Sunday, May 13, 2018

Twenty Poems about Silence (1 of 4) – Analysis and Commentary

This first group includes my favorite poems on this subject, all composed by poets widely recognized for mastery of their craft.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Dr. W. E. McFarlane

The above famous poem dwells upon the dynamic between science and art—two divergent responses to the contemplation of nature.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Snowy woods

Another famous poem, the poet equally famous. The poem is not about silence, strictly speaking, but it is an unusually quiet poem—“The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” Natural bedfellows, silence and death are in this poem conjoined motifs.

The Habit of Perfection by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

Allegory of the Five Senses (1630) by Lubin Baugin

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem expounds a series of contradictions. “Elected silence”—renunciation of the sense of hearing—is transformed into “the music that I care to hear.” The sense of sight that undergoes “double dark” is blessed with “uncreated light.”

Underlying the series is the theological conviction that self-denial undertaken for religious reasons reaps its corresponding spiritual rewards. The paradoxical motif applies to the five senses, and the poem ends personifying “Poverty” as the bride of the “spouse”—the Divine bridegroom—alluded to in garments “lily-coloured,” white standing for purity.

Peculiarly, the poem demonstrates “sprung rhythm,” the metrical system developed by Hopkins.

“Elected Silence” is the title of the UK version of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (1948). The original version of the autobiography was published in New York by Harcourt Brace. Elected Silence (1949), the version edited by Evelyn Waugh, was published in London by Hollis and Carter.

A callarse por Pablo Neruda

Ahora contaremos doce
y nos quedamos todos quietos.

Por una vez sobre la tierra
no hablemos en ningun idioma,
por un segundo detengamonos,
no movamos tanto los brazos.

Seria un minuto fragante,
sin prisa, sin locomotoras,
todos estariamos juntos
en una inquietud instantanea.

Los pescadores del mar frio
no harian danio a las ballenas
y el trabajador de la sal
miraria sus manos rotas.

Los que preparan guerras verdes,
guerras de gas, guerras de fuego,
victorias sin sobrevivientes,
se pondrian un traje puro
y andarian con sus hermanos
por la sombra, sin hacer nada.

No se confunda lo que quiero
con la inaccion definitiva:
la vida es solo lo que se hace,
no quiero nada con la muerte.

Si no pudimos ser unanimes
moviendo tanto nuestras vidas,
tal vez no hacer nada una vez,
tal vez un gran silencio pueda
interrumpir esta tristeza,
este no entendernos jamas
y amenazarnos con la muerte,
tal vez la tierra nos ensenie
cuando todo parece muerto
y luego todo estaba vivo.

Ahora contare hasta doce
y tu te callas y me voy.

KEEPING QUIET by Pablo Neruda
Original language Spanish
Translated by Alastair Reid

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Grandfather clock face

Pablo Neruda received the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature. Unfortunately, his poetry in Spanish is not very accessible to the English-speaking world. “No writer of world renown is perhaps so little known to North Americans as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda,” wrote New York Times Book Review critic Selden Rodman. See:

The above translation by Alastair Reid demonstrates Neruda’s lyrical flair, haunting imagery, anguished depth, and activist social vision.

Connotation of “guerras verdes” eludes me. Porque las guerras estan verdes?

Aware by Denise Levertov

When I opened the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
                  My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
                                           I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I'll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop

Vine leaves

The above poem was published posthumously in Denise Levertov’s last book, The Great Unknowing: Last Poems (1999). Many copies of the poem appear online. See, for example:

In this poem we encounter Levertov’s aptitude for conveying keen insights using striking imagery about the ordinary and commonplace. It illustrates well what one critic has said of her poetry: “…she [was] often inspired by the humble, the commonplace, or the small, and she [composed] remarkably perceptive poems about a single flower, a man walking two dogs in the rain, and even sunlight glittering on rubbish in a street.” See:

Denise Levertov is not as famous as the four preceding poets. A quality biography is available here:


“Tonic more powerful than music or spoken words is silence.”

“Silent Forest”

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Day Laborer


Fraying at the brim,
A hat with holes
Darkens his face,
Folded and lined.
Beneath long sleeves,
Torn and shabby,
A dirty cotton layer
Shields his arms,
Dusky branches, wizened.
Swinging a pickaxe,
He hacks the ground,
Digging out dirt and rocks
To pay the debts
Of an elephant,
Animal he resembles
As it clambers out of water,
Dripping, shiny, wrinkled.
Filmy, perspiring,
Resting on the long handle
End of his standing tool,
He is almost motionless,
Inert gob of smoldering
Lava in deep time,
Blackened, steaming.
He sighs, heaving for
Ages and ages to come.
Untying his kerchief,
He mops his brow,
Tilts his head upward,
Blinks, fluttering eyelids,
Tremulous insects…
Sees nothing
But the sun.

