#17: Silence please

Our online poetry project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World, lasts as long as the English lockdown. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Jonathan Davidson. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

Some years ago, the author Sarah Maitland wrote A Book of Silence, describing her pursuit of that state. Like Jim Crace’s curious and brilliant novel Quarantine, Maitland explored the search for silence and stillness as a spiritual practice. Today, your subject for poetry is silence.

Thomas Hood reminds us that what we call silence is usually no such thing. It is is an un-thing, an absence of human sound, an opposite. In conversation, it can be comfortable, excruciating or full of tension. Think of the moment of silence when your son came out, or your wife announced the pregnancy test results; the moment after a marriage proposal, before you knew which of two possible futures would happen. There is the silence when you should have spoken but didn’t (why is my neighbour being taken away?) – or the one that fell when you said something unforgiveable. There is the muteness of trauma; the receptive pause of the counsellor; the private prayer; the gap between lightning and thunderclap. Each of these has a quality of expectation or dread.

Silence is longed for by tinnitus sufferers, or by people working at home with a small child. It’s a trial for the hermit, the hostage, or those who can’t hear the same miraculous thing as their companions. It is the normal state of play for the deaf. Consider the stillness of the deep sea around the Titanic, or in a pharaoh’s tomb, or on the moon. In some places we expect perfect quiet (a graveyard, a library, a museum, a waiting room, the cenotaph), and shouting or music would be shocking. At the moment, however, we see many places where noise is expected, and silence itself becomes a shock – like my local pub, standing empty and quiet during the long lockdown evenings.

Billy Collins lists different silences, and leaves us asking why he finds the one at the end of his poem poorer than the one at the start. One writer revisits a single traumatic silence over and over again; another plays with the idea of the last silence; and Timothy Yu mocks the idea of a serene ‘Chinese silence’ to dismantle racist tropes. Read, think, remember what peace there may be in silence; then turn off the radio, find the one quiet space where you can write; and begin.

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Join our closed Facebook group at any time in November, for feedback from other poets and access to weekly readings. Pay £10 by PayPal below, then find Try to Praise the Mutilated World on Facebook and ask to join (use the link in the first paragraph above). We are already hundreds strong and there’s a lively, friendly community helping each other to write their way through the lockdown.


Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

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