Few American poets and historians of American poetry write with the insight, literary knowledge, and acumen as TR Hummer. When I asked Terry to write an essay for the July issue of Plume during the first week of June, I didn’t expect him to say yes on such short notice, especially since he and his wife, the author Elizabeth Cody, are enduring the daily racket of carpenters renovating their house room by room. But much to my amazement and delight, he agreed. I’m not sure how he completed this task so brilliantly in only three weeks, composing one of the most engaging, timely, and original essays on American poetry that I’ve read in a long time. Is there another former editor of three of America’s most august journals—The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, and The New England Review—who has read as much contemporary poetry as TR Hummer, as well as written about it in such astute ways over the past four decades. I don’t think so. In “The Opposite of Silence: Poetry Interposes” one senses that Hummer was just waiting to write this profound reflection on not just the legacy of contemporary American poetry beginning with its parents, Whitman and Dickinson, but poetry itself. Not only does Hummer elucidate many of the “main things” (Whitman) that have instilled American poetry with “memorable language” over the last century and a half, but goes further in analyzing the dialectic between the sound of poetry and silence as essential antinomies of each other in their interplay on the ear and psyche. Like the fly in Emily Dickinson’s poem 591 (“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—), poetry “interposes.” in the silence of the poet’s act of composition, Hummer asserts in attesting to the poet’s third ear. It’s precisely that metaphorical “buzz,” Hummer argues so trenchantly that’s “larded with silence.”
The Opposite of Silence: Poetry Interposes
The dream, in medias res, founders on the grinding of a garbage truck outside the bedroom window. Morning commences with its turmoil and trafficking, and the dream departs in silence, unobserved, leaving only the scent of cedar and of molten titanium in its passing.
Once, a very intelligent young product of an elite private high school asked me, What is the opposite of prose? Without reflection, as in an associational psychological test, I replied Poetry. No, he said, the answer is verse, and he walked away, having decided I was not worth talking to.
He was right that I was wrong; but he was also wrong. I understood at once that he was adhering to the letter of the lexicon: verse, etymologically, is that which turns, while prose moves straight. But verse and prose—as words, not as cultural phenomena—exist in different dimensions; they are fossils from two different languages, and how can they be opposites? If I hadn’t played the word association game and had instead answered after a moment’s reflection, I’d have said The opposite of prose is silence.
Prose is noisy. It is the vehicle of the quotidian, a flatbed truck hauling scrap and salvage and diamonds; prose is a circus train. It moves along its track or its highway from point to point; if it’s a garbage truck, it stops and adds to its cargo. This characterization is a gross stereotype; I can feel literary novelists and essayists everywhere gathering in a lynch mob to contest it. However—as if this were a defense—the condition of prose as I have described it is likewise the condition of language itself, which means it is also the condition of poetry: which therefore is also the opposite of silence.
In the beginning, the culture tells us, there was an impenetrable wall set between poetry and prose. Beyond the wall there were monsters; there was boredom out there, and the sweat of your brow, and death. What was within? The dream. And pure poetry. Peace. And silence.
In the Christian West, this situation prevailed in the domain of writing for a long time—long past the Fall (before which, presumably, the Man and Woman spoke to each other in the pure language of lyric) it held sway, up to and beyond the practice of Shakespeare, who maintained a strict division between prose and verse, positing the rift as a “natural” matter of social class—and beyond Keats and Poe and virtually every other Euro-American poet all the way to Walt Whitman, who heard the dictum of Emerson (the Ronald Reagan of his time): Mr. Whitman, tear down that wall.
Whitman’s most radical act was to breach the barrier between “verse” and “prose,” to let in the sheer overwhelming size and power of all that had been excluded from poetry for so very long. By doing so, he accomplished many things, most of which can be boiled down into the following summary: he made poetry noisy, not for the first time, but very possibly finally and forever.
