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Silence

—Gabriel Rosenstock

I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.
—Chaim Potok



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A meditation on the 1950s poem silencio by Eugen Gomringer

It’s rather like an abstract painting, a Mondrian, except that it is a word, a word that we know. Silence! A word we can feel. And we can feel the space left in the middle of the poem, a space which conveys the poem’s message, its essence. We can feel the silence.

There’s space on both sides of the poem as well, space above and space below, that space which haiku both seeks and creates. The concrete poem asks the same thing of the reader as does the haiku — to complete it. Fill in the silence. With our own silence.

Concrete poetry was all the rage in the fifties, in Switzerland, Brazil, Japan and elsewhere. Strange that it didn’t make an impact on poetry in Irish (or English) in Ireland, given our love of words. Some of the most famous concrete poems are no more than a word. Concrete words, so to speak. I’ve been promising myself for nearly forty years to have a crack at the genre and maybe I will.

I had the honour of conducting a haiku workshop in last year’s lit fest in Hyderabad and I talked to a brilliant young man there who works with apps. Now I have heard of apps but to tell you the truth, I’ve never owned a mobile phone (or cell or whatever you want to call it) but if I did, I think I’d like to have an app for concrete poems. There’s something mantric and magical about the silence poem that I loved since I first saw it many, many moons ago.

As far back as 1953, Gomringer sensed that words were changing, the world was changing, languages were changing and prolixity had had its day. Did he see the coming of tabloids — not to mention twitter? Such changes would not pose a danger to poetry, he believed. There was nothing wrong with headlines, mantras, slogans, abbreviations. Concrete poetry would be an international language, beyond the notion of the national, and as graspable as a road sign or a popular scientific formula. You could say he saw the rise of the USA and the IRA, the ESB and — OMG — the EU. He probably saw texting as inevitable. Abbreviations are far more common in India than in Ireland. Everyone in India knows AC but, of course, it is rarely understood (as an abreviation) in Ireland. Similarly, nobody would understand BP in Ireland as an abbreviation for blood pressure. Getting back to Gomringer. He was a Bolivian, living in Switzerland, and was familiar with many languages, Spanish and German among them. He saw the coming of globalisation and the death of languages which this would bring (as it has). He was quite serious about his work, playful though it may seem to some of us. He insisted on our engagement with the word (as opposed to grammar, style, voice, idiom and all the rest of it).

Among the many writers influenced by Gomringer and the Concrete Poetry Movement was the curious Dane, Vagn Steen. He had this idea of publishing books with perforated pages so that you could easily tear out the poems you didn’t like. Irish publishers (in both languages) could take a leaf from his book. Write it Yourself was one of his classics. It consisted of blank pages and was an overnight success. Back to Gomringer’s classic again, this time in German:

schweigen schweigen schweigen schweigen schweigen schweigen schweigen     schweigen schweigen schweigen schweigen schweigen schweigen schweigen
It works at many levels, including the spiritual. Does it bring us back to our tender years when so much had to be learned by rote, repetition of the ABC and numbers and syllables that may not have meant all that much to us at the time, Church Latin, riddles, rhymes and prayers? CIÚNAS! SILENCE! How often did we hear that (in Irish or English) at home or at school?

Does the shape of the poem bring us back to say when nothing was as satisfying as building blocks, or placing stones or other objects one upon the other? If you have another language other than English, translate the silence poem now into your other language, whatever that may be. It’s easy! It’s just one word (and don’t forget the space). So let’s have Gomringer’s poem in Kannada, Telugu, Gujarati, Hindi, Malalayam, Urdu, Hindi and all the other languages of India — and the world! How about a T-Shirt, then, with the Gomringer poem and your translation! Don’t forget to acknowledge the poet, and yourself. You would be sending a much-needed message to the world.

Our deepest selves are in that white space in the middle of the poem, our core and our mystery — not so much a part of us (as words are part of us, say) but the totality. Gomringer believed that a concrete poem was a poem in itself not a poem about something. A complete poem. And so it is!

About the Author
Gabriel Rosenstock is a prolific writer who writes in Irish (Gaelic) and English. Author-translator of over 160 books, including e-books. Recent titles include Irish-language versions of the selected poems of Ko Un, K. Satchidanandan, Hemant Divate and Dileep Jhaveri and a comic detective novel in English, My Head is Missing.

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