So Quiet in Here; or, In Praise of Silence in Poetry

I hear the tick of drips off my metal roof onto the deck, somewhere a low hum of a machine in the neighborhood, far off a rumble of a truck just discernible, the leaves are moving outside my window but I can’t hear their titter in here. I hear the steady jangle of my tinnitus in one ear. Now the truck is gone. Now I hear the dehumidifier in the basement kick in. More drip drip from the roof. This sounds like noise on the page, but feels like quiet to me. Most of the year my neighborhood is blessedly quiet.

Some of you may know of my ten-plus-year plague of dog barking — two dogs on one side of me, four on the other. Calls to the police, tearful calls in the middle of the night to the dog owners, consideration of murder, consideration of suicide. I think the only thing that saved me was the otherwise quiet of the neighborhood. And the quieting with age and personal development of the sounds inside my head — the thoughts, I mean, the expectations, the shoulds and coulds, the grasping at and letting go of what I thought was power. But while I was in the middle of it, I thought I’d lose my mind.

And a recent article in The Atlanticindicated I was not wrong. Sounds deeply disturb us. In “Why Everything Is Getting Louder,” Bianca Bosker notes: “The earliest noise compaint in history…concerns a bad night’s sleep. The 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgameshrecounts how one of the gods, unable to sleep through humanity’s racket and presumably a little cranky, opts to ‘exterminate mankind.'”

Alas, we apparently sprang back.

She also cites at least half a dozen incidents in 2019 alone of people shooting other people over noise. Sing it, sister. Noise exposure has been shown to increase blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, diabetes, dementia, agression, and depression. Good grief.

I wonder if this is why I was drawn to poetry: the importance of silence in it, the tension between sound and silence that often resolves in a sound spoken into and reverberating in silence, and then dying away, leaving silence (or the post-poem moo) once again, replacing the noisy self, at least for a moment.

I need silence. It’s a visceral thing sometimes.

That article notes the steep decline in quiet places. I am fortunate to have easy access to the woods, both in my immediate area and up in the Adirondacks. But one of the places that represents quiet for me that feels lost is the library. The library of my young childhood was in an imposing edifice with a large staircase and lions at the gate. Inside was hushed and hallowed, high ceilings, huge windows. Whispers were the mode of communication.

Now, in their efforts to be a relevant community resource, libraries still have books but have lost the hush. At my library now, a modern affair, my perusal is racketed by two homeless guys complaining about a third, and a tutor trying patiently to go over some algebra equations. (Yes, I’m one of those cranks, complaining about “these days” and loud about “the good old” ones.)

Oh, I long for the days of shushing. In the quiet of the library, words and books seemed to be holy things, the library itself a sacred space. Now it’s just another place to have an overly loud cell phone conversation.

I’ve been experimenting in my poetry with placing white on the page among words. We had an interesting conversation about this at my recent writing retreat — how do you decide where the space goes in such a setting? Natural pauses, deliberate choices to withhold information or make the reader wait, and some instinct about what words or phrases could use the kind of emphasis that silence around them can provide was our best guess at an equation for such decisionmaking.

Sometimes I fear it makes the poem look too self-conscious on the page. Ooh, look at me all spread out here. But mostly I like it. It eases me somehow to allow some light and space into these poems I’ve been working on, and even imposing them on old poems in revision. Nothing worse than a poem that barks at you from the page, incessant, tied to a pole in the backyard.

The dogs? One of the two on one side died some years ago, and the remaining one is very old and mostly barks from inside the house at predictable points in the day; on the other side, the noisiest of the four dogs eventually died, and then owner moved away, and I heard that she too has died. Ah. May they all rot in a noisy hell. I’m not THAT far onward in my personal development and inner Zen.

I need you to need me; or, On Favorite Poems

We often in the poetry world talk about “loving poet X’s work,” and I easily fall into that habit of speech, but in truth there are no poets whose work I unequivocably love; rather, there are poems I love. Sometimes it so happens that many of those poems are by the same poet.

The “who’s your favorite poet” question just does not equate with my actual experience of reading poetry, which is much more “yawn, yawn, hunh?, WOW, yawn, yawn, hunh?” in nature. Even the poets I think I can turn to with fairly reliable pleasure can, at some stages of my lumpy development, leave me cold.

I think I’ve talked about this with regard to Tomas Transtromer and how perplexed I’ve been every time I encounter his poem “The Baltics,” even by the same translator: sometimes with a shrug and sometimes with a WOW. I can’t explain it, because I can’t see inside the tinker-toy structure of my state-of-being in any given moment.

