places around Tucson.

As always, thanks for the thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you for another wonderful passage from Thomas Merton, which goes well with the one you shared a few weeks ago. You have inspired me to delve deeper into his works.

The quote from Arp is wonderful as well. It brings to mind the opening lines of R. S. Thomas's "Period" (which I'm sure you are familiar with): "It was a time when wise men/Were not silent, but stifled/By vast noise . . ."

Both passages go perfectly here. And both of them are immediately going into my journal!

Regarding Larkin's readings of his poems, please see my response above to George's comments: I have broken my own rule when it comes to Larkin, and I agree with you that his readings are very nice.

Thank you very much for the kind words about the post. It is always good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ultra Monk: I greatly appreciate your kind words. Thank you very much. But all credit goes to Dowson, Rossetti, and Hardy (and to David Young Cameron)! I am merely the messenger.

Thank you for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: I'm not sure what to make of that poem! At this point, I can only say that it sounds lovely. But I need to let it sink in and sit there for a while. I will say this as a initial oblique approach to what she may be getting at: I firmly believe that some things are best left unsaid, or are unsayable. Perhaps this is a spin-off from Wittgenstein's well-known Proposition 7 from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

In any event, Dickinson always provides a thought-provoking slant (to use one of her words) on things. And, as always, thank you very much for sharing both her thoughts and yours.

Bill Bennett said...

I once heard Christopher Ricks make the interesting point that one difference between a song and a poem (which translates perfectly to the difference between the poem on the page and the poem as read out to a listener) is that you don't know when a song is going to end, whereas you do with a poem.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Bennett: Thank you very much for that observation by Ricks, which I hadn't seen before. Given (as I'm sure you are aware) the time that Ricks has devoted to Bob Dylan and his lyrics (poems?), the distinction he makes is interesting.

As a great admirer of Dylan, I've never been able to decide whether his lyrics (or any good lyrics by a songwriter) qualify as poetry: so much of the impact is bound up with the music (melody and singing), that it is difficult for me to view his songs as poetry when I read them on the page. (Although I am perfectly willing to concede that his lyrics are superior to most contemporary poetry!)

Here's a tongue-in-cheek thought: given that some argue that the The Iliad and The Odyssey were perhaps sung originally (or at least delivered as an "oral performance"), did the listeners know what they were in for in terms of length? Did they begin to fidget when Homer (or another bard) began to recite the catalogue of ships?

Again, thank you for your comment, and for visiting.

George said...

In the fourth part of the postscript to his translation of the Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald writes. "A probable rate of Homeric performance was about five hundred lines an hour. So far as a I know, nobody has gone very far with deductions from this fact. The first four books of The Odyssey are obviously a narrative and dramatic unit, and so are the next four, and so are the next four. These are three successive waves of action, and each runs to about two thousand lines or about four hours of performance. There is no reason for not regarding this as the duration of a formal recital."

Four hours is getting to be Wagnerian length, but audiences may have been more patient then. And the books of the Iliad tend to be longer than those of the Odyssey.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for the answer to the question that my comments on the length of Homer's works begged. (I am always grateful for having such well-read and well-informed readers!)

So, if I am reading Fitzgerald's statements correctly, that means 4 hours for each of the three 4-book narratives, coming in at a total of 12 hours for the entire work. Hence, I presume there were numerous intermissions for bathroom breaks and food and drink. Perhaps it was a multi-day event, something like the rock festivals of our younger years. But with Homer rather than The Grateful Dead. And certainly much more civilized.

Thanks again.

George said...

Stephen, the Homeric epics have twenty-four books each; I took Fitzgerald to imply that four hours would be the day's or night's performance. So, yes, multi-day, and as you say with fairly high standards, maybe Bayreuth rather than The Grateful Dead. As for civilized, well, the Homeric world is not decadent, but it is course and brutal.

One year when my son was in high school, a day given over to arts and other activities included a reading (recorded) of the Iliad. He was in the sound booth of the theatre, but I don't think he ever told me how far the reading got that day, or whether there were images accompanying it.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for the follow-up information. And I'm heartened to hear that activity such as that still goes on in high schools!

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

An excellent post & fine, thought-provoking comments.
I also remember silence on a hillside on the Isle of Skye, suddenly broken by the baaing of sheep, invisible to us on a promontory below. My husband thought they were making fun of him! (Sheep often do sound like that.) Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: As always, it is very good to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again, and for the kind words.

I know what you mean about the sheep! I was thinking in particular of sitting on a hillside on the west coast of Skye at sunset, looking out over the sea to the Hebrides, with the ever-changing sky. There were no sheep at that moment, but there were plenty of others at other times.

Thank you again. Happy holidays!

Anonymous said...

Hamlet's last words are "The rest is silence."

Wallace Stevens was a great and prolific poet, but anyone who loves Stevens would admit, I think, that he was primarily a man of silence.

It could be that in the end, when all is said and done, that silence is the only response to the mystery and bewilderment of the human condition. Self-consciousness admitting it's tongue-tied.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: I agree with you entirely. I will only add two other thoughts in the same vein.

"What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 7.

"What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart."

Li Po (translated by Ezra Pound).

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.