Poetry is Beauty’s Voice

I had a copy of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are” for a long time… before mindfulness was as trendy as it is now. Recently I opened it again and was struck the meditation highlighted here. Watts and Hillman are not familiar to me. This post resonated with me with its discussion of the non-correspondence of language with absolute reality, and the poetry of living:

“I think we’ve spent so much of history arguing over the critique of good written poetic form, high art that carries us on the lofty tailwinds of meaning, that we’ve lost our ability to see poetry in its seed form and the many ways we live it daily. We’ve in some ways deeroticized it, made it too narrow, made people think it doesn’t apply to them. If we could recover this sense of poetries of living, it might help more people appreciate the high poetic craft again, as but one expression of the seed poem’s transfigurative power”

Signs of Life

“Words and measures do not give life; they merely symbolize it” (Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity 48).

For any kind of beauty there is, there is a form of poetry to give it voice.  We think of poetry often as involving meter, verse, stanza, rhyme, prosody–pricking the senses through artfully arranged language. However, I’ve experienced, and I know others have too, poetry that transcends or seems to happen prior to language, and, while the purist poets may object, that’s the topic of this blog.

Jon Kabat-Zinn gives a great example in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are of such language-less poetry when he writes of geese flying overhead:

“As I pull into the parking lot of the hospital, several hundred geese pass overhead…. Hundreds are in V’s, but many are in more complex arrangements. Everything is in motion.  Their lines dip and ascend with grace and harmony…

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“The silent are never at home in our culture again”

“The silent are never at home in our culture again”


Adam DeVille has a fascinating pair of posts (one here, one here) on Maggie RossSilence: A User’s Guide. Both posts are worth reading in full (and I must now read Ross’ book itself!)

In part 1 of these posts, deVille discusses his own dislike of the term “spirituality”:

This builds on a longstanding dislike I have had of the whole notion of “spirituality.” I remember very clearly in the early 1990s, as I moved from studying psychology to theology, taking my first undergraduate course in “spirituality” taught by a man who was bouncing across the stage with excitement that, at long last, “spirituality” was emerging as its own academic discipline, with new journals being founded every other week to prove its bona fides. The eagerness with which he raced to embrace all the trappings of middle-class North American academic respectability were then distasteful to me and have become all the more so over the passing years. I rapidly became deeply suspicious–before I had the language to express it–that “spirituality” was yet another triumph of the process of commodification that Western capitalism does with such seductive ease.


In part 2, deVille draws further on Ross’ bracing approach to many oft-abused concepts:

One of the biggest misunderstandings–as I have long thought myself–comes down to the primacy people give to the notion of “experience,” which Ross says is “perhaps the most significant of the frequently misused words in this list.” Experience, Ross says, is solipsistic in today’s usage, running totally contrary to “ancient, patristic, and medieval” wariness of the term; it invites narcissism and notions of control.

Faith is another misused word–and here Ross agrees very much with Fr. Paul Tarazi, as his interview on here last week showed–because it refers, wrongly, to a set of abstract doctrines rather than the practice of trust.

: All these terms “have become useless and misleading” and function to justify “weirdness,” “exoticism,” “voyeurism (a kind of spiritual pornography” (90). See below for more on the problems with “mysticism.”

Spiritual Direction: I was moving from studying psychology to theology in the late 1990s when all of a sudden it seemed (as I noted in part I) that the study of something called “spirituality” exploded in revolting fashion, and along with it, very predictably, came the attempts to make money off that by people setting themselves up as “spiritual directors” everywhere, offering expensive courses in how you, too, could become a director, or at least benefit from on-going direction. A couple of these people to whom I spoke, including one woman in charge of just such a brand-new centre for spiritual direction and formation, were so dim and tedious, so incurious and uninformed about everything, that I felt myself falling rapidly into a coma after about two sentences.

But what these newly minted “spiritual directors” lacked in intellectual substance was more than made up for by the aggressively preening self-importance of their tone. All this is to say I greatly cheered Ross’s denunciation of “spiritual direction, so-called” as having “little to no relationship to the desert practice of manifestation of thoughts. It evolved as a form of mind control.” As she continues, “modern so-called spiritual direction is counter-productive and a distraction: it tends to make the ‘directee’ become increasingly preoccupied with his or her self-construct and imagined ‘spiritual life’ instead of moving towards self-forgetfulness in beholding the divine other.”


