A poem’s meaning is most often constructed from its words, but there is just as much, if not more, hidden within its silences and blank spaces. Local poets Allison Adair and Sandra Lim explored this theme of engaging silence in poetry at the Boston Book Festival on Oct. 29. In the workshop “The Silence After a Bell: Crafting Poems Beyond Language” hosted at the Goethe-Institut, Adair and Lim shared readings from their own collections, as well as from other poets, and invited workshop participants to consider the role and sound of silence in the auditory medium of spoken verse.
Adair and Lim began with a bell, which by virtue of its hollowness produces sound — it also fills the silence after its ringing with a lingering impression of its presence. They referenced an interview conducted with Li-Young Lee by Marie Jordan in “Breaking the Alabaster Jar,” in which Lee states that “language [is used] to inflect silence so we can hear it better… After church bells ring everything seems more quiet.” Lee describes his hope that “after a line or stanza[,] there’s a silence imparted to the reader.”
Considering silence in poetry is difficult because writers often think of writing as “putting words on the page,” said Adair. Writing is not seen as akin to “Michelangelo carving away stone to reveal something,” she noted. Yet “silence is an expressive gesture,” said Lim. Silence creates a delicate balance of expectation and surprise in a poem, dependent upon a trust built between the writer and reader. Lim encouraged writers to consider “where in the poem you should make a hollow so that the words can reverberate.”