Rachel Custer

The Poem as Holy Ground:
Radical Silence in Action

Le Christ du silence by Odilon Redon

(To Eleonora Duse)

We are anhungered after solitude,
Deep stillness pure of any speech or sound, 
Soft quiet hovering over pools profound, 
The silences that on the desert brood, 
Above a windless hush of empty seas, 
The broad unfurling banners of the dawn, 
A faery forest where there sleeps a Faun; 
Our souls are fain of solitudes like these. 
O woman who divined our weariness, 
And set the crown of silence on your art, 
From what undreamed-of depth within your heart 
Have you sent forth the hush that makes us free 
To hear an instant, high above earth’s stress, 
The silent music of infinity? 

Sara Teasdale


Placed at regular intervals along the corridors of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), signs admonish our boisterous family: “Shhh: Silent Hospitals Help Healing.” We try our best to whisper, though silence has never come naturally to us. It helps that we know how important silence has been to our daughter’s healing during the many PICU stays necessitated by her fight with pediatric leukemia. Still, mine is a family that copes by making noise.

Research has increasingly shown that hospital patients’ bodies react to machine beeps, alarms, and constant chatter as if they are under acute stress. Blood pressure and pulse rate rise, and sleep suffers. Any mother of a child who has finally fallen asleep after a long, sick struggle of a day knows that panicked reaction to noise, that desperate desire for silence. We are, as Teasdale notes, hungry for silence – and that even before the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle.

Noise. The word itself is of uncertain origin, but carries with it through the Old French and Middle English the sense of a quarrel or dispute. Some scholars believe it to have originated with the Latin, “nausea.” The history of the word itself acknowledges that noise causes sickness, aggression, and disagreement in and among human beings, and so research seems to agree. A wide range of the deleterious effects of constant noise have led us to the concept of “noise pollution,” an acknowledgement that our environment, oversaturated with stimuli as it is, harms both us and that environment.

The world is filled with noise. We are inundated with stimuli from the time we open our eyes in the morning to the time we finally shut off our phones at night. Writer friends lament to me, over and over, that they are unable to focus on reading or writing. I’ve known many people who simply left social media in a desperate attempt to find some peace from the constant demands on their attention. 

We reserve silence as a societal imperative for our most sacred spaces: libraries, churches, and nature seem to hush us in a way that feels innate. When we sit with the ill or dying, or with those who have experienced great loss, we often fall silent for lack of a more powerful option. Shhh: silence helps heal humans. So why, again and again, do we choose noise?

Poets may have some idea of the value of silence, for they write about it incessantly. Beyond silence as poetic subject, poets also seem to understand silence as a necessary component of the poem itself. Poems are made of silence, are a living tension between silence and song. White space is a poet’s silence before the poem, and a poem’s silence before voice. Li-Young Lee calls silence the “real medium” of poetry: 


To inflect the inner silence, to give it body, that’s all we’re doing. You use the voice to make the silence present. The real subject in poetry isn’t the voice. The real subject is silence. It’s like in architecture, where the medium is not really stone or metal, but space. We use materials—brick, glass, whatever—to inflect the immaterial, space. I would say that the real medium of poetry is inner space, the silence of our deepest interior.” (from The Subject is Silence” http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_lee.php)


This idea, that “what we encounter in art is presence,” (Li-Young Lee), may illuminate the seemingly competing tendency of so many writers to surround ourselves with meaningless noise. While we hunger after silence, and need it to write our truest poems, we decidedly do not hunger after presence. It might be said that the most consistent desire of the self in the modern age is its own escape. 

In graduate school at the University of Chicago, I was surrounded by intellectually brilliant people. We all tended to place value on achievement, on doing things well, and even better, right. Nothing seemed to amuse the professor of a class on Dialectical Behavior Therapy more than our regular forays into mindfulness meditation.

We were, by and large, perplexed. Having gotten into U of C in the first place through action, engagement, thought, etc., we were now tasked with simply being. With being present. If a thought intruded upon our attempts to simply experience, we were to notice it (without judgement!) and simply let it float on by, like a cloud in the sky above our being. 

I can’t blame our professor for his amusement. Many days, we ended up laughing at ourselves. A group of high achievers, whose focus has always been on action, attempting to simply be present, can be a funny thing. We were frustrated with not being able to “do it right” or because we “kept thinking things” that would then distract us from our mindful attention to simply being in the moment. 

But I learned the lesson: presence is not easy. 

What waits for us in stillness that scares us so easily toward noise? Li-Young Lee says it is our very selves, or even God in us, and he seems to imply that true art necessitates a willingness to meet it. In an art form dominated by a critical move away from meaning (a well-respected poet declared this week on social media that a bag of dirt can be a poem, if only the “poet” names it so), it is perhaps unsurprising that my generation fears meeting the self, to say nothing of God. To do so would either confirm the truth of a thoroughly desperate worldview or prove it wrong, requiring a radical change in belief system and action. 

Nobody wants stillness because stillness might necessitate change. Or, at least, a widening of understanding. So we busy ourselves with noise, which asks nothing but our attention, which we are looking to give away anyway. Americans my age and younger have always wanted nothing more than ease; if great poetry can’t come easy, we’ll settle for mediocre poetry. If community doesn’t come easy, we’ll construct an ideological prison and name it community. If disagreement doesn’t come easy, we’ll dismiss it as abuse. If God, or meaning, doesn’t come easy, we’ll simply do away with meaning. 

If we can’t write a poem worth eternity, we’ll name a bag of dirt a poem.

Li-Young Lee gives us a starting point for this idea of radical silence. We must commit to a willingness to come to the work as if it still means something – something vast and important. We must come to the poem as if we meet ourselves there. As if we meet our God there. 

When God came to Moses in the form of a burning bush, which burned but was not consumed, God instructed Moses to “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” How would we change poetry, and allow poetry to change us, if we approached it as “holy ground”? As if we expected to hear the voice of God from within?

I go back to my brief experience with mindfulness meditation, that experience of just being, of being present in the moment. The only way to do it wrong was not to try it, the professor said. That leaves so many ways to do it “right.” But the most basic requirement beyond simply trying was intentionally decreasing the stimuli that fought for our attention. We closed our eyes, we focused our listening on the relaxing music or ocean surf noise he might play. We turned off our computers and our phones and anything else that might place competing demands on our attention.

We failed, but we pushed our failure aside and tried again.

What if we came to poetry this way? What if we pretended that our fellow poets were fellow patients, trying to heal from the abuses of this world, and tried our best to give them the

stillness they might need? What if we determined to focus our attention on meeting ourselves, our God, in the poem, in poets? Shhh: silent humans heal humans.

As Sara Teasdale observed then and observes now (in that uncanny way poetry has of existing outside time), we are utterly starved for stillness. There is something within it that approaches the core truth of who and what we are. Could there be a simpler way to help heal other human beings than to just stop making so much noise?

What if we decided to stay silent long enough to hear a voice, the “silent music of infinity,” from within ourselves, from within our poems: Take off your sandals. You’re standing on Holy ground.


About the writer:
Rachel Custer is the Poetry Editor and a reviewer and editorialist at O:JA&L. Her first full-length poetry collection, The Temple She Became, is available from Five Oaks Press. Other work has previously been published or is forthcoming in Rattle, OSU: The Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, B O D Y, [PANK], and The Antigonish Review. On February 13, 2019, Rachel Custer became a recipient of a 2019 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Rachel Custer is the poetry editor at O:JA&L.

Image: Le Christ du silence by Odilon Redon (1840-1916). Pastel and charcoal on paper. 46 x 58 cm. 1897. Public domain.