Originally published in Turk’s Head Review (December 29, 2014)

The Stonebreakers (1849) by Gustave Courbet

Monday, April 30, 2018


“Politics is a realm in which iniquity is multiplied many times over when the masses like herds of animals incited by morally corrupt leaders participate in systemic evil on a massive scale.”

“Populism is an incomplete and degenerate form of democracy.”

Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler, 1940

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Semana Santa


The time of year when the world
Transforms into the inside of a tin can
Cooking in the noontime sun
Is when Jesus Christ is crucified
To astonishment of delirious crowds
Dropping in heat like dead insects
As reservoirs languish and asphalt streets,
Cracked, peeling, cry out for water.

Palm Sunday flutters weakly, a flag
Raising his arms in faint breeze.
You listen to the story of the Passion…
By the time Jesus is entombed,
You are wrung out and numb.
Days later, Maundy Thursday is mentholated,
Rising and setting in a wooded garden.
The reprieve is illusory.

Darkness shoves night inside an oven.
Soon you cannot escape Good Friday,
Twice hotter than the night before—
Turning round and round,
You are roasted on all sides,
Dripping as if broiling on a spit.
Two days’ provisions running low,
Holy Saturday finds you sitting peacefully

Beside a corpse for a companion
Inside a tomb pervaded by silence.
Comforted by cold, you imagine the sun
Without seeing the dawn.
You doze off the instant you wake up
To Easter Sunday suddenly present,
Pure, fresh water illumined by glory.
Inhaling a cloud, you glimpse the crystal city.

Originally published in The Galway Review (February 15, 2016)

The Resurrection, detail (1600) by El Greco

Monday, March 19, 2018

Three Poems about Work – Analysis and Commentary

I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

The Child's Bath (1893) by Mary Cassatt

One of the great poems of the English language, “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman depicts a compelling metaphysical vision—expansive, joyful, hopeful, and confident—that of a working-class chorus singing “strong melodious songs,” not literally but rather in the poet’s imagination reveling in the transcendent reality of a nation newly conceived: democratic America.

To Be of Use by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Herakles and the Nemean Lion, with Theseus and the Minotaur (540-530 BCE)


The poem is a lyric exposition roundly closing, “the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies.” Principal strength of this poem lies in the series of striking metaphors—“black sleek heads of seals bouncing like half-submerged balls,” “pull like the water buffalo,” and so on—that serve as the vehicle for the expression of profound, deeply felt sentiments about work. Overall effect is vivid, cumulative, and climactic.

Edward Hopper’s Office in a Small City by Victoria Chang

The man could be the boss or could have a boss the man could have a
heart or could not have a heart the man is not working should be working

should be making profits not in fits but constantly the man looks out over
the yellow building over everything he must be the boss must be someone

significant because he is constant is above everything maybe the man is
deciding who to fire who to lay off who to slay with a fire maybe he is deciding

who to hire who is the best liar but the man doesn’t smile doesn’t smell the
flowers below or look at the people walking in the streets or the cars honking below

the man sits and stares at the shapes of vents on the roof of a building rearranging
them people are just shapes a circle for a head rectangles for the body and arms and

legs this man’s head over this woman’s body this woman’s head with another
man’s legs maybe the man is looking at the horizon wondering why a plane in

the sky is pointed downward towards the morning glories or the okra plants in the
meadow or a building with five sides

Office in a Small City (1953) by Edward Hopper

This poem was originally published in New England Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2012), page 8. See:

Using stream-of-consciousness, the poem almost rambles, with curious, unpredictable twists and turns. Subtly satiric—“the man doesn’t smile doesn’t smell the flowers below,” “people are just shapes”—the subtext introduces into our contemplation of Hopper’s classic oeuvre, meanings fresh, provocative, unexpected, and surprising. Both painting and poem are mutually enriched.

The poem alludes to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon—notice it?

Sunday, February 25, 2018


“Tyrants impose, peoples depose.

“He who builds the future without regard for the past is like one who looks into the mirror and promptly forgets what he sees.”

1986 People Power Revolution