Image of a person sitting on a bed and taking in their presence


Gordon Hempton has traveled the world collecting silences. He’s heard what the world sounds like without human noise, from the stillness of a Sitka spruce log in the Pacific Northwest to how thunder echoes in the emptiness of the Kalahari Desert.

But even when he’s not traveling, the acoustic ecologist says he takes a moment of silence every day — “that I don’t try to fill with thoughts, that I turn everything off … There’s no purpose, but there’s a great deal of joy,” he says. And it’s in silence, he says, that he hears “the presence of everything.”

Presence is also what draws the poet Marilyn Nelson to silence. We’re revisiting her 2017 conversation with Krista this week, which is wise about the ways poetry allows us to connect with ourselves and one another. “I think poetry and the silence of the inner life are related, are connected — don’t you think? You read a poem, and you say, ‘Ah.’ And then you listen to what it brings out inside of you. And what it is is not words. It’s silence.”

She says silence is “the source of so much of what we need to get through our lives.” It allows us to reach places of greater depth — calling up something in us and turning us back into ourselves. “That’s why reading poetry, reading it alone silently takes us someplace where we can’t get ordinarily. Poetry opens us to this otherness that exists within us,” she says.

Though he’s not a poet, Gordon Hempton seems to understand how this otherness enriches us as well. “We’re so busy being someplace else that when we’re in a silent place, there are no distractions. We finally do get to meet ourselves and that can be frightening,” he says. But it’s in silence that anything can happen. “It’s like the blank page to a writer.”

In a time of both great change and forced stillness, maybe a moment of silence is the kind of blank page we can all draw on, no matter where in the world we find ourselves. Or, as David Whyte writes:

“Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the / conversation. The kettle is singing / even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots / have left their arrogant aloofness and / seen the good in you at last. All the birds / and creatures of the world are unutterably / themselves. Everything is waiting for you.”

Kristin Lin
Editor, The On Being Project

P.S. — For more poetry that fits this moment, explore our Starting Point: “Poetry for Tumultuous Times.”


This Week at The On Being Project

Our Latest Episode

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On Being with Krista Tippett
Marilyn Nelson
Communal Pondering in a Noisy World

The contemplative poet on ordinary goodness, and on silence as “the source of so much of what we need to get through our lives.”

Listen on:
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Recommended Reading & Listening

Recommended reading & listening image collage: image of a

person in Olympic National Park; Image of Marilyn Nelson speaking to

someone at an event; image of Marilyn Nelson, Pádraig Ó Tuama, and

Krista Tippett in conversation

Listen | Marilyn Nelson Reads Her Poems
Marilyn Nelson shared a few of her poems — including “Faster Than Light” and “Crows” — with a live audience at the On Being Gathering in 2018.

Listen | “A New Imagination of Prayer” with Marilyn Nelson and Pádraig Ó Tuama
Marilyn Nelson was also in conversation with Krista and Pádraig Ó Tuama, the host of Poetry Unbound, back in 2018. 

Watch & Explore | “Sanctuaries of Silence” with Gordon Hempton | Emergence Magazine
Our friends at Emergence Magazine produced this beautiful immersive video with Gordon Hempton on the silences of Olympic National Park.

You can find more reading and listening in our library on creative life.

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