There is a wider cultural context to this:

One of the points Ross makes clear here, and elsewhere in the book, is that most of us have lost the capacity for observing how our minds work. Indeed, as Christopher Bollas (inter alia) has also recently noted, we live in a time that scorns the idea of thinking about our minds and the unconscious influences on them. But this loss, this refusal, this scorn, makes us incapable of enduring silence and so living in the wellsprings of the deep mind. Without this, we are bereft of what we need for any serious transfiguration in our life. (In this regard I would say that Ross’s critique echoes those who suggest our reliance on overly hasty “cures” approved by modern “therapists” and pharmaceutical companies, and especially the insurance companies who pay the bills of both, are, as I suggested here, far less effective than the slower work of often silently lying on the couch of unknowing.)

It is that lack of control over “unknowing” that makes silence so suspect. Much of this and later chapters in her book are spent by Ross discussing problems with the many translations of the famous work The Cloud of Unknowing, almost all versions of which use the word “experience and other anachronisms” the effect of which is to “have obscured behold, so that it rarely appears.” Beholding something, as she is at pains to show at length, is different from thinking we “experience” (and thus presumably, at least partially, control) it. It is the Gallacher edition of the Cloud (linked above and at left) that she says almost alone avoids this problem.


Previously I posted a link to an interview with the media theorist Marie Thompson which made reference to “the conservative politics of silence”. From a rather different perspective, Ross and DeVille share this concern:

For those worried about the “political” implications of all this, Ross is clear in several places that emergence into silence does not give rise to a crabbed “me and my cell and the rest of you go to hell” Christianity. Rather, she says the ethics and politics of silence are “green” in caring for creation. Silence, she says, makes one simultaneously more liberal and more conservative: liberal in wanting to share the riches with everyone, and conservative in wanting to hang onto the experience of silence and protect it via a sort of “custody of the ears.” Those who are immersed in silence come quickly to have a pronounced intolerance for reading about violence, for going to loud parties and pointless meetings, etc.

For me, “simultaneously more liberal and more conservative” captures something not just about our encounter with silence, or with Christ, or indeed with many other phenomena (secular as well as religious), onto which we tend to try and shoehorn our own political preferences and biases.


Finally, deVille captures the tranfigurative power of silence, and its counter-cultural nature:

Finally, those who live in silence find there a refuge but not an escape. The silent are never at home in our culture again, but are able nonetheless to live because the richness of silence enables a life-sustaining transfiguration, which this book, Silence: A User’s Guide, itself goes some very considerable distance to advancing in surprising and welcome ways.

Snipe and Woodcock at 33⅓ RPM: Listen The Birds 8 / Hoor De Vogels 8 

Snipe and Woodcock at 33⅓ RPM: Listen The Birds 8 / Hoor De Vogels 8 

I came across this birdsong album in my family home lately. As will become clear, I can’t find out much about it online, but I felt that the aesthetic of the album was worth capturing. And it is somewhat sobering to be able to listen to birdsong from over half a century ago.

I can’t find that much online about John Kirby, who recorded this as one of a series of birdsong albums released as “Listen the birds / Hoor de vogels” in, I think, the early 1960s.

There is this oral history interview with him
, which is “accessible for UK Higher Education and Further Education institutions only.” although the terseness of this summary of the interview has its own kind of poetry:

Making his own tape recorder from a kit. Recording first bird song in May 1951. Building own portable battery recorder. In 1953 BBC accepted his recording of Whooper Swan and subsequent recordings. Contributing to the Sound programme. Buying electric tape recorder in 1959. Pioneering use of filters. Meeting Ludwig Koch. Publication of commercial discs. Difficulties of mass production.

Neither can I find out much online about the Europese Fono Club AKA European Phono Club the Dutch label this record came out on.

So here is Listen The Birds 8 / Hoor de Vogels 8 <a href="http://https://www.discogs.com/No-Artist-Listen-The-Birds-8-Hoor-De-Vogels-8/release/3149525“>This has the same tracklisting but a different cover : 

“the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want” – Adam deVille on prayer and psychoanalysis

I have linked before to Eastern Christian Books, the blog of Adam de Ville. One of deVille’s recurrent themes is the unnecessary and unhelpful perceived antagonism between psychoanalysis and religion.. I recently linked to a brilliant post on the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas and the idea of the “normotic” self.

