Sound and silence

Of course, all this involves a leap of faith. What teacher of poetry could continue without making a mighty one from time to time? A collection of names seen from the top of a bus; chopping up a line about a cat; ten teacher-directed lines about being on a train - some will be unimpressed as we reach the first coffee break. Where is the poetry in that? It’s in the student who lingers in the room-pushing those words around, running the rhythm of a place name through their head and trying to catch the tone of how they were greeted from that train. I am arguing here that it is for that student that a space has been cleared with these very simple, facilitating activities - a space from where they might choose to stare at the sea and wonder why they are.

But learning to write poetry is not a series of word games and exercises, however high I might try to raise their conceptual ambition. At this point it is important to read a poem. My choice here would be to introduce a very popular poem - a poem likely to feature in 20th-century lists of ‘The Nation’s Favourite Poems’ - back in the time when the compiling of such a list would have likely involved making a phone call or even sending a postcard. A conversation in class about why Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’ has done well in such polls is likely to feature labels such as nature, nostalgia, rhyme, England and remembered from school. One might also anticipate boring. In one amusing and energising extension of that notion, a student expressed the view that it was a poem about a boring place where I wouldn’t get a signal for my phone. Well, get the line break in the right place and there’s 20 syllables you can start working with.

My reason for selecting this poem at this point in proceedings is to guide the discussion toward the recognition of the relationship between sounds and silence. The instancing of the heard sounds - the steam’s hissing, the cleared throat and the blackbird’s song - emphasise the sheer quiet in that moment of the poem’s occasion. It seems to me to be the perfect poem to take the hand of a student, accompanying him or her in and beyond the silence - and possibly in pursuit of, in the words of W.H. Auden (2010,268):

this unpopular art which cannot be turned into background noise for study

or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,

cannot be ‘done’ like Venice

or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon being read or ignored.


Auden, W.H. (2010 ‘The Cave of Making’, in Mendelson, E. (ed.), Selected Poems, Revised edition. London: Faber.

Hughes, T. (1967). Poetry in the Making. London: Faber.

Hugo, R. (1979). The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing.

New York and London: WW Norton and Company.

Spender, S. (1985). Journals 1939-1983. London: Faber.

Stevenson, A. (2000). ‘A Few Words for the New Century’, in Herbert, W.N. and

M. Hollis (eds.), Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry. Hexham: Bloodaxe Books.

Thomas, E. (1978). Collected Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, W.C. (1977). ‘Poem’, in Moore, G (ed.) The Penguin Book of American Verse. Harmondsworth. Penguin.

Williams, W.C. (1991). The Collected Poems, Vol. 1, 1909-1939. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Williams, M. (ed.) (2009). The Georgians 1901-1930. Nottingham: Shoestring Press, 52

Part IV

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