In an essay titled “What I Feel About Walt Whitman,” Ezra Pound wrote: “[Whitman] is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. He is the hollow place in the rock that echoes with his time. . . . I read him (in many parts) with acute pain, but when I write of certain things I find myself using his rhythms. . . .” A flamboyant man in his own right, Pound detested “stench,” the olfactory sibling of noise; even too great a verbal musicality was beyond the pale to him (see what he says about Poe, or, more blood-curdling, about Vachel Lindsay). His interminably verbose work The Cantos notwithstanding, he was attracted to poems that do not speak (as Heraclitus says about the Oracle at Delphi) but signify: hence Imagism; hence his abiding fascination with certain Asian poets as he came to know them in translation. And yet the American (perhaps the Idahoan, or perhaps the often-rejected human) in him quickened to the power of Whitman’s poems, even as he tried to contain them, in his own mind, in a prison of technical and social inferiority. “The vital part of my message,” he wrote, “taken from the sap and fibre of America, is the same as his. . . . Mentally I am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt (although at times inimical to both).” Pound, the make-it-new man, was blinded by his elitism to the fact that collars and dress shirts make it old; he was also arguably deafened to the power of noise. Whitman was the Pandora of poetry; out of the box he opened, a multitude of voices flew, and are flying still. Readers of poetry live in a pandaemonium as a result. Like democracy, which he so loved, Whitman freed an infinity of voices to speak and sing and narrate and scream, or just talk, or whisper, or mumble.
What, exactly, does molten titanium smell like? It has, I imagine, an exceeding great stench.
Thought, too, is noisy. In meditation we seek to quiet it, and mostly fail. In the most silent moments on our planet, if there are any, the babble of sentience never stops. If we could hear it all, the rush of voices in every soul in the universe, via a torturous telepathy, our heads would explode. The mental ear is at least as real as the physical one; billions of creatures (and possibly trees, and, who knows, maybe even stones) talking to themselves must make an exceeding great spiritual sound.
Walking into a monastery library around the turn of the fifth century a.d., St. Augustine was not expecting the holy silence we assume such places to harbor; he knew that the crowd of monks within were reading—and reading aloud, for that is how it was then done. Writing is the transcription of a voice; to hear that voice with the mental ear alone is an unnatural act, not that monks were ever guilty of such! The original assumption seems to have been that when one read, one spoke, because somebody had to, and the text itself refused. Augustine reflects that the only person he knew who could read without at least moving his lips was his great mentor St. Ambrose. My own head, like yours I presume, is like that library: full of a sussurating murmur of different voices discoursing independently sometimes, sometimes in accord, sometimes in disagreement. Somewhere in that hive-buzz poetry resides, alongside everything else, filling its hexameter of a cell with honey, sealing it with wax.
We excoriate noise pollution as we do light pollution, nostalgic for a world where the stars stood clear in the sky and you could travel days without hearing a human sound. This nostalgia generates a good many poems as well as works of prose—works that, when taken up by readers, increase the inner chatter of the species. It is unquestionably true that most of us would like to sit awhile in that quiet and unilluminated spot—but for how long, really? And who among us is pining for the moment when the last photon dies, when sound waves vanish, when the final human voice goes quiet? Whose world would that be?
Silence and the eternal are bound together, in human thought if not in fact. So are darkness and the abyss. The most silent known place on earth is an anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota; it is 99.99% sound absorbent, and no human has been able to stay in it for more than 45 minutes. How much do we need to hear the wind, the screech of cicadas, Yoyo Ma’s cello, babies crying? How much do you love the monkey in your mind?
The inner voices of the profoundly deaf are composed of signs—if they know sign language. If they don’t, the hearing can have no idea of what happens inside their subjective horizons, a disturbing thought. The famous moment when Helen Keller came to understand a connection between water and a word traced in the palm of her hand is famous for a reason.
Silence is pure. Purity can exalt us. It can also, it seems, break us.