DeVille’s most recent post is a particular highlight. Again he draws on Bollas, but also the theologian Herbert McCabe. I particular love the line on prayer from McCabe that deVille cites here, contrasting the worthy things our superegos tend to direct us to exhort the Almighty to do with the “vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want”:

The beauty of this, as I have long appreciated it, is that “psychoanalysis does not provide ready answers to patients symptoms or lives,” as Bollas admits. This, he recognizes, is “disconcerting” for those who think that clinicians are supposed to be experts. In fact, Bollas … says that the free associating of the unconscious of both analyst and analysand “subverts the analyst’s natural authoritarian tendencies as well as the patient’s wish to be dominated.”

In this regard, Bollas puts me in mind of how Maggie Ross describes the mistaken notions behind modern concepts and practices of “spiritual direction,” much of which consists of attempts at “mind control” as she puts it, and the result of which is to reinforce one’s narcissism. Silence, for Ross, whose book shows considerable familiarity with psychoanalytic ideas, is the goal, and is hugely valuable in itself–a point that also becomes abundantly clear in reading the psychoanalytic literature about silent patients who nonetheless get better–start with another fascinating English Anglican, the analyst Nina Coltart, for examples of this; see her Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

McCabe doesn’t come right out and advocate freely associating during prayer, but he very much leans in that direction. This is something I’ll have to think about some more, but it does seem to me a helpful way to conceive of prayer and the problems of being distracted during or bored by prayer, or restlessly wondering about the futility of it all.

Rather than fighting that, McCabe advocates letting your mind wander until you find what you really want to pray about, and then praying about it. Here, again without using the words per se, McCabe seems to me to establish the “fundamental rule” (cf. Freud’s “On Beginning the Treatment”) of prayer outside the shackles of whatever spiritual superegos may be trying to tell us otherwise. If we let ourselves pray for what we are really concerned about, McCabe says, those prayers not only will almost always be, but in fact should be “the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want,” instead of all the pious and high-minded things we think we should pray about.

If we’re distracted during prayer, it’s because we’re not praying for the right things (he notes those on sinking ships never report distractions during their prayers!), and constraining ourselves to pray for the things our superego tells us to–the “proper and respectable and ‘religious'” things. Instead of that, as he drolly puts it, “you could let world peace rest for a while.”And while you’re at it, let your mind run to those distractions because they “are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer.” (Lest we worry that this is an excuse for descending into infantile selfishness, McCabe says that if we are honest in prayer about our desires, the Holy Spirit will invariably lead us deeper, for prayer involves change and growing up.) If psychoanalysis involves, as Bollas argued in his first major book The Shadow of the Object, a certain “ordinary regression to dependence” for a time, does this not also describe how we are in prayer with our Father in heaven as we pray for the things closest to us that matter most to us?

Silence in the Cairngorms – from Nan Shepherd’s “The Living Mountain”


Having disciplined mind and body to quiescence, I must discipline them also to activity. The senses must be used. For the ear, the most vital thing that can be listened to here is silence. To bend the ear to silence is to discover how seldom it is there. Always something moves. When the air is quite still, there is always running water; and up here that is a sound one can hardly lose, though on many stony parts of the plateau one is above the watercourses. But now and then comes an hour when the silence is all but absolute, and listening to it one slips out of time. Such a silence is not a mere negation of sound. It is like a new element, and if water is still sounding with a low far-off murmur, it is no more than the last edge of an element we are leaving, as the last edge of land hangs on the mariner’s horizon. Such moments come in mist, or snow, or a summer night (when it is too cool for the clouds of insects to be abroad), or a September dawn. In September dawns I hardly breathe — I am an image in a ball of glass. The world is suspended there, and I in it. Once, on a night of such clear silence, long past midnight, lying awake outside the tent, my eyes on the plateau where an afterwash of light was lingering, I heard in the stillness a soft, an almost imperceptible thud. It was enough to make me turn my head. There on the tent pole a tawny owl stared down at me. I could just discern his shape against the sky. I stared back. He turned his head about, now one eye upon me, now the other, then melted down into the air so silently that had I not been watching him I could not have known he was gone. To have heard the movement of the midnight owl — that was rare, it was a minor triumph.

