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Good Letters

The following editorial statement from issue 86 of Image is adapted from a commencement address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in creative writing graduation in Santa Fe on August 8, 2015.


fog“The great poet does not completely fill out the space of his theme with his words. He leaves a space clear, into which another and higher poet can speak.”

—Max Picard, The World of Silence


Graduation marks the moment when you leave the community that has surrounded you for two years for the solitude of your writing life. That community will continue to exist and even expand over the years, and will include many reunions and gatherings, but the level of intensity and support you’ve experience in the program may never be matched.

Which means that it’s now down to you and your laptop—the blank screen and the blinking cursor. Or, if you’re the old-fashioned sort, the empty page and the poised pen.

Perhaps you’re ready, willing, and able to fill the screen, but perhaps you’re nervous about all those white pixels. Will you have words to fill the emptiness? Will you be able to speak into the silence?

At this residency we’ve been reading two poets who struggled with the relationship between words and silence, T.S. Eliot and Denise Levertov. For these authors and for each of us, the problem of silence is both a theme and a vocational challenge to be faced each day.

Eliot and Levertov were not immune from the fear and dread—and sometimes anger and frustration—brought on by what can feel like the overwhelming power of silence. As poets, however, they came to believe that engaging with silence was their primary vocation and that this required them to know when to avoid the noise and distraction that most of us employ to banish silence.

Both poets were also acutely aware of the larger historical and intellectual issues that shape how we understand silence in the postmodern era. They understood that in our time we tend to think of silence as emptiness rather than fullness—absence rather than presence. But they also knew that at various times and places, certain artists, thinkers, and mystics have believed that the opposite might be true: that silence might betoken a superabundance of presence and meaning, even if it remains shrouded in mystery.

Eliot and Levertov knew that their work had to dramatize this tension between presence and absence, because they experienced that tension in their own lives.

For Eliot, the existence of death, of cosmic entropy, the fact that everything goes into the “dark,” is the ultimate challenge. And yet in the Four Quartets he also discovers that when words—or human souls, for that matter—are given form, are shaped into something beautiful—such forms resist death and make silence eloquent.

Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Eliot believed that the best way to “reach into the silence” was the via negativa (or negative way), the path that tries to remove all the noise of the world and meet God in the pregnant darkness of silence. This path requires asceticism and self-denial.

Levertov, on the other hand, was a lifelong advocate of the affirmative way, which sees in the created world analogies that enable us to understand, however dimly, something of the nature of God. She once quoted with approval the words of Oscar Milosz: “To wait for faith in order to be able to pray is to put the cart before the horse. Our way leads from the physical to the spiritual.” Or as critic James Dougherty puts it: “It is through her profound love for the secular that now [Levertov] can aspire to faith in the spiritual.”

Whereas Eliot was preoccupied with form, Levertov focused on voice, on the primal act of the poetic utterance against the background of silence. To speak about the poet’s voice is to raise the familiar questions: is the glass empty or full? Is writing simply a monologue? Or does it somehow involve another, a hearer as well as a speaker, establishing a dialogue?

The literary critic Walter J. Ong once said that the solitary nature of the individual voice “reveals a rift, a limitation inside our own beings, but a rift which opens its own way to salvation—for it is a rift which comes from our bearing vicariously within ourselves the other with whom we must commune, and who must commune with us, too, and thereby compensate for the rift, the limitation, in our persons.”

Max Picard, in his classic work The World of Silence, argues that language is more deeply human than silence, but at the same time he holds that language which does not respect silence becomes little more than noise.

Not until one man speaks to another, does he learn that speech no longer belongs to silence but to man. He learns it through the Thou of the other person, for through the Thou the word first belongs to man and no longer to silence. When two people are conversing with one another, however, a third is always present: Silence is listening. That is what gives breadth to a conversation: when the words are not moving merely within the narrow space occupied by the two speakers, but come from afar, from the place where silence is listening.


To be continued tomorrow.

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

Written by: Gregory Wolfe

Gregory Wolfe is the founder of Image and serves as Writer in Residence and Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Seattle Pacific University. His books include Beauty Will Save the World and Intruding Upon the Timeless. Follow him on Twitter: @Gregory_Wolfe.

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