The following is adapted from a commencement address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in creative writing graduation in Santa Fe on August 8, 2015.
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.
Denise Levertov’s poems nearly always contain vivid reminders of the oral nature of poetry, of poetry as speech addressed to a hearer, and thus in some sense always a conversation. In her seminal poem “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus,” Levertov chooses to honor the disciple of Jesus who, after the Resurrection, needed to place his hand inside Christ’s wound in order to believe.
“Didymus” means twin, and Levertov intends us to see that she is identifying herself as the other twin. Thomas will not be satisfied until he sticks his hand inside the emptiness in Christ’s flesh—the void or silence that will ultimately speak to him.
The poem, which is separated into the traditional parts of the Mass that are sung by a choir, begins with a Kyrie, a plea for mercy in the face of our terror at both our mortality and the potential destruction of the world itself. Here Levertov can only address a figure who is entirely “unknown.”
But as the poem progresses—moving from the Gloria, a hymn of praise, to the Credo, a statement of belief—the tone shifts. Now the poet is no longer a mere observer of potential doom. She chooses to take a side, saying: “Be, belovéd, threatened world.”
By the Sanctus, the speaker of the poem is convinced that even the “Vast Loneliness” of the universe can be given a “hearth” through the power of imagination. The imagination sends forth a song into what Levertov calls “the harboring silence.” Silence is thus no longer seen as a blank wall but a force that can provide shelter, rest, and replenishment.
In the Benedictus, Levertov blesses everything that contains the spirit, including
moss and moon, fossil and feather,
blood, bone, song, silence,
very word of
And the word, spoken out of silence, becomes flesh.
To whom is Levertov speaking? To us, of course—we who begin to recognize ourselves as her twin. But she is also speaking from the rift within herself to the mystery that abides in silence.
That is why in this “Mass” Levertov deliberately conflates poetry and prayer. Murray Bodo, Levertov’s friend and spiritual director, once said: “Both prayer and the poem are not there ahead of themselves, but are both known only in their doing. They cannot even be imagined except in the ‘words’ that make them, words that in the case of prayer may also be silences.”
In “Immersion,” a poem collected after her death, Levertov went further in her affirmation of silence as fullness of presence:
There is anger abroad in the world, a numb thunder,
because of God’s silence. But how naive,
to keep wanting words we could speak ourselves,
English, Urdu, Tagalog, the French of Tours,
the French of Haiti…
Yes, that was one way omnipotence chose
to address us—Hebrew, Aramaic, or whatever the patriarchs
chose in their turn to call what they heard. Moses
demanded the word, spoken and written. But perfect freedom
assured other ways of speech. God is surely
patiently trying to immerse us in a different language,
events of grace, horrifying scrolls of history
and the unearned retrieval of blessings lost for ever,
the poor grass returning after drought, timid, persistent.
God’s abstention is only from human dialects. The holy voice
utters its woe and glory in myriad musics, in signs and portents.
Our own words are for us to speak, a way to ask and to answer.
Thus the writer, facing silence and the blank screen, should be of good cheer. Braving the silence is still a demanding discipline, reminding us of Eliot’s call to “prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” You yourselves will at times be like the poor grass that returns after drought. But in the end Levertov persuades us that silence can speak and enable us to speak.
As writers, our job is “to ask and to answer.” And by “answer” Levertov doesn’t mean anything as foolish as “offer an explanation that exhausts the world’s mystery.” Rather, she is speaking of the need to be answerable, that is, responsible and responsive to that mystery.
To be answerable also means being patient and attentive. As critic James Dougherty has pointed out, Levertov moved to Seattle in 1989 and chose to live in a house with a view of Mount Rainier. “There she found,” Dougherty writes, “in the veilings and unveilings of Mount Rainier, an emblem of the presence of God and of the need for human constancy of attention…. She says of the mountain that ‘its vanishings / are needful, as silence is to music.’”
This is the mountain you graduates have seen—and not seen—many times on your Whidbey Island residencies over the course of this program. I hope you cherish your memory of it for a long time to come.
Now, as you go forth, may you be attentive to the silence, alert to its unveilings and vanishings. May your writing be a dialogue with the “myriad musics” of God’s silence so that we, your readers and hearers, may come to know more truly both the woe and glory of the world.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.