Silence and the limits of language

“That for which we find words in something already dead in our hearts. There always is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”

Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols

Some popular sayings about education and mastery reflect a intuition that what is remembered is not always the full truth, or even the essential. There is the saw that “education is what remains when you have forgotten what you learned in school”, one of those quotes ascribed to multiple authors from Einstein to Lord Halifax. There is near-taunt that, on topic X, “I have forgotten more than you will ever know”.

The Nietzsche aphorism above is the epigraph of Harold Bloom’s “Shakespeare the Invention of the Human”. In another translation, the full paragraph is as follows:

We no longer have sufficiently high esteem for ourselves when we communicate. Our true experiences are not at all garrulous. They could not communicate themselves even if they tried: they lack the right words. We have already gone beyond whatever we have words for. In all talk there is a grain of contempt. Language, it seems, was invented only for what is average, medium, communicable. By speaking the speaker immediately vulgarizes himself. — Out of a morality for deaf-mutes and other philosophers.

Over the years, I have often essayed (in the sense of attempt) a philosophy of silence:

A few years ago I realised that silence is a thing in itself. It is not just the absence of sound, or the absence of noise.

There are anthropological texts on silence in different cultures , social history texts on the invention of silence and the constructed nature of concepts such as silence, sound and noise, there are audiological and acoustic texts on sound and how it is created in our brains.

All seem beside the point. Silence is.

Silence is a force, a power. A philosophy of silence will, after all, always be expressed in language, and always trap itself in language.

We are told that absolute silence is unattainable, and in our modern world even relative silence is close to impossible to find. Still, silence is free, and silence is everywhere, in the gaps.

Silence is the punchline of every unspoken joke, the conclusion of every unformulated argument, the summation of all unspeeched thoughts. In the beginning was the word and in the end there is silence.

Through various crooked paths, I have tried to explore through various quotes and passages. Much of this has related to nature, to religion, to mysticism, to reflection.

Perhaps a common thread through all this is this sense of silence surrounding and pervading all our noise. The idea that forgetting can be a marker of the richness of original knowledge, as hinted at in the pseudo-Einstein quote and the forgot-more-than-you’ll-ever-know rhetoric, also implies the vastness of what we do not know. Another near-cliché is that the more one knows, the more one knows what one doesn’t know.

Perhaps my thoughts on silence from nthposition some years ago could be better expressed as silence is not merely an absence, but the positive presence of all that we do not know, do not perceive, cannot find words for.

Nietzsche is a powerful thinker, though I have always found it necessary to “divide through” his rhetoric a little. In the passage from the Twilight of the Idols one can see why Bloom felt he was among the greatest of psychologists, a precursor of Freud, as he expresses the vast domain of the inexpressible that underlies our motivations and actions, and for which we often devise plausible reasons after the fact.

At the An Enduring Romantic blog, we find other Nietzsche thoughts on this, and the contrasting thought of Auden. As An Enduring Romantic concludes:

To try and gather up these scattered remarks into some kind of conclusion: I suppose that we can either view language as the eternal, futile reaching-forth towards an inaccessible essence, doomed to perpetual failure; or we can view it as a mode of creation, creating and evoking a different kind of response from a deeply private, personal sense of awe. On this view, language isn’t partial or incomplete, always falling short of – shall we say – the ideal. It is simply a different manner of response. As Auden says, both kinds of imagination are necessary. The imaginative awe, on its own, will not and cannot give us the forms of beauty that are so integral to the aesthetic experience, because the imaginative awe doesn’t exist through those forms. And so, it is not the case, as Heine says, that “where words leave off, music begins“; and nor is it the case that “the only valuable thing in art is that which you cannot explain.”

The media landscape so many of us inhabit (and of which this blog is a tiny part of, but a part of nevertheless) is one militates against reflection and the silence and space necessary for reflection. Silence has become a countercultural force, possibly the one true countercultural force in a culture in which rebellion and self-conscious individuality co-opted by corporate interests. Both of the kinds of imagination described by Auden are under threat by this radical undermining of any space for reflection and silence.