When I read Daisy Fried’s nerdy poet category, I thought of poets who are garrulous, who write conversational poems that careen off in one direction, then veer to investigate a side conversation, which leads to other conversations, and so on. This tendency to digress might not hold a reader’s attention if something doesn’t stay constant. My guess is that for many nerdy poets, tone is the glue. Think of Whitman shifting from an elegiac minister-poet to an ebullient taxonomist all the while making us feel that the same person is talking to us. “When a poem has good tone,” Tony Hoagland writes, “we feel that it breathes, that the speaker has constructed a space for inhalation and exhalation.”

What happens when it’s impossible to breathe? When playing it cool it is all one can do? What happens when all one hears—whether writing, remembering, or looking at the world or into the future—is silence. Poets who spar with silence are shadow boxers—only resisting it can propel their poems forward. Some shadow boxers, such as Edmond Jabès, resist by filling it with libraries of words. Others, such as Oppen, treat silence in a more dignified manner: their poems negotiate a détente in which silence and language continually jockey for position. For Louise Gluck, silence in a poem exerts great power:

    It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. (“Disruptions, Hesitation, Silence” from Proofs and Theories)

Conceptual poets are the least obvious shadow boxers. They are motor-mouths who laugh at the idea that a poet’s task is to restore meaning to words depleted by double-speak. There are just too many of them. “The blizzard of language is amnesia-inducing; these are not words to be remembered.” In publishing a book consisting of traffic reports, in rewriting each word of The New York Times and calling it poetry, Kenneth Goldsmith is performing as a one-man, heavy-metal band. Listen at your own risk. Ear plugs required. The response to this work is the same as our response to the digital information spigot. We run from it, searching in airports for a row of seats, in hotels for elevators out of ear shot of TV blare, for silence.

Documentary poets erase their speaking voice so as to convey the voices of people pummeled by Capitalism. Louise Gluck writes about the relation of the speaker to poor children on a street in a poem called “Street” by Oppen (who is not a documentary poet, but who illustrates their challenge): “Pain belongs, here, properly to the children. It may be terrible to see the children, but it is far more terrible to be the children.”

Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Reznikoff are the most well-known documentary poets, the former wrote poems drawn from court records and interviews about West Virginia miners suffering from silicosis; the latter poems based on testimony from the Nuremberg trials. More recently, Mark Nowak’s poems cull from verbatim testimony after mine disasters. In his recent post, he quotes from the book of a “Chinese miners’ wife (now widow): ‘I have no language for my feelings’.”

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, it impossible not to mention the work of Edmond Jabès and Paul Celan. Both wrote to mute the silence in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Their poems cross-examine that which would otherwise be erased from collective memory even though voicing it threatens to silence them. Their tone shows not “how the writer is connected to the words, how the words are connected to the world” (Hoagland), but how their attachment to words expresses a detachment from the world—while at the same time they hold out a slim hope that words will attach to it. Here’s Jabès from The Book of Questions:

    A face with nearsighted eyes looking out between rusty pins—the kind of pins used to hold together batches of notes on graph paper, elevated to the dignity of a police dossier.

    Pins are the surest ties. With time, they become part of the page, grow into it. And they prick whoever tries to undo their work.

Jabès continually bumps up against silence, querying it, making assertions about it: “All letters give form to absence. / Hence, God is the child of his Name.” This is uttered by one of the imaginary rabbis who try to answer—in a kind of mock, yet absolutely serious Talmudic debate—questions about the unspeakable posed by an anonymous speaker. Their Q&A is always interrupted with more questions or assertions:

    How to explain, how? He has never been able to. The word and he are strangers.
    Winners with their arrogance, their eloquence. And there are losers without words and without signs.
    The race of the silent is tenacious.

I hesitate to write in a blog post about the complex work of Celan of which so much has been written. Its silences are the silence of absolute inhumanity. Shaping it in words seems to be all that postponed its silencing him. Heather McHugh quotes him as saying that art is “a place where one can ‘set oneself free as an—estranged—I’.” In an untitled poem from glottal stop, translated by McHugh and Popov, seven fragmentary voices spar with a No Voice in the coda:

    No voice—
    Late noise, stranger to the hour,
    gift to your thoughts, born of
    wakefulness here in the final
    account: a
    carpel, large as an eye, and deeply
    scored: bleeds
    sap, and won’t
    heal over.

Silence is a “late noise” relieved to be making “the final account” of a silencing disbelief in life.

Originally Published: April 12th, 2010

Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...