THE ELEPHANT OF SILENCE, a poetry craft essay by John Wall Barger
THE ELEPHANT OF SILENCE
by John Wall Barger
Je suis maitre du silence
At fifty, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, I drove my 1989 BMW motorcycle from Philadelphia to The Hambidge Center in the mountains of northeast Georgia for a three-week writing residency. They provided me with a cottage in the forest, with floor-to-ceiling windows and enough space for a person to spread out their work. My first feelings, when I’d taken off my jacket and sat down, were—as Wendell Berry describes it in “Stepping Off”—“along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement / a little nagging of dread.” It was so damn quiet.
I’ve always felt an aversion to quiet. I was a hyper only child. The kid with the firecrackers and toy soldiers. The teenager with the boombox. As an adult, I am a talker and—I wince to admit it—a loud one. “Silence,” as William S. Burroughs said, “is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”
In my humble opinion, I’m qualified to write an essay about silence precisely because I compulsively verbalize. I’m the least silent person in the room. I observe silence from the outside looking in. With the least “natural” perspective on the matter of anyone you know.
The Elephant of Silence built a house beside the sea. It contained all you’d need, including a bed and fine teacups. He liked to wash teacups and stare at the sea out the window. His radio cackled, “The Last Forest contains 8,609 trees. A great number, albeit less than last year.” As he replaced his dishrag, he noticed an odd scene out the steamed window: a bride in white washed up on the surf.
There came a knock. He opened his door. The bride stood there dripping wet beside her pet pig. He invited them in. The bride burst in and, with effort, lifted the Elephant of Silence as if he were her groom. Her legs trembled. She moaned. Held there, feet off the ground, the Elephant of Silence waited patiently as the sun set. The pet pig stared at them with open admiration. Soon the bride was pancaked under the Elephant of Silence.
The pet pig butted him with his snout for pure joy. “Shall we go for a walk?” he asked. The Elephant of Silence packed them a picnic lunch. That night they slept in the Last Forest and their dreams were tinted spinach green. Next morning they began climbing the mountain. It took them 2,000 years. Dynasties fell. The forest vanished behind them. They might have been the last two creatures in existence, for all they cared.
At the peak of that foggy mountain, the Elephant of Silence spoke, at last, with reverence: “I have never met anyone as silent as you.”
I wrote this poem in 2012, soon after I started living with my wife, Tiina. The Elephant of Silence is her, I think. I didn’t mean it that way, but it’s unmistakable. She’s from Finland, where folks value calmness and tranquility over storytelling and arrogance. I’ve been to “parties” in Finland where a group of friends sit for extended periods in complete silence. I’ve sat with men in saunas where none of us say anything; they just sip beer, happy as the day they were born.
When there’s a gap in a conversation, I’m the one who panics and fills it with small talk. It’s taken me years of marriage to grasp the importance of leaving space while talking, for everyone to gather their thoughts. What’s more, Tiina is a philosopher. Smarter than me. Far more logical. It might be clear to you already, that in my poem I’m the pet pig, following along beside her, learning from her.
Being by myself in the forest at Hambidge reminds me of another writing retreat I went on at twenty, in 1989. I—living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I grew up—had just decided that I was a writer, and figured that meant I should have some alone time. So I borrowed my father’s 1975 Ducati motorcycle and drove four hours to our old camp in Bear River, Nova Scotia, where my parents and I lived for a year when I was a kid.
The camp, five miles from town and a quarter-mile in the woods from a dirt road, was no longer the cozy candle-lit gingerbread house of my childhood. It had been adapted by neighbors into a hunting shack. They’d shoved the stove under my parents’ old loft and sat at the window, leaning their rifle on the sill. When a deer showed up, alert and beautiful, they shot it. The spirit of the house was gone.
Nevertheless, I arrived full of gusto, with a pen and a sheaf of empty pages to fill with poems. I was set on finding inspiration deep in the forest. What I found, instead, was silence. And loneliness. I was alarmed. I felt aversion, and wanted to escape.
Pure stubbornness kept me from jumping back on the bike and riding home that very day. I had, after all, bragged to my friends about the writing retreat I was going on. So I sat in the armchair, read a long terrible novel a girl had lent me (Sidney Sheldon, If Tomorrow Comes), wrote a poem, slept, and sped home promptly the next morning.
That might have been the longest day of my life.
I always knew that there was value to being quiet. But it’s hard. I resisted.
Despite the noise I generated, I did grow up in a culture of silence, of a sort. My parents were hippies and meditators. Our house contained walls of books on Eastern mysticism, Buddhism, Sufism. Novels, nonfiction, my dad’s math books, comic books. They were readers. There was space in the house for contemplation and curiosity.
