Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting [three panel], 1951 (Image:WikiArt)
I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes, The blackbird whistling Or just after. - Wallace Stevens
I hear it first thing in the morning. Though it's not really silence. There's the whir of the fan, the slowly ticking clock. It's not so much the absence of sound that defines silence, but a moment when the second hand slows the spinning Earth and creates an expansiveness of time. Not just on the borderlands of waking and sleeping, we cross the threshold into this broad space more often than we realize. Usually artists take us there.
John Cage ushered us into this expansiveness in a concert hall. With a musician sitting quietly at the piano, we heard for 4’33” sounds that dwelled in the absence of the music; sounds the shifting audience made, sounds the building made as it breathed. Cage believed silence couldn’t be achieved because there are always sounds, even as he discovered two sounds in an anechoic chamber. In his book Silence: Lectures and Writings, he writes: “When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage was influenced by Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting. Which was simply that, canvases Rauschenberg had painted white (see image above). To Cage they were “not empty but supercharged with a kind of sacred joy.” Cage referred to the paintings as “airports for lights, shadows, and particles.” Silence, like an empty canvas, is a populated world.
Maybe silence was the world that opened to artist John Muth as he speaks about finding in brushstrokes “a quality to the line,” in the work of Japanese painters and calligraphers, that captured his attention as a young child. A quality that he carries into his own work. When he draws with children, he shows them that the “essential nature” of a subject “can be found very quickly in the movements of the lines.”
In her poem “Elm Street” (see below), Suzanne Cleary leads us into this world of slow motion, of silence, by telling us the story of a man sitting on the porch with his guitar, not playing, but getting ready to play. The whole street is in a state of suspended animation before the first strings are strummed. She uses words like listen, pause, lost his place, the line halted, to help us step into the realm of silence. This is where the truck driver rolls down his window, not to call out to his neighbor, or shoo a dog out of the road. He rolls down the window to “stick an elbow out.” She tells us about the Matisse forger who could copy his paintings, “I mastered his line, it was his pause I could not master.” The whole poem is full of these heartbeats, like the music hall with a silent pianist. The poem doesn’t resolve with the man playing his guitar, it leaves us in this momentous expanse of time before he begins.
Clarinetist, Martin Frost describes entering this world when he speaks about his instrument. “‘What makes it special is the moment when silence suddenly starts to vibrate,’ he said. ‘Somewhere in that shadow land between silence and sound is the soul of the clarinet.’” He says “soul of the clarinet,” but you could easily fill in the blank with – the soul of the blackbird, the soul of the line of calligraphy, the soul of the neighborhood pulsing before the guitar strings are strummed.
Artists open the door to silence. I like to imagine what might have been in the silence when the Spirit of God hovered over the deep, before God said, “Let there be light.” Was there music, laughter, other stirrings of joy?
With thanks to Suzanne Cleary for her generous permission to share her poem:
I am so happy to see the man who lives in the house on the corner
sit on the porch with a guitar on his knee, one arm draped
loosely, as if he patiently scans a vast repertoire, choosing
which song to play, or as if he has stopped mid-song
to tighten a string, then decided to listen to Elm Street
and compose a new song, notes his fingers will find and follow,
for Elm Street is a steep hill that draws skateboarders like a magnet,
that makes drivers roll down the truck window and stick an elbow out.
Elm Street has been here since before it had a name, dirt path
from hilltop to river. I am happy if the man is new to the guitar, pauses
in the middle of the only song he knows, because he has lost his place
or lost touch with the touch he has learned to imitate, late nights
in his attic-room rental, this middle-aged man who works second-shift,
home now for the night, which he will fill, perhaps, with song,
or with stray notes that make song of the silence between them,
for sometimes song is beyond our reach, as found the art student
who dutifully copied masterpieces until he saw his true gift: forgery.
For a brief time, he built a life on copying Matisse,
for his simple line, unable to see that the line halted when the painter paused
to look at his model. The line resumed with hesitance, a quaver
the forger never could replicate, conceding,
I mastered his line, it was his pause I could not master—finally having seen
that to see the model is to quaver in her presence, is to carry forward
what little you can balance on the tip of the brush.
Silence, big silence that surrounds us, some of us dare to hear you.
Tonight, I am happy it is the man on the corner, instead of me,
who sits in your presence, and readies himself to play.
from Crude Angel (BkMk Press 2018),
previously published on PoetryDaily.