Wednesday, 7 July 2021


I attended a Zoom poetry workshop on silence last Saturday.  It seems a contradiction in terms - words and silence.  

But we were in the hands of an experienced poet, Philip Gross, who has written, amongst many other things, a 26 poem sequence entitled 'Specific Instances of Silence'.  

We thought about encountering different languages of silence, that there are as many languages of silence as there are of speech.  I was brainstorming ideas and had soon filled a couple of pages with random words and phrases (which we later shared in small breakout groups).  

Perhaps, growing up as an only child, I became acquainted with silence at an early age, but I had to learn its value.  When I was a very small child I often walked with my father through Clowes Wood, an ancient remnant of Shakespeare's Forest of Arden near our home in Warwickshire.  One day he gently reprimanded me for shouting loudly all the time.  'Listen, there are so many wild creatures to see and hear if we are silent.'  And there were.  The white flash of a jay flying up into an oak tree, the drumming of a greater spotted woodpecker, the songs of great tits and chiffchaffs, a squirrel doing acrobatics through the trees.  'Deer live in this wood and if we are very quiet we might see one.'  We never did.   But I had learnt an important lesson about silence.  

Friends who come to visit me here in Wales often remark on the silence when we go for a walk.  'How quiet it is' they say, noticing the absence of people and traffic.  Silence is often thought of as an absence.  People talk of 'filling the silence' as if it is an emptiness.  I only feel I know someone well if there is no need for small talk.  We can sit or walk in companionable silence.

I realised I'd already been writing poems about silence:

     'We are
silent, as if love could start
on the last day of summer
       (part of a two verse poem in tanka form 'The last day of summer')

'Grieg at Troldhaugen' ends with 'beyond the lake, the other side of silence' and in 'Shore lines' 'sea birds rend the gauze of silence'.   

There is a special quality of silence I have experienced at the end of a performance of a particularly moving piece of classical music.  Instead of the immediate hand clapping and cheering, there is a complete and precious silence filled with the emotion felt by the audience.  Bach's Mass in B minor or the eighth string quartet by Shostakovich or in this case Beethoven's 'Grosse Fuge':

'... after the final chord we wait,
longing to hold the music in our hands.'
    'Grosse Fuge'  

Then I thought of the terrible irony of Beethoven, the great musician, losing his hearing.

That's the trouble with poetry workshops, my brain goes into overdrive and I rapidly write several pages of amorphous stuff.  

Philip gave us a wise piece of advice - use a specific instance (eg, making a cup of tea!) and stand the poem on it.  'Head for the tiny exact detail and expand the poem from there'.  Then he read us Jaan Kaplinski's poem beginning, 'I could have said ...' with its wonderful phrases:
   'I leapt into silence'
   'silence, the inland sea'.

As usual the afternoon was free for us to write something to read aloud to the group in the evening, and, as usual, I agonised for ages and produced something I was not happy with - I am a slow writer so a few hours is hardly ever enough (two months would be fine!).  But I have salvaged one phrase from the other side of silence:
   'Let us sit together, sharing the silence like bread'.  
And I've all those notes to work on in the future.

Poems mentioned:

The 26 poem sequence 'Specific Instances of Silence' by Philip Gross is published in A Bright Acoustic (Bloodaxe 2017)

My poems 'The last day of summer', 'Grieg at Troldhaugen' and 'Shore lines' were all published in The Art of Gardening (Flambard 2010) and 'Grosse fuge' is published in Trace (Oversteps 2020)

You can read Jaan Kaplinski's poem beginning 'I could have said' at

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