I have this experience with Keats — I read excerpts from his poems, that is, lines cited by someone else, and think wow, I need to read this. Then I do. And I fail to find whatever was the frisson that made me interested in the first place. It’s like seeing a star best by looking at it out the corner of your eye. Keats in full frontal is just not much of a view for me, at least — again — at the stages of development

I’ve gone through thus far. Dickinson too fails me, or I fail her, again and again, although I’ve greatly enjoyed some discussions I’ve listened to about her work, and a fascinating book I read about religious dimensions in her work, whose title and author I have no recollection of. Left to our own devices, Dickinson and I sit silently over tepid tea and dry cakes.

I’m saddened and of course self-blame-y over my inability to gush along with the crowd. But, again, I’m falling into the habit of mistaking a poet for the entirety of his or her work. In fact, Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant…The Truth must dazzle gradually/or every man be blind–” is a central tenet for my thinking about poetry (that goddamn end hyphen notwithstanding).

And I found myself mentioning in passing in a conversation (I was obviously showing off) Keats’s “La belle dame sans merci” not long ago — thinking more of, if truth be told, one of those pre-Raphaelite-type illustrations than the poem itself. And his ghostly hand is vivid in my mind, although the point of that poem rather escapes me.

I circle back to a whole variety of poets and poems in case I happen to “need” them in the given moment. And thanks to my leaky memory, sometimes it’s like encountering a poem for the very first time.

 

You Make Everything Groovy; or, Writing and Depth

I had the great pleasure recently of watching a small whale arc up from dark water and descend, arc up and descend, all muscle and gleam, powerful, mysterious, and yet intimate somehow, that glimpse of this Other, strange and yet flesh-like-me, breath, blood, bone. And as I’m also in the midst of first-round-reading for a poetry press (I’ve written about this process in this blog many times, I know), and poetry is much on my mind, it occurs to me that that’s what I’m looking for in a poetry collection: muscle and gleam, strangeness and yet intimacy.

There are many fine collections, many also that I simply don’t get at all, many that I know are of the kind of thing that is in vogue and maybe I should pass them up the ladder just because it might be the Next Big Thing (so many of which I don’t get), many that don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts, and some that are written by people who have not seemed to have studied the craft of the art. But it’s the arc of something mysterious I’m looking for in this deep water, something alive and that makes me feel both a strangeness and a kinship.

It takes patience to see a whale in the vastness of these waters. I walk and look and sit and look, and fear to look away at just the wrong time.

And here I read and read and read, worry and fear I’m not smart or sensitive enough to catch some important collection. But then something will catch my eye, and rise and scatter light, and I’ll think, “There! That’s something special.”

Now how to write such a collection is another question all together, as easily done as making a whale from a bunch of blubber and bone. The spark of life required takes some kind of god-like Let-there-be-light or a Big Bang.

No, that makes it sounds impossible. It is a deeply human manifestation, such writing, and they too have to rise from the deep, from some muscular impulse. It is possible. I’ve seen it. It takes patience, remember?

There is a wildness about the collections that catch my eye, a rawness. And that’s what I worry about in my own work, that it’s too mannered, that I intellectualize while keeping what’s untamed in me leashed. I don’t want to subdue my savage self in my work. I want to write wild.

 

Down to the Crossroads; or, Confidence and the Editing Process

I’ve gotten a couple of acceptances just recently that I’m very pleased about. And it has also thus far been a year of many rejections. I have certain pieces I’ve really believed in that just keep getting rejected over and over again, and I’m losing my confidence. Do I really know how to assess my own work? Am I just wrong?

My rational self says, “Yes, sometimes you’re wrong. But sometimes,” it assures, “you’re not wrong. It’s just that this is the game — send stuff out, get it rejected, repeat.”

But, I argue, how do I know when I’m right and when I’m wrong?

Rational Self says, “Oh, um…is that the phone? I think I hear the phone. Gotta go…”

I’m in this place of doubt — not necessarily doubt about my work, but doubt about my ability to understand what in the work is working. And what isn’t. I know I’ve been here before. I know the mood has passed. I don’t know if I had discovered some way out of this fog, or whether it’s just time, and distraction. I’ve forgotten. I know I come back to two things: that time is the best editor; and that there is something at gut-level that knows things about my work. But when time and gut still says it likes a work that has been getting rejected for years? I know I’ve written in this very space about honing one’s own editorial sense. But can I really believe myself? I dunno.

Rational Self rolls her eyes.

