First post in the series:
This second group of poems consists of contemporary—that is, modern and postmodern—works. The first four poems, all my favorites, are conventional and very accessible. Only the last poem by e. e. cummings (pen name) is avant-garde.
SILENCE by Billy Collins
There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.
The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.
The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.
The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.
And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night
like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
Billy Collins is a popular American poet known for his easy, accessible style distinguished by wit, intelligence, sensitivity, and depth. He draws us into everyday musings characteristically understated. Using artful turns of a phrase, he brings to our sudden awareness recondite aspects of familiar and commonplace objects and experiences.
In this poem, Collins tackles the intriguing subject of silence, gently nudging us to look closely at aspects of it that elude our conscious awareness—“the sudden silence of the crowd above a player not moving on the field,” “the silence of the falling vase before it strikes the floor.” Cleverly ending, the poem prods us to reflect that the world is the poorer for the words that populate it.
Poetry Foundation biography of Billy Collins:
THE QUARREL by Linda Pastan
If there were a monument
to silence, it would not be
the tree whose leaves
nor would it be the pond
whose seeming stillness
by the quicksilver
surfacing of fish.
If there were a monument
to silence, it would be you
standing so upright, so unforgiving,
your mute back deflecting
“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor,” said Aristotle in The Poetics. “It is a sign of genius.” Linda Pastan’s poem is in this respect touched by genius. The poem dwells upon the most suitable metaphor for a “monument to silence” and then declares that it is not our default images of silence that should be memorialized in this way but rather the fraught silence that enters our interpersonal relations.
Poetry Foundation biography of Linda Pastan:
WHAT THE DOG PERHAPS HEARS by Lisel Mueller
If an inaudible whistle
blown between our lips
can send him home to us,
then silence is perhaps
the sound of spiders breathing
and roots mining the earth;
it may be asparagus heaving,
headfirst, into the light
and the long brown sound
of cracked cups, when it happens.
We would like to ask the dog
if there is a continuous whir
because the child in the house
keeps growing, if the snake
really stretches full length
without a click and the sun
breaks through clouds without
a decibel of effort,
whether in autumn, when the trees
dry up their wells, there isn't a shudder
too high for us to hear.
What is it like up there
above the shut-off level
of our simple ears?
For us there was no birth cry,
the newborn bird is suddenly here,
the egg broken, the nest alive,
Many copies of this poem appear online. See, for example:
The poem is a sustained exposition of a core insight: what it is like for a dog to hear what a human being cannot. The poet engages us in a series of conjectures, delightfully intriguing—“the sound of spiders breathing,” “roots mining the earth,” “asparagus heaving, headfirst, into the light.” Observing accurately that, in contrast to dogs, “we heard nothing when the world changed,” the poem does not fault us for our incapacity but rather chides us for our inattention to the momentous transformations ongoing all around.
Poetry Foundation biography of Lisel Mueller:
STILLNESS by Fidel de Castro
Standing still—I never seem
To know when it comes, the trance,
I mean—I feel the stream hushed
Under the thin glass,
The horses, motionless, clinging to
The hill, a cloud balancing the sun
In a cotton hand.
I hold my breath. Then from the
Mouth of a tree explodes a flock of
Birds, flight and feather weaving
A brittle spell: beaks
Spilling crystals lighter than dew
On spider webs. So bright my sight
I see the lilting
Notes leap, glint, hug and tease
The air, nimble as motes, do almost
Anything but disappear: with supple
Twists perform like
Aerialists. This miracle a canticle
To the stillness all around. And
Round the edges of
The sound of birds I feel a lit
Stillness deeper than of horses,
Cloud and stream, a stillness bigger
Than love, brighter than
Light, or darker than the darkness
That moves above and under the ground—
Oh, a stillness more
Luminous than Death, and I feel
It breathing in myself, no longer
Standing still but walking away—
The sunset on my back—
My pious feet stepping on the ground,
Behind me leaving no marks, no quietOr the slightest sound.
A copy of the poem is in L. M. Grow, Scattered Felicity in Philippine Poetry, Philippine Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Third Quarter 1999), pages 393-406. See:
It could be the sincere tone, authentic sentiments, and words plainspoken yet nuanced according to our everyday manner of musing. Pauses in the first three lines, for example, invite us to enter into the meditative mood of the poem: “Standing still—I never seem to know when it comes, the trance, I mean—” Gradually, the narrative, in finely calibrated denouement, pulls away at the end: “My pious feet stepping on the ground, behind me leaving no marks, no quiet or the slightest sound.”
Diction and figurative language are keenly chosen. Consider, for example, this stunning metaphor: “Then from the mouth of a tree explodes a flock of birds…”
One of the gems of Philippine poetry in English.
up into the silence… by e. e. cummings
up into the silence the green
up into the silence the green
silence with a white earth in it
you will(kiss me)go
out into the morning the young
morning with a warm world in it
(kiss me)you will go
on into the sunlight the fine
sunlight with a firm day in it
you will go(kiss me
down into your memory and
a memory and memory
The poem was originally published in 50 Poems (1940).
JSTOR copy of this poem:
Edward Estlin Cummings or “e. e. cummings” is sure to remain among the most notable poets of the twentieth century writing in English. He belongs to the vanguard of Modernist writers in English that includes the likes of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce.
Cummings repudiated linguistic conventions of grammar, syntax, and diction, not to mention literary conventions of form and style, to create his own idiosyncratic poetry of image, sound, and sense that to this day continues to engage and entertain, young readers, especially. Analogous style in the visual arts is Cubism, which spurned academic conventions of visual representation in order to rework images according to its own insurgent doctrine of visual deconstruction and reconstruction. Cubism’s emergence preceded the publication of Cummings’ avant-garde poetry by a decade or so.
In this poem “silence” is a salient motif. The word appears twice, all other terms are themselves silent—“morning,” “sunlight,” “memory,” for example. Two motifs in particular repeat themselves—“will go” and “kiss me.” Because the poem has been broken into pieces and then eccentrically rebuilt, it harbors occult and elusive meanings. It is the reader’s task—and prerogative—to tease out plausible semantics.