Silence is essential to many poems, perhaps particularly to free verse lyric poems. All poems are governed to a certain degree by silence: that which precedes a poem, broken by the title and first line, and that which comes after the poem ends and is largely responsible for how closing lines (particularly if they’re any good) become especially resonant in our ear and mind. And, of course, silence is woven all throughout a poem in various ways.
As free verse poets, working with spoken and written elements of language both, it’s not surprising we would become hyper-attentive to how caesuras routinely happen in language or how they can be coaxed into being present and audible where they might not naturally show up. We are often asking ordinary language to create a heightened sense of music, without the benefit of meter. Syntax and the line break, among other devices, powerfully direct language toward becoming music and containing myriad meaning. Poets, in harnessing silence, are asking it to reverberate inside the room of a poem. Poetry has much in consonance with music in this regard, in the signature of time we create through our deliberate measuring of language. In other words, how we also orchestrate intervals of silence and sound.
In my early education as a poet, there were a handful of contemporary poets from whose poems I gleaned much about the power of silence. Lucille Clifton tops that list. Clifton’s poems keenly demonstrate how much can be gained from an aesthetic that places intense value on silence and, its kin, spareness. Even a casual reader of Clifton’s poems would immediately note their incredible formal consistency. Clifton’s poems are marked by very short lines, overall brevity, and minimal use of punctuation or often a lack of punctuation altogether.
As prayer asks of us our full devotion, so Clifton’s poems of few words command our complete attention if we are up for that kind of engagement. As the writer, she demands that each word, in each line, reverberate and be capable of carrying music, creating persona/voice, and turning image into metaphor. As readers, in turn, this compels us to weigh each gesture and moment in her poems. Because Clifton’s poetry is about the business of asking less to do the work of more, her poems elongate our experience of time as readers, and pauses become one of the fundamental measures of her poems. By saying less, Clifton asks the silence that fills her poems to mean more.
Frequently, Clifton’s poems deal with the concept of silence, not as a poetic device but as subject matter. Across the body of her work, she returns again and again to a handful of personal and historical experiences—including incest, rape, illness, racism, sexism, and slavery—profoundly difficult to adequately name. And she names them. In one of her poems, “the making of poems,” an ars poetica, she speaks directly to the role she has assumed as poet:
the reason why i do it
though i fail and fail
in the giving of true names
is i am Adam and his mother
and these failures are my job.
I’ve recited this poem for over twenty-five years to students I’ve worked with in creative writing classes across various universities and in workshops I’ve delivered in community settings. I’ve offered it up as example of what, as poets, we might be about. I’ve paired her poem and her work often with a question for my students to answer—one I continue to reckon with myself—what are your ethics as a poet and how does your aesthetic speak to those and vice versa? In the body of Clifton’s poetry, the answer is palpable: her ethical and aesthetic engagements are necessarily entangled. Her use of silence as poetic scalpel works, in paradoxical fashion, to incise the forms of silence—secrets, omissions, and lies—that can fester in families and among larger groups of peoples and nations.
Recently, and again, I have been thinking a lot about a different poem of Clifton’s and how it addresses a particularly perverse silence that lingers. The poem, “at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989,” comes out of an experience Clifton had of visiting the plantation she names in the poem’s title and being told—when she asked on the tour she was taking, in 1989—that there were no slaves there. The poem is a redress to the false answer she was given and the incomplete recorded history of slavery that erases the names and experiences of the millions of Africans brought forcibly to the Americas. The poem castigates the patriarchal practice of erasing women’s names and lives from our rendering of the past.
In the poem, Clifton speaks to the dead, their “silence drumming/in [her] bones.” Throughout the poem, she utilizes echo, in refrain asking the unnamed slaves: “tell me your names… so I may testify.” The closing of the poem also turns on a repeated phrase: “here lies” recurs four times, in four individual, successive lines—parsed in this way to make us pay attention—before the last, closing line of the poem is uttered. That last line is a single word, a command for us as readers to “hear.”
I first read this poem when I was in my early twenties and working on my first book. The poems I was then engaged in writing dwelt in silences housed in my family, in myself, and in the places and peoples I am from. But none of those poems were about slavery. I did not think then that I would ever try to write about or into that silence. Twenty-five years later, that has changed. As I worked to finish my recent book, I remembered Clifton’s poem. This is a poem I’d not thought of actively for a very long time, but it had stayed with me. I think it came back when I needed the guidance Clifton’s poetry has often given, in how to navigate the path of silence and sound.
No Ruined Stone
You saturate the sight
of those who come after, poets
and painters alike. Your words invade
my mind’s listening, manacle
my tongue when I try to speak
on all I backward cast my eye
and fear and canna see.
Who would I have been
to you, what stone
in the ruined house of the past?
In this world, I am unloosed, belonging
to no country, no tribe, no clan.
Not African. Not Scotland.
And you, voice that stalks
my waking and dreaming,
you more myth than man,
cannot unmake history.
So why am I here
resurrecting you to speak
when your silence gulfs centuries?
Why do I find myself
at your doorstep, knocking,
when I know the dead
will never answer?
Lucille Clifton, “the making of poems,” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
Lucille Clifton, “at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989,” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
“No Ruined Stone” by Shara McCallum © 2018. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Photo Credit: Lucille Clifton reading at a poetry benefit courtesy of Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.
From Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of five books of poetry, published in the US and UK, most recently Madwoman (2017), which won the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature Poetry Prize. Her work has been widely published in the US, the Caribbean, and Europe, has been translated into several languages, and has received such recognition as a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress and an NEA Poetry Fellowship. From 2003-17 she directed the Stadler Center for Poetry and is now a Liberal Arts Professor of English at Penn State University.