The editing process takes inner calm, perspective, and confidence. This is especially true when it comes to “knowing” that something is ready to send out. My own process is too often to send stuff out too soon, get it back rejected, and suddenly see a new editing angle. But hey, it’s a process. But there are some times in which I just can’t muster up the guts to do good editing on my own work, or see it with a sufficiently cold eye. (And I do think there are some of my works that I’ll just never get perspective on. I’m just going to love their flawed selves and that’s it. I’ll tuck them into a manuscript somehow or incorporate them into a visual project maybe. But I won’t abandon them to my C-level folder! I won’t!)

A friend of mine who breeds and raises dogs talks about puppy panic periods: something a puppy did without fear a day before suddenly turns it into a whites-around-the-eyes, stiff-legged-no-way-I-ain’t-doin’-that trembling mess, and pretty soon pretty much everything freaks it out. The periods generally only last a few days, although the puppy might have another such period some time later in its development. I think I have puppy panic periods throughout my whole life. Different things set me off at different times (there are some things, of course, that set me off EVERY time). (Spider!) I think I must be in one now.

Time will move me off this, and I’ll regain my self-confidence, and/or regain some perspective on those pieces that have received consistent rejections, and/or continue to believe in them beyond all reason. Right now, though, I’m going to just sit here quietly for a while.

That’s not a spider over there, is it?

 

You Can Leave Your Hat On; or, Rethinking Writing and Editing

I like to flounce around thinking I know things.

So it’s good when I stumble upon ideas that wake me up to my profound ignorances. A few things I read recently made me rethink my often cavalier approach to writing and particularly to editing.

First was this from1984: “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.” In 1984not only is history rewritten daily but language itself is being narrowed, and as language narrowed, thought itself stultified. Thinking and language is, for us, our wag-tongued species, inextricable. “Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”

I have always loved words, even as a little tiny kid would leaf through a book on the family shelf called How to Build a Better Vocabulary. Words were as magic as magic, and as delightful in the mouth as chocolate chip cookies, as cake with candles. And I can almost remember a visceral sense of my mind expanding as I encountered new words that struck me, words that opening up new worlds, new ways of thinking.

I just read Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks, a wonderful book about books and words, specifically words of regional dialect that describe things specific to regional experiences: how the fog creeps across the moor, the way certain rock formations sparkle, how the regular passage of a small animal through a hedge creates a hole. Worlds and worlds, words and worlds.

I think of Rilke in the 9th Duino Elegy: Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit, tree, window…. (Well, is the best translation “pitcher”? Or is is it “jug”? “Carafe”? “Box of Wine”?) Looking through my recent drafts I think I’ve gone slack with language. One editing exercise I do in my writing workshops is to ask everyone to examine all the verbs in their draft, and act to wake up those verbs, make them carry more weight, move with more gravitas or fleetness. Editor, edit thyself.

And then I encountered the words of an old friend, whose work never fails to humble me to my own limitations: Doug Glover has a new book of essays on writing coming out. It’s called, characteristic of his humor, The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form. Here in an adapted extraction published on TheWalrus.ca, Glover speaks volumes about sentences:

A few key quotations from Douglas Glover, “The Power of a Good Sentence,” on TheWalrus.ca:

– “One day, I happened to read an essay called ‘On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was talking about sentences, but instead of repeating platitudes, he showed how to construct sentences on the basis of conflict. Instead of just announcing a single thesis, a sentence begins by setting out two or more contrasting ideas; the sentence develops a conflict, intensifying toward a climax, a ‘knot’ Stevenson calls it, and then, after a moment of suspension, slides easily toward a close.”

– “Suddenly writing a sentence became an exciting prospect, a journey of discovery, a miniature story with a conflict and a plot, the outcome of which I might not know at the outset.”

– “The lesson is to inject conflict, rhythm, plot, and energy into your sentences by deploying relatively simple forms. Never leave a crude sentence snoozing on the page when there is the possibility of dramatic elaboration.”

Oh, dear.

And so I fall back, retreat — retreat!– to the beginning — or, is it really the beginning, or some waypoint on the spiral? — to begin again, to roll/push/shove/muscle/spin/turn/revolve/cycle/trundle my rock of carbuncled words and sentences up the rubbled hillside again.

Doorbells and Sleighbells and; or, Reading A. R. Ammons’s Garbage

I love when literary synchronicity happens, that is, when I’m thinking about a thing or have just written about it and suddenly, randomly stumble on someone else thinking or having thought about the same thing. I decided, spurred by a mention of him in an essay on the long essay/poem, to finally explore the poetry of A. R. Ammons. He’s someone whose work I’m surprised I haven’t sought before, as his interests in science and the land are right up my alley. But it’s always been one of those, oh, yeah, I’ll get to that.

