While I have been a little cagey about my thesis topic, most people who read this blog know I'm looking at the relationship between Plath's work and silence. Because of this, I've been casually reading about other writers and their attitudes towards silence, and what they define as full expression or meaning. I love the famous Beckett quote, "every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness," and his ironic and contradictory musing that, "I could not have gone through the awful wretched mess of life without having left a stain upon the silence." But, I think one of my favourite responses to silence is Nabokov's "The Poem", where he makes me question what silence is - what consciousness is - what expression is.
I think poetry is transcendent because not only can a poem convey thought; but structure and form can be changed and subverted so that which we perceive as an unchangeable norm can in fact be challenged. Poetry can make you question absolutes. My thinking about poetry has evolved over the years. Silence has become my main research interest because I am deeply intrigued by the "not said." I'm interested in the unspoken in general day-to-day life; what people reveal and hold back. Silence permeates all poetry. From pauses enforced by punctuation, to physical blank spaces on the page (perhaps most inventively incorporated by the Language Poets), silence is integral to our understanding of a poem. What interests me most at the moment is how we define meaning. What is thought, or full expression in poetry? What role does an artist's silent subconscious have in literary composition?
My thesis looks at Plath's writing in this way (and other ways too), but I think that these questions about silence are relevant across the board. For example, reading Edna O'Brien's Girls in their Married Bliss last year, I was struck by Baba being positioned as narrator for the first time. For me, Kate Brady's silence (amid a bad marriage, seedy love affair and failed dreams) spoke much more loudly than Baba's sardonic wit. Ihab Hassan writes that "language moves towards silence," and this is seen really clearly in Hemingway's later work, and more recently, in Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, which actually has words cut out of the novel. Does this mean silence is a reaction to trauma, like Hemingway's war experiences or the impact of 9-11 on Foers? Or the brutal harsh reality of life leaving Kate Brady voiceless and redundant?
I don't really have answers to these questions, but these thoughts occupy my mind. Personally I've self-diagnosed myself with somewhat of an echolalia disorder... Speaking the words of others (literary critics and Sylvia Plath!) or trying to say the right thing, trying to out-talk silence with meaningless words. It is in silence that I feel most expressive. For example, sitting here in silence, writing this blog. But how much meaning can I really express through these letters on a keyboard? Very little, if you think about it!
Edit: received a great email from a reader who pointed out how, in "The Thought-Fox", Ted Hughes engages with silence when he writes about blankness on the page and how a poem comes to be written.Within the Plath oeuvre, there are lots of different types of perceived silences, for example, accusations about Plath having a "silenced voice" or posthumous silencing/editing. I think it's much more interesting to re-frame silence within Plath studies and consider it more as an artistic response, or motivation to speak. "The Thought-Fox" is so interesting because Hughes seems to employ nature and the fox figure as a kind of inspirational haze from which words spring - the page mystically changes from silent blankness to expression and meaning.. How did this happen? I think that for Hughes, of course his poetic voice originates from being immersed in nature, but he also writes organically and freely from a place "deeper within darkness." Perhaps writing from this blank, inexpressible place allows Hughes to tap into poetry of fuller meaning. It's very similar to what I love about D.H. Lawrence - writing infused by the unknown and inexpressible, made brilliant because of a freer engagement with the natural and sensual cosmos.