I was an only child, used to creating my own games. I was often in my room playing chess by myself; reading comics; playing with toy soldiers. Was I quiet at those times, or perhaps humming and singing to distract myself? I don’t know.
When I became a writer I didn’t think it would have anything to do with silence. But it does.
Over the days at Hambidge I settle into a routine, making my peace with the quiet. Since it’s my weakness, I sit with it. I meditate. I walk slowly in the forest, staying alert but trying not to obsess about ticks and bears and rattlesnakes. I stare at the ceiling. And, slowly, as the dread diminishes, I feel calmer. My focus deepens.
I love the feeling of quiet pooling, when I give it space. I get hungry for it. After days full of such quiet, even the calm communal dinners—populated by seven polite artists, the banjo player from Atlanta, the sculptor from Arkansas, the painter from Spain—seem jarringly noisy. Then I walk briskly back to my cottage in the semi-dark, shut the door behind me, and lie on my back staring into nothingness, until I feel like myself again.
One morning, while I’m lying on the couch puzzling through a poem, I see a movement. A deer at the edge of the deck. Brown on green. Infinite gentleness.
I sit up straight, she sees me, goes still.
Ears high and aimed at me.
When I try to listen in the Hambidge cottage, I realize it’s never really quiet. The house creaks and tics. There are birds outside. The fridge, every hour or two, hums for a while. Cars on a near road make an oceanic whooshing. And of course my tinnitus: a constant buzzing in my left ear from all the rock concerts and discos I went to in my 20’s.
Quieted, other quiet memories from my life, as if on an ice floe, drift by.
Waiting tables in a packed restaurant in Temple Bar in Dublin, August 1998, at noon the day after the Omagh bombing, we were quiet an entire minute. Not a glass clinked.
Sitting by myself in the desert sand outside Las Vegas in 1992.
Hanging upside down from a tree in Bear River in 1977.
Sitting to dinner with my parents, thousands of times, holding hands before we ate.
It’s more about trying to be quiet—that intention, active listening—than a lack of noise.
Or perhaps, my wife who loves neuroscience might say, the poems come from synaptic firings, which occur in a kind of silence.
All I know is, when I’m quiet the poems happen.
When I allow myself the luxurious time and space to slow down and focus, poems spring up out of the cobwebs. The Elephant of Silence is seated in the middle of the room, his great trunk wrapped around my chair. The Elephant of Silence is the room.
I did not say the poems spring up out of myself, for I, and my feeble psyche, don’t feel like the wellspring. Poems arrive like deer. If I’m quiet, they sometimes surprise me with a visit. If I run up to grab them, they bound away.
Silence is, rather than the negation of sound, quiet.
But is consciousness ever quiet? Not mine!
The mind is a noisy intersection between internal thoughts and external environment. Many of us search our entire lives to find a balance between internal and external, which compete incessantly. We use external stimulus, like music, to distract ourselves from unpleasant internal thoughts. Some drugs, like Adderall, treat this process as an imbalance that can be corrected chemically.
Some religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism, suggest we use a mantra—a “sacred” utterance (like Om, or ॐ), considered to possess mystical qualities, repeated with eyes closed—to calm down the internal.
To some extent, I think, the good relaxing feeling derived from mantras, or creating in any form, comes from minimizing internal thoughts and external stimulus, and maximizing focus.
Where does a poem come from? Quick answer: the consciousness of the poet.
Long answer: silence (as I define it), which includes quiet, contemplation, focus, oblivion.
1. Absence of sound; quiet
2. Stillness; calmness; meditation; contemplation; imagination; dreams; the inner world
3. Fascination; sustained absorption; focus
First comes our intention to be quiet. With luck, we find it. I shut my eyes. I find a spot under a tree. I quit my job pouring drinks in a disco (Dublin, again). I buy earplugs.
Once I want quiet, it walks beside me. Nearer than I’d thought.
Stillness follows. Now I’m sitting, facing the window, not tapping my foot, not fidgeting. Breathing deeply. And with stillness comes images, the inner cities flashing with lightning.
Contemplation, or reflection, is the impulse toward stillness, and vice versa.
I’m no longer running through a crowded market just to get through it, but walking slow and breathing and pausing to look at the bearded man on a unicycle. I’m riding a bicycle rather than driving. I’m sitting by a lake rather than riding a bicycle.
I am the dreamer. The source of all poems.
With contemplation, images percolate, formlessly. Focus brings discipline to stillness. Focus brings form.
I’m sitting by the lake, a cloud catches my eye. Rather than just looking at the next cloud (or my phone), I hold that cloud in the mind, let it pool, see where it leads. Does it look like a fractured ship sinking into the blue? Is it Coleridge’s “painted ship”? Or Franklin’s ship, trapped in the blue ice of the Northwest Passage?
