Friday, December 23, 2011

Quiet Times

I woke at three last night (not an uncommon occurrence) and was struck by how quiet it was. The weather being warm as it can be in December in Florida, we have the windows open, and I listened to the silence. A screech owl was repeating its steady quavering note (not the one that descends), and that was the only sound.

It reminded me of a couple of passages in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Twain evokes the rural countryside of 19th-century America. There's this one at the beginning of the book:

The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn't make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving.

And this one, as Huck rides the raft down the river:

And how far a body can hear over the water such nights! I heard people talking at the ferry landing. I heard what they said, too -- every word of it. One man said it was getting towards the long days and the short nights now. T'other one said this warn't one of the short ones, he reckoned -- and then they laughed, and he said it over again, and they laughed again; then they waked up another fellow and told him, and laughed, but he didn't laugh; he ripped out something brisk, and said let him alone. The first fellow said he 'lowed to tell it to his old woman--she would think it was pretty good; but he said that warn't nothing to some things he had said in his time. I heard one man say it was nearly three o'clock, and he hoped daylight wouldn't wait more than about a week longer. After that the talk got further and further away, and I couldn't make out the words any more; but I could hear the mumble, and now and then a laugh, too, but it seemed a long ways off.

Maybe I like to wake in the middle of the night because I enjoy that silence, find myself craving it during the day sometimes, when the next-door neighbor's dog barks incessantly, and jets pound overhead on the way out of OIA, and a Harley Davidson farts its way down Bumby, half a block away.

I suppose it's almost a cliche--I know I've read it several places--that poetry arises out of silence, or out of listening, at least. I know that I need silence to engage with the material that becomes a new poem, and can't imagine trying to write with music in the background. How could I hear what was trying to come through that way? I love Frost's sonnet "Mowing," which begins,

There never was a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself.
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound,
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

I don't own an Ipod or any other device that requires my ear or ears to be plugged. Give me bird song, even if it is at times challenged by the ambient sounds of the city. It's still there if one practices listening, elemental, intense, something almost said, like any good poem.

1 comment:

  1. Russ- I seem condemned to experience life as a poet, and express it as a carpenter. Know me? -J. Harper (this is a reaching out...)