Is language the opposite of silence—even if it is the silent language of thought? I once (noisily) thought so, and told myself that every word we speak or write is an act of human defiance thrown in the teeth of the silent and infinite darkness of death. I was young then. Time has moderated that melodramatic position. It is now clear to me that language is shot through with silence, as music is, and as life is shot through with death, or vice versa. Poetry on the page is surrounded by white space—white noise, we might call it, because the space around a poem is an echo of the poem’s form. Such a poem as Aram Saroyan’s lighght throws a monkey wrench into the usual process of articulation, whether audible or silent, but it only works against the backdrop of the ordinary pronunciation of the word light and depends for its effect on the reader’s realizing that the silent gh’s, which in theory could be repeated ad infinitum without affecting the pronunciation of the word (all gh’s being silent), thereby invokes the constancy of the speed of light itself.
How many silent gh’s have you pronounced today?
In the beginning was the Word, John of Patmos tells us, and he told us this in Greek, the language of Heraclitus, and so for John the Logos was the beginning of all things: and the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word was God. What John meant by Logos is probably not what Heraclitus meant. Characteristically, Heraclitus wrote that the Logos is unwilling and willing to be called Zeus. But there is a deep connection between these cosmologies. For one thing, the debate about exactly what both John and Heraclitus meant by Logos is endless (and yet fruitful); still, it is obvious that the Word is vital to both. I think it’s fair to say that for Heraclitus Logos is both that which moves in the cosmos and also that which initiates motion—motion in the grand sense, since without that cosmic flow there is no existence. And for John, similarly but utterly differently, the Word leaps from the mind of God and has not stopped leaping. Before, there was nothing, there was silence, there was darkness on the face of the deep; then God spoke, and nothing has been the same since.
What is the sound of one Big Bang banging? And what was the sound before that?
Let there be light.
“Hello darkness my old friend,” Paul Simon begins his all-too-famous song—as if nothing could be more natural in a song called “The Sound of Silence” than to invoke darkness and to talk to it, as he does in the next line. The whole song is predicated on obvious paradoxes, as the title makes clear, so the leap to the unexpected is all too predictable, perhaps; but the terms (silence, darkness, vision, sleep, “naked light”) are instructive, especially given the song’s massive success.
Few text-based poems have gone platinum, or been hummed along with and memorized, the way “The Sounds of Silence” has been, but if there’s a contender it might well be Emily Dickinson’s poem 591, “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” a favorite of high school classrooms as well as literary critics and general readers, and surely one of Dickinson’s greatest hits. Here too the relationships among silence, darkness, vision, and sleep (the Big One) arise. The famous fly, of course, is entirely the issue. It is nothing but noise. In the poem it is never seen. We have an inkling it may be visible in line 13: “With Blue—uncertain—stumbling” the narrator says of it, but stumbling what? Legs which might actually stumble would be the obvious answer, or maybe wings which might literally be blue; but no, this all about the buzz: “There interposed a Fly— // With Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz— / Between the light—and me.” Paradox and synechdoche abound here, which could be nowhere so appropriate as at the moment of dying. In this room, where “The Stillness…Was like the Stillness in the Air / Between the Heaves of Storms,” something so small and mundane and voracious and potentially filthy as a fly “Interposed.” But, as it turned out, it was not the body of the fly interposing but only its buzz— which might still be filthy, since audio technicians refer to unwanted sounds, static and so forth, as “dirty,” just as photographers refer to unwanted points of light in a photo as “noise.”
