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A poem is made of words and silent words

When I was a child, what I believed to be the power of silent thought terrified me. I hadn’t learnt that although thoughts are real, they aren’t reality. I couldn’t tell the difference between ideas and actions, and thoughts felt lethal, inaudible, invisible.

Is this a useful way to think about the dark matter that activates a poem? I don’t like the edict ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ because I don’t like edicts, but I regularly speak to poets about the consequences of bringing their poem too close to the reader. As if you are laying down the law or handing it to them on a plate; or, just as problematically, making them struggle towards it, as if through a mire of sinkholes and knee-deep in heather. Somewhere in-between lies a Goldilocks zone within which reader and poet collaborate in an evanescent, spontaneous act of creation. The best thing about it is that, unlike a matchstick, it strikes and catches light more than once. There lies behind every poem a shadow – this is an outcrop of the unsaid and unknowable that runs through our experience of everything.

Looking for the trace, press or ache of silent words might sound like an emperor’s-new-clothes sort of scenario. In fact, this may be a cultural problem: we often talk about a poem as an intellectual event, while receiving it with much more than our intellectual faculties. See if you can sense them in John Glenday’s poem, ‘Etching of a Line of Trees‘. If not, try again, saying the poem aloud this time. Still nothing? Don’t worry. If this poem doesn’t work on you, another will. When reading poetry, be alert for silent words, which may be better apprehended by your animal intelligence. In workshops, I often submit poems to the fur-on-end test – if the hair on your arms stands up and you don’t know why, your animal wit knows something your intellect doesn’t.

I’ll try and reveal the silent words in Don Paterson’s ‘Luing‘:

      the fontanelles reopen one by one

      in the palms, then the breastbone and the brow

I can pin it right down – a funny feeling – to the line that ends ‘one by one’. I understand humans to possess a single fontanel, the soft spot at the crown of the head, that fuses gradually after birth, but Paterson is talking gnomically of plural fontanelles. I don’t know what he means, intellectually or anatomically, leaving the puzzle teetering at the end of the line. Ten syllables after which we pause, rhythmically the line is complete, but if the idea is completed, it doesn’t happen in words. What happens, what shifts in that resting place? Something, because when the poem flows on I feel something physical – extraordinary! – a tingling weakness in the centre of each palms, as if an eye had opened in each. As if waking after long, uninterrupted sleep. And ‘then the breastbone and the brow’, in the rest of the line you are flowering and opening all over. It works over and over again, every time you read the poem. An extraordinary recognition of what animal intelligence can bring to a poem, through a cage of words holds that experience. It’s the hush at the gnomic line’s end that gives us the space to apprehend it more deeply.

There are many forms of silent words but I think they are crucial to whether a poem works or not. We trepan ourselves when we give the unsaid the freedom of a poem, and allow a poet to drill a hole in our head every time we experience metaphor.

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