As a poet, I devote a sizeable portion of my writing time to thinking about form. Where do I break the lines? How many lines to this stanza? A poet is always trying to find the edges of the argument, the geography of the line. We are wary of saying too much.
Throughout high school and college I played violin in the symphony orchestra. Over and over again I was told to “play the rests.” Zipping through a 32nd note run in a Shostakovich symphony, what difference could one small rest really mean? But when I took a moment to lift my bow from the string, to let the string hum a bit, the difference was noticeable. The measured space of silence buzzed with solitude.
Beryl Markham, in her wonderful memoir, West with the Night puts it another way: “There are all kinds of silences,” she says. “And each of them means a different thing.” If we take the silence and give it form what are we left with but the silent white of the page? This is a sound the writer knows well. It is our siren song; it is what calls us in the evening to our desks and windows. It is a silence we try again and again to make mean a different thing.
Simone Weil wrote, “the poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real.” I come back to this over and over again, because what does “real” mean, i.e. what is the form of real? When Weil says “real” I don’t think she is talking about reality, not what is physically in this world. Weil is talking about Real in a platonic sense. A real that walks in the garden with the Real.
The artist/makers’ responsibility then, is to create something beautiful. We are meant to find the beautiful among the Real. Tomas Transtromer, Nobel Prize winner and Swedish poet, wrote that “through form something [can] be raised to another level. The caterpillar feet…gone, the wings unfolded.” In order for the moth to be, the caterpillar must first rest.
To write (and to be a “maker”) is to live with the paradox of filling and emptying. It is one of the numerous paradoxes that give our lives form—to be both forgiven and in need of forgiveness, to live because of death, to learn what is already known.
So perhaps when it comes to space, the form of our work must be one of respecting the silence. We must fill in the blank white of the page with not only what is beautiful, but also something that nudges at the essence of God and his creation. The poet must speak in order to make room for more silence.
Simone Weil also wrote “we can only know one thing about God—that he is what we are not.”
(Photo by Hiroshi Sugimoto)