The silence at the end of a broken line is one of many characteristic visual and aural reminders of the presence of silence. There are the space and silence that surround the title of a poem. The way the title comes out of nowhere, and often doesn’t immediately suggest what is coming next, can remind us of how weird language is, and how close to meaninglessness we always are. This effect of the title surrounded by white silence is exacerbated by the leap to the first line of the poem, which again, more often than not, is more obscure and elusive than in other forms of writing.
The form of the poem—its pervasive white spaces, refusals or withdrawals at the ends of lines and between the stanzas—reminds us of nothingness. There is silence too in the leaps of metaphor and symbol and rhyme and association that remind us of gaps in thought, all the ways poetry sometimes behaves like all other forms of writing but can at any moment say “no” to all the usual functions of language, its association and movement as a form of content, the way it refuses to do what it is supposed to do.
Wittgenstein wrote that what we cannot speak about must be passed over in silence. Or maybe what we cannot speak about can only be conjured in poetry through the mechanism of negation, saying no. This existential negation is only possible when one chooses to write poetry: saying no to all other purposes, to bring us up as close as possible to silence, absence, nothingness, so that we can start to feel what it means to live our lives so close to the abyss. It is, paradoxically, only when we truly start to feel that nothingness, that absence, that the meaning particular to poetry can emerge.
- Matthew Zapruder, from his essay "What My Father’s Death Taught Me about Poetry" (an excerpt from his forthcoming Why Poetry) in The Walrus. You can read the whole thing here.