All this is endlessly canny on Dickinson’s part and therefore fascinating. But the great matter is the word “Interposed,” so unexpected and strange and perfect is it. This fact has been observed by all readers of this poem: it’s almost impossible to miss. The fly, which is the last remnant of life in the poem, interposes. At the moment the speaker has “Willed my Keepsakes—Signed away / What portion of me be / Assignable,” the fly interposes—not between the narrator and the Great Silence, as would seem logical; surely the irritating buzz is a distraction from what is coming—but no, it is “Between the light—and me.” The fly is tiny, but it thwarts even the windows, which “failed.” The fly seems neither a straw to which the dying narrator clings (it is after all a living thing, and an unexpected sound at the moment when silence might well become eternal) nor is it an irritating distraction; it seems rather the bearer of death, and its buzz, while defeating silence, also quenches light. The windows “Failed—and then / I could not see to see.” The brilliance of this formulation is obvious, but the chain of cause and effect is, suffice it to say, very strange indeed. Do we root for the silence, or for the buzz—the tiny sound that becomes a synechdoche for the fly of course, but also at once for life and death? The fly is a living thing, but it is the Mother of Maggots.
Hello darkness. Are you my friend?
Poetry is of this life, but it courts silence. It makes a noise (in the air when read aloud, in the mind in any case) but it bows to darkness. It interposes strictly speaking: it places itself (or is placed) between; hence it is a thing which turns, Janus-like, looking ahead and behind (or anywhere else you like). Even when blunt and plain and pellucid, as Dickinson’s work often is, it is two-valued (ambivalent) because interposed. It valorizes the silent, motionless point at the center, but embraces the circumference, which is everywhere.
Poetry is the Fly.
As I write this essay, our house it being wrecked by renovators. We are living in it while it is being disassembled; it’s as if we were moving but going nowhere, packing up our “keepsakes” only to return them to the same place they occupied before. And through it all there is noise: sanders and drills and shop vacs, scraping and hammering, and the happy western swing music one of the painters plays on a boombox—he actually still has one: a beautiful 22-year-old who has been doing this work since he was 16 and is already a journeyman; he dances as he works and sometimes, to the delight of my wife, breaks loudly into song. This goes on for weeks. I am desperate for silence, for peace, and yet I admire these workers because they are so very good at what they do, and to all appearances are having a wonderful times laving the walls of our old house with overpriced designer paint.
Noise. The house is chaos. It is filthy from the dust raised in the process—which still is vacuumed conscientiously every afternoon, and which relentlessly returns each morning. I tell the workers they are my family now, since they clearly live here; I tell them they are my children and I will miss them when they are gone. They dismiss me cheerfully with a wave, crazy geezer.
But through it all there are pauses: moments when a random silence falls and I can hear some small sound—a catbird miming, the wind—or just nothing at all.
For all their meticulousness, they leave the doors and windows open, and the house invites flies. What is inside to them? What is outside? Washing the dishes, or trying to write a poem, I can hear them. “There’s flies in the kitchen,” John Prine sang; “I can hear them buzzin’ / And I ain’t done nothin’ / Since I woke up today.” I think I should run away to a monastery and take a vow of silence, and shun the library where Augustine’s monks are reading. I think of the smell of molten titanium: what is that, anyway?
Poetry is a house-wrecking renovator; poetry is an interposing fly. Poetry is noise larded with silence—as, in fact, all language is. Music is full of silence; so is speech. Texts are resolutely silent: they have no literal voices. But they are scores for the symphony of the chorus of the mind. Poetry is the rapt silence of a reader stunned to thoughtlessness by the aptness or sheer truth of a phrase (“I could not see to see”); poetry is a shout in the street. Poetry is pure music; poetry is prose. If this all seems too easily reductive, forgive me. It is inspired by the state of the living room: piles of boxes, pictures, keepsakes, chairs, and in the center, dislodged from its place by the wall, the piano where my wife, in other moments, plays Bach so beautifully. Most of this reduction of our home is draped in translucent plastic, so we can see the suggestion of the outline of our possessions. Over this shroud, from time to time, there interpose half a dozen flies.
Is this our life? No. And yes. Is it what we expected to happen? No way, baby. It’s all an accident in continual motion. This is what the thunder of the Logos has wrought. “Deep within my heart there’s a melody,” somebody sings upstairs. Something about a dream I had…do I wake or sleep? I’m starting to love this.
Any poem that can’t account for all this noise, and all this silence, is no kind of poem at all.