Silence ii—Sound of Silence

Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April, 1968, the high school I would begin the next year held a memorial. Somehow I had heard about it and wanted to attend. My mother was reluctant to let me go, and, after my father convinced her that I was old enough to make my own decision in the matter, she warned me not to sign anything, especially petitions.

She would continue to warn me about signing “anything” until long after I moved out of the home—invoking McCarthyism and the black lists as a reason not to leave a record. It was odd to me that she worried so, as, in fact, she and I had participated in civil disobedience to help protect a tract of native prairie—however, that particular act occurred under cover and with no witnesses, not publicly.

Our disobedience had been to take out surveyor stakes and toss them away, covering up as best we could where they had been. A park authority was seeking an injunction against a builder in order to prevent destruction of a rare native prairie area that was hidden behind some woods. The builder, knowing only that the authority wanted a hearing to preserve a unique natural resource, had bulldozed into the woods and sent surveyors in, hoping to spoil the natural resource just before the hearing. My mother and I went in during the evening and tore out the stakes, resisting their acts, mainly to distract them from going further into the woods and hitting the prairie behind it.

The builders only saw a grassy field, of course. They thought the woods were the resource. They didn’t realize that the tall prairie grass was nearly six-feet tall. The park authority prevailed and the building stopped. The state bought the land from the builder at market price, and the area is now part of a midwestern forest preserve.

However, despite my mother’s willingness to resist—to act to preserve a unique ecological area against destruction—she recalled the McCarthy era and what it cost people. She was afraid, and no doubt the rash of assassinations in the middle of the 1960s gave her pause and reason to worry for her junior-high school aged son. She did not want to leave a record, or, more importantly, for me to have some official record of protesting anything. I suppose some of this was going through my head as I walked to the high school, although not entirely consciously and probably not as sympathetically back then.

I recall a spring rain falling, lightly, as I made my way in the dark. I remember the lonely circles from corner streetlights along the way. And, perhaps in response, in my teen-angst I identified with the words of and started singing The Sound of Silence, Paul Simon’s song that I knew from the Simon and Garfunkel album, Sounds of Silence, the first full-length album I bought growing up. For me, this song still embodies both the need to resist and the need to speak out in silence—

Fools you do not know,
silence like a cancer grows…”

After the lines offering to teach and reach those fools (which some have criticized as “self-important,” so suitable to 13 y.o. hubris), comes these lines—

And the people bowed and prayed
to the neon god they made…”

Perhaps, now, in 2016, we have a neon-orange idol some people have made and cast up onto the altar of the White House. For whatever reason, this song has come back to haunt me in recent weeks. This time, I also find the teaching and reaching lines to be preaching and breaching some sense of communion with others, who are, after all, reduced to “fools” by the persona in the song.

However, oddly, I find comfort from the neon sign’s answering “warning” at the end of the song—

The words of the prophets
are written on the subway walls,
and tenement halls,
and whispered in the sound of silence.”

Now, I must not fall into the mistake of silence. I must speak up and speak out. I must not fear the witch hunts, rather, I/we need to resist them and to stop them. And I/we must see that justice and peace prevail. I/we must listen to the sound of silence, read the writing on the walls and halls, and catch the all-important whispers of those too afraid to speak loudly, who have the most to lose. I/we must resist silence—not by “talking without speaking,” but by listening and hearing, singing the songs written from the silence, and reaching out. Then maybe we will learn (not teach) from our fellow humans.

—Michael Dickel

The Sound of Silence

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dare
Disturb the sound of silence

“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”

—Paul Simon

Disturbed — The Sound of Silence (a contemporary version)

See “Democracy is Coming to the USA” and “I ain’t no millionaire’s son” in this issue for more music related to the Resist! theme!

Singing for the Love of It

If music be the food of love, play on ” ~ William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act I Scene I ~ Duke Orsino’s opening line.

One of the first lines of Shakespeare I had ever read, as a teenager, came from this play that I studied for English Literature at the age of 16. It still resonates in me today. I passed English Literature at ‘O’ Level, but not with any great distinction. Maybe if I’d had the talent, intellectual aptitude and whatever other indeterminate qualities and quantities, be they genetic or environmental, I might have been more distinguished in my appreciation of the literary arts; maybe even more accomplished as a writer or musician, instead of starting out my adult life as I did, as an engineer, or a ‘reluctant metallurgist’, as I sometimes introspectively muse. Thereby hangs another tale, for another time.