I want quiet, it comes. The body goes still. The inner world shivers awake. I’m suddenly absorbed in my external environment. Objects pool, morph, go meaningful.
These states of mind can blend, occur in different order. Stillness might happen before quiet. Contemplation and focus might mean the same thing. Some dream, others “think.”
And, it’s worth repeating, by silence I don’t really mean the absence of sound. One can contemplate on a noisy street, with focus. Silence is possible within noise.
John Cage’s composition, 4’33” (1952), is about silence but not the lack of noise. His score instructs performers to take their places and not to play their instruments for four minutes, thirty-three seconds. As a result, the piece consists of the sounds of the environment that listeners hear while the performance lasts.
If we foster contemplation and focus, we can find form. Every artwork—no matter how vers libre it seems—has form. In Cage’s piece, the form (albeit malleable) is the length of time (4’33”), the performance space, the musicians, the audience, the time of day, the light.
Oblivion is the limbo-feeling I sometimes get if I stare too long into the forest or night sky. It says that I am an insignificant speck on the face of the earth, and that my life and my poems are meaningless.
This is, I think, the feeling that scared me at twenty in the forest of Bear River. A feeling of lonesomeness bordering on worthlessness.
But if we hold the feeling of oblivion, and don’t resist it, its value emerges. Because the truth is, of course, we are insignificant specks on the face of the earth.
John Donne liked to imagine himself “coffind”: he posed for his own funeral monument, and slept in his future coffin. Such a reminder of death, putting our brief lives into perspective, is surely healthy.
But we should not stay in a coffin for a week. It’s like a whirlpool that sucks us down in the flesh and heaves us out a husk.
The 1968 spaghetti western, Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence), directed by Sergio Corbucci, animates this idea of oblivion.
It’s a sublime revenge narrative. The main character, called Silencio, is the fastest draw in the West. As a child, bandits cut Silencio’s throat and kill his parents. During the film he, the “hero,” hunts them down. And falls in love with a Black woman named Pauline.
Il Grande Silenzio is set in winter, with great white vistas swallowing up the tiny towns. People freeze in snow, drown in frozen lakes. Everyone shivers. Death is close.
Corbucci leads us to think that the great silence is God, in the form of Silencio the savior. But at the end, the gang of bad guys (led by Klaus Kinski, with nasty charisma) murder all the good guys, including Silencio.
How refreshing! And uncomfortably realistic. The Great Silence, it turns out, is death, coming up the driveway for the good folks and the bad.
By silence, I don’t mean secrecy or censorship; the silencing of voices. I’m not talking about passivity, or what Audre Lorde meant when she said, “Your silence will not protect you.”
Rather, the silence that encourages the opposite: the quiet that allows us to know ourselves. That lets us become more ourselves; more of whatever it is we are already.
Allowing our wounds to surface (contemplation), holding those wounds long enough to write them down (focus), and deciding which wounds will stay in the poem (extended focus as editor), all require a degree of stillness and quiet and patience.
If we are telling the poem what to say, impatiently (viz. noisily), then the good parts (the cloud “magically” turning into Franklin’s ship) might not have a chance to evolve.
We artists love the accolades and the recognition of art, what little comes to us. But the crux of making artwork happens in moments of silence when we are alone. Or moments—among people, with or without noise—when we, like turtles, have withdrawn and found focus, which is an aspect of silence.
Such silence is the source of the work, its theater, its portal of transmission to the reader.
David Lynch describes, in his non-fiction book Catching the Big Fish, how meditation has been a tool for him to become the person and artist he is. The big fish, he says, is the great idea, the film, the line, the vision. We bring ourselves to the water and wait for it to break the surface.
We cannot force the big fish to come. All we can do is live a life that best allows us to glimpse it, when and if it comes.
A simple and ancient idea. When we’re still and calm, the work appears to us. For an artist silence is, as Lao-Tzu said, “a source of Great Strength.”
Rumi summed it up well: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing there is a field. / I’ll meet you there. // When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about.”
Where does art come from? That field “beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing.”
The deer visits me again. This time I’m reading, facing the big window.
I watch her, but do not move. I don’t even lower the book.
We are both completely still.
John Wall Barger’s essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Hopkins Review, Mississippi Review, Poetry Northwest, Literary Matters, The Rumpus, Rain Taxi, Jacket2, and elsewhere. His fifth book of poems, Resurrection Fail, is coming out this fall with Spuyten Duyvil Press. He’s a contract editor with Frontenac House, and teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. (johnwallbarger.com)