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Peggy Rosenthal“Desperately Seeking Silence” is the title of an intriguing essay in the current issue of Cross Currents (Fall, 2007). The author, Brett Esaki, who identifies himself as a member of the Hip-hop generation, argues that the noise we hear in youth culture’s art forms is actually creating a meditative space of silence for those who have ears to hear.

Esaki presents a theory of sound which posits that the silence without which we humans cannot thrive actually requires sound to articulate it. “Sound is the wall of the cave, the paint in a Zen circle, the glass of a cup, the roof over a home. Sound…creates a place for humanity to live, for our minds to transform, for our bodies to rest.”

What might strike those of us outside youth culture as the least restful of art forms can create that restorative cave for the initiated. One illustration Esaki offers is the ritual which he calls “New Wave Evangelism”: the playing of “almost deafening electronic music to an audience with their eyes closed and hands raised.” While the outsider hears only maddeningly loud sound, “to those within this movement, the wall of sound is a blanket which seals in silence.” And safe inside, “the saved” — for this is a religious experience that Esaki is describing — find the freedom to drop their socially approved masks and begin to discover who they really are.

“We are desperately seeking silence,” he concludes, speaking for his generation, “and we frequently find fingerholds of pleasure and pride within secular society, but we rarely find caves in which to meditate. New Wave Evangelism and Hip-hop contain caves of considerable size, and the youth have claimed these kivas as their own.”

I confess that my grandmotherly age and my race and artistic tastes put me way outside the Hip-hop generation, so I’m grateful for this insight into its artistic experience. And I feel less foreign to this experience when I focus on Esaki’s marvelous images of how sound in general can work to create silence for all of us, of whatever generation or culture — like the glass of a cup or the roof over a home. My experience of art is much like this. Indeed, I go to art for the silence it gives — not a silence dead blank, but one reverberating with meaning that speaks to my soul.

I’m reminded of what I once heard poet Li Young Lee say about this silence with reference to poetry in particular. It was during the Q&A after a reading, and he must have been asked what makes poetry meditative. His response was an oh-wow moment for me: “In poetry, language is not the only medium; silence is also a medium. We might even say that, in poetry, the very purpose of the language is to inflect the silences. It’s like after church bells ring: the air resonates with their sound. In poetry, the silences are resonant, from the language that precedes them.”

This is exactly my experience when I read a fine poem. It is a spiritual experience — maybe even not entirely foreign to the musical experience of New Wave Evangelicals. For Li Young Lee went on to say: “The silence in poetry is like space in a Gothic cathedral. The function of all that mass of carved stone is to shape a sacred space.” A sacred space like the kivas that Esaki’s generation has found in its own art forms.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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