Rumi (1207-1273), astonishing for a poet, was preoccupied with silence. Now, on superficial examination poetry, writing, speaking is the antithesis of silence. But, for Rumi, silence like absence was the ever-present nothingness from which things, including speech and poetry, emerge. This insight, a miraculous insight, upends our usual understanding of how the world is, what reality is like.
Fish live in water and take water for granted until deprived of it and we humans too live in time and are immersed in silence and absence but tragically, only recognise noises and objects to the disadvantage of silence and absence. To make the point more clearly, there would be no music, no rhythm, no phrasing of a line, no tempo or cadence without that wonderfully covert but all pervasive silence that is punctuated with sound, everything instead would be an endless blur. So, silence is the canvas on which sound, and for our purposes, music and poetry are painted. To be more precise, music and poetry emerge from the sacredness of silence.
But that is not the case that Rumi makes- he is drawing our attention to the fact that like pregnancy, it is silence that ushers in what we call poetry, that it is silence that gives birth to new poetry. Poetry issues out of the immensity of eternal silence. And, when the poem comes to an end, at a reading, for instance, it is silence that continues to flow past like an endless river.
There are several different kinds of silence in Rumi: In ‘I have five things to say’ he writes
Let this window be your ear.
I have lost consciousness many times
With longing for your listening silence,
And your life-quickening smile.
Here he is talking about the type of rapt attention that signals that we are listening and hence furthers the interest of speech, impelling it onwards, calling it forth.
In ‘A thirsty fish’ he wrote
This is how it always is
when I finish a poem.
A great silence overcomes me,
and I wonder why I ever thought
to use language.
Here he has a wistful tone, almost sad, as if our natural state is silence and language, poetry breaks this pristine state.
In ‘The night air’ he wrote
What if a man cannot be made to say anything?
How do you learn his hidden nature?
I sit in front of him in silence,
and set up a ladder made of patience,
and if in his presence a language beyond joy
and beyond grief begins to pour from my chest,
I know that his soul is as deep and bright
as the star Canopus rising over Yemen.
The role of silence in human affairs, especially in friendship, for Rumi was of great importance. It is also silence that allows for communication between two people in an encounter. This is especially true in therapeutic and in clinical encounters, where inner consciousness communicate, often, wordlessly.
Even though Rumi does not say this, but it is also true that speech itself is conducted in utter nakedness. Imagine how language exposes everything to the scrutiny of the other- our attitudes, our antecedents, our character, our fears and frailties, even our deepest secrets seem to be able to leak out. Here I am referring to the fact that language says much more than the mere apparent content. The unconscious is always speaking, suborning the censors of civility and shame to make manifest what is hidden and unspoken.
For Rumi, silence too can allow for the same process, the same transaction of communing between two beings, wordlessly as it were. He wrote in ‘Birdsong from inside the egg’
A deep silence revives the listening
and the speaking of those two
who meet on the riverbank.
Like the ground turning green in a spring wind,
Like the birdsong beginning inside the egg.
Like this universe coming into existence,
the lover wakes, and whirls
in a dancing joy,
then kneels down
Absence, in Rumi, is akin to silence. There is the absence that is nothing:
The Absolute works with nothing.
The workshop, the materials
are what does not exist.
Try and be a sheet of paper with nothing on it.
Be a spot of ground where nothing is growing,
where something might be planted,
a seed, possibly, from the Absolute.
In ‘Fasting’ Rumi wrote:
There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and the belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.
When you’re full of food and drink, an ugly metal
statue sits where your spirit should…
And finally, in ‘Baghdad dreaming of Cairo: in Cairo, dreaming of Baghdad’ he wrote
When the emptiness starts to get filled with something,
the one who plays the lute puts it down
and picks up another.
There’s nothing more subtle and delightful
than to make that music.
Stay empty and held
between those fingers, where where
gets drunk with nowhere.
This man was empty,
And the tears came…
Silence and absence in Rumi are paradoxical notions that focus our attention on the inaudible and invisible aspects of the material world and in so doing touch on the well from which art, poetry in particular emanate from. We are at out most receptive to the Muse when silent and empty.
Photos by Jan Oyebode