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Silence is a Teacher


Silence is a Teacher

William Coleman


Recently I was talking to my freshmen about the value of silence. I am embarrassed to admit how long it took before I recognized the inherent absurdity of the situation. I was like a member of the audience in Lisel Mueller's "Brendel Playing Schubert":

We bring our hands together in applause, that absurd noise, when we want to be silent. We might as well be banging pots and pans, it is that jarring, a violation of the music we've listened to without moving, almost holding our breath. The pianist in his blindingly white summer jacket bows and disappears and returns and bows again. We keep up the clatter, so cacophonous that it should signal revenge instead of the gratitude we feel for the two hours we've spent out of our bodies and away from our guardian selves in the nowhere where the enchanted live.

And so I found the folder holding Mueller's words, and passed the copies to my students without another word of mine. For the rest of the hour, no one spoke.

"Please read," I wrote on the portable white board.

Once, learned in a poem by Gregory Orr that Voltaire once said,  “The secret to being boring is to say everything." On another day, I would surely have risked, and perhaps achieved, students’ boredom by talking and talking and talking about “Brendel Playing Schubert.” But on that morning of perfect silence, I let the white space discipline my speech.

Robert Hass, I called to mind, demonstrates in "On Teaching Poetry" that a teacher need only find a single key to open a poem utterly. (Students then may find the thousand others.)

He notes by way of example a significant change Wallace Stevens made to his masterpiece "Of Mere Being" before he was able to let it go. It was of a single word.

“The palm at the end of the mind, / Beyond the last thought, rises / In the bronze distance,” the poet first had written. Then he made "decor" of "distance." The sole alteration transfigured the whole of the poem, flipping words' meanings like departure times on the split-flap boards of  train stations.

"It's as if he had, in one stroke, made the philosophical leap from Romanticism to post-modernism," Hass notes.

Silence is a teacher. It strips everything away except that which is essential.

"Absurd: Latin—absurdus, 'out of tune,'" I wrote upon the empty space, then set the pen into the tray.