On Silence and Noise and World Poetry Day

In an interview with The Paris Review, poet Billy Collins compares poetry and prose thusly:

"nothing precedes a poem but silence, and nothing follows a poem but silence. A poem is an interruption of silence, whereas prose is a continuation of noise."

On this World Poetry Day, as most of the world is grappling with the noise of COVID-19 and its various repercussions, World Poetry Day and poets.org offers the chance to #ShelterInPoems.

Clint Smith is one of my favorite current poets. His 2016 collection Counting Descent is the deep breath after an unexpectedly icy swim, a lightning strike, a fire. Do read the whole collection but first here's his "FaceTime" from the poets.org collection:

On another night in a hotel in a room in a city flanked by all that is unfamiliar I am able to move my finger along a glass screen once across once vertical & in seconds see your mother smiling in a room that is our own that is now so far away but also not so far away at all & she can place the small screen near her belly & when I speak I can see you moving beneath her skin as if you knew that this distance was only temporary & what a small yet profound joy it is to be some- where that is not with you but to still be with you & see your feet dance beneath her rib cage like you knew we'd both be dancing together soon.

What a perfect poem for those who must be separated during this time. Or for any of us who can appreciate the "small yet profound joy" of family and new life and hope for tomorrow.


Mary Oliver, in her A Poetry Handbook, understands the various ambitions and incentives that can move a poet forward. She explains:

"And, never before have there been so many opportunities to be a poet publicly and quickly, thus achieving the easier goals. ... There is, as never before, company for those who like to talk about and write poems. None of this is bad. But very little of it can do more than start you on your way to the real, unimaginably difficult goal of writing memorably. That work is done slowly and in solitude, and it is as improbable as carrying water in a sieve."

That image is devastatingly good. Here's why: If someone set before you two large buckets, one full of water and the other empty, and demanded or even suggested you must move the water from the first bucket to the second, you might be frustrated by such an inane task but shrug and go about it. If, however, they indicated you must use only a sieve to do it, you'd be enraged. You would not even begin because you would know it is impossible. Yet poets everywhere, every day, sit down (or stand or pace or stroll) to this work done slowly and in solitude because there is some balm here. Not just in the poem once it is done, but in the getting of it. For if it was not its own magic, no poet would undertake such a task.


Maria Popova's Brain Pickings piece on Silence and Pablo Neruda's "Keeping Quiet" is another perfect-for-this-moment read. In her post, you can hear Sylvia Boorstein reading this poem, which is its own delight. The stanza that stops me cold reads

What I want should not be confused With total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.

Or the final stanza of Wallace Stevens' "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour"

Out of this same light, out of the central mind, We make a dwelling in the evening air, In which being there together is enough.

It is enough. As you shelter in place, Shelter in Poems. If you are new to poetry, here are a few resources I find particularly good:


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