But I got my hands on Garbage, his booklength, multipart poem. And there in the first section were things I had written about that very day in my own notes: the competition of trees, the dismay of overabundance, and what has also been on my mind, which he puts this way: “…we tie into the/lives of those we love and our lives, then, go//as theirs go; their pain we can’t shake off…”

The book as a whole contains a lot of…well, stuff. Quite a bit of it is about itself, Ammons being clever about writing about writing, amusing himself to no end. So I have had to plow a bit through it all and hard-to-follow meanderings but just as I would get impatient and start to mutter words like “self-indulgent” under my breath, he’d hit me with something like this from section 3. We are watching the driver of a garbage truck on top of the municipal mound of garbage:

…the driver gets out of his truck
and wanders over to the cliff on the spill and
looks off from the high point into the rosy-fine
rising of day, the air pure, the winds of the
birds white and clean as angel-food cake; holy, holy,
holy, the driver cries and flicks his cigarette
in a spiritual swoop that float and floats before
it touches ground: here, the driver knows.
where the consummations gather, where the disposal
flows out of form, where the last translations
cast away their immutable bits and scraps,
flits of steel, shivers of bottle and tumbler,
here is the gateway to beginning, here the portal
of renewing change, the birdshit, even, melding
enrichingly in with debris, a loam for the roots
of placenta…

That “gateway to beginning” found among the ends of things, the detritus, the beginning found in the ends of things, as a tree grows outward from the center and rots that way too, having absorbed a lifetime of nutrients, having shared what it had.

I didn’t love much of Garbage, but it taught me something about the glory of excess, and the boldness of pouring it all into the poem, carrot peels and rotten meat, old receipts and fancy packaging, and having the patience and faith in the process to make a path and find a pattern.

 

What’s Love Got To Do With It?; or, Art and the Question

I’m in the middle of an interesting writing experience. I have yet another new batch of poems (Ugh! MORE? When I already have one full length and two chapbook length manuscripts that I can’t get published? Damn me and my productivity. I depress myself.) that I’m revising through. As I questioned the logic behind one of them, forgetting the reading I was doing that inspired it, I began researching the topic more — which was the origin of life on earth.

Yeah, I know.

So anyway, I found this incredibly fascinating article on BBC.com that summarizes the research thus far and how dead ends in previous research often actually contained useful thinking that informed later research, once someone took a look back on the old stuff with a new eye.

This is the revision process in a nutshell — everything old can be new again. (But again, emphasis on “old,” that is, the necessity of the passage of time to allow one to re-see, re-view, to see afresh, with new eyes.)

I’ve now traveled miles away from whatever I was trying to say in that original poem, and am aswamp with new information that astounds and intrigues me. What it asks in me that I may turn into a poem I have no idea yet. It may never be a poem. But what a fun rabbit hole it has turned out to be. And this question about the question is key.

Research is always about a question, sometimes posed in different ways or approached from various routes. And this too is poetry. Some of the poems I’m editing are interesting but lack a central question. This is what can come of writing from the middle of research — one feels briefly as if one knows something! But to reach back into the central question is essential to make art. Art comes out of the not-knowing, the search. Otherwise, you’re just presenting an academic theory.

There’s a local man who makes hundreds of paintings of local landmarks. They’re okay, in that they have some personality to them and a signature style. But there is no mystery, somehow, no way in which the artist is admitting he doesn’t know something about his subject matter. I’m not even sure what I mean by that. I just know there’s a blandness to the presentation such that I’m fine with looking at it once, but it’s not something I’ll bother to look at again. In contrast, I have a landscape hanging on my wall that I look at often. I’ll find a new streak of color I haven’t noticed before, or haven’t admired in a while. I’ll enjoy anew the shadowed trees, a smear of light on the pond edge.

One of the brilliant things this article is doing with the history of the research of the origin of life is presenting it as an unfolding, of stalls and restarts, of conflicts and alliances, certainties and doubts. The subject and the researchers are alive and wondering, just as the artist of my landscape shows herself.

In these poems I’m editing, I have to reach back to find my wondering self, if it’s there. If there’s no wonder, there’s no poem. Life, as it’s turning out, probably began in a shallow, soupy mess of chemicals and metals with some light thrown on it.

Hey, I’m a mess of chemicals and metals! Maybe I can create some stuff that has some life in it…