John & Guitar 1972
Photo: John Anstie (1972)

But that’s history; it’s part of what made me the person I am and I am grateful for that and all the subsequent opportunities that I fell upon as a result of the path I took, not least of all in my personal life. If I am unlikely to ‘make it’ as a writer, if any one of us, who sometimes aspire with our pens in whatever corner of literary endeavour we may hang out, there is something else that happens in that endeavour; something that possibly only time, ageing and accumulated wisdom can reveal. This is quite simply that, if you seek, you will eventually find.

Alongside an early appreciation of literature, which Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and a host of classical poets afforded me in my school years, came also an appreciation of music, albeit not through education and training; rather through my exposure to the music through singing as a treble in the Church choir and at school, through the music scene of the 60’s and 70’s and the saving grace of my decision to sell a car and by a good guitar with the proceeds (a Yamaha FG140, to be precise), which provided me with an escape from, and therapy to help in my resolution of some challenging times.

I guess, out of a deep desire to make music, which thus far had been confined to playing my guitar and singing mostly on my own or small groups of friends, eventually, after what I call a thirty-five year spell in a creative desert, came an opportunity to make music with other likeminded people. More’s the point, I was able to find the time to join and regularly attend rehearsals in a mixed voice choir. It was here that I first discovered the true joy, not only of the music and singing in harmony, but of sharing that love with others.

And now, for the past two years, I have been singing and performing regularly with one of the best Barbershop Choruses in the UK, as well as with a local chamber choir, whose MD has managed to attract some significant musical talent … and me! A year ago, I also formed a mixed barbershop quartet with some singing friends. Additionally, through the barbershop chorus, I facilitate a regular quartet night. I am, you might say, in at the deep end and making up for lost time! This all sits beside other occasional duets with a musical neighbour and the recent setting up of a five piece folk ensemble; and next year, I have already put my name down to allow myself (to be persuaded) to form a male barbershop quartet through the resources of Hallmark of Harmony, some time early next year.

The latest step in the development of this absorbing hobby is that I have found myself being asked, nay commissioned to write lyrics. I’ve written poetry for several years and, during that time, often dabbled with writing song lyrics too. Now it seems to be happening. Am I living the dream or am I kidding myself? We’ll have to wait and see … and I shall have to keep close to my very supportive wife, who is unstinting in her support of my ‘hobby’. Long may that last, as well as my ability to keep up the energy levels needed to perform at this level, but singing is something many can continue to enjoy well into old age. I am always hopeful of singing at my own 100th birthday party!

Whilst a painting may have the power of a thousand words, for me, music, singing, poetry, musical composition and songwriting are closely interwoven art forms that, when combined in the most skilful way, I’d venture to say they are probably the most powerful of the art forms. When you encounter a song, with a great melody and poetic lyrics, the combination of which is so synergistic and performed with such passion that it hits you with a power that is unforgettable, makes your heart ache or makes you smile, then you know you have engaged with the highest form or art.


This experience is a quest, of which I will never tire. As long as I can breathe, I will sing. It has the power to change lives, to provide a therapy that no pharmacy can give you. Whilst I could never advocate that it replaces a true faith, whatever denomination you may choose, I have witnessed on many occasions, first hand, the healing power of singing in harmony with my friends. Singing takes you several steps beyond just listening to music. You only have to witness once the tears in the eyes of a grown man, when they feel that perfectly pitched chord sung in harmony, and when they have just performed a particularly moving rendition of a favourite song, to know how unique and powerful this experience truly is.

© text and photos, John Anstie

A Message We Can’t Repeat Enough

Thanks to Core Team Contributing Writer John Anstie (My Poetry Library) for this. If you are viewing this post via email subscription, it’s likely you’ll have to link through to the site to view this video.

Words, Words, Words

In 1971, I was a junior in high school. Two friends of mine who were seniors and I made up what we called the “editorial triumvirate” of Early Wine, our high school literary magazine. (I was the first editor who wasn’t a senior; I don’t know if I was the last, but after what we put out as a magazine, possibly I was the last.) I wrote poetry—well, the “poetry” of a 16 year-old. I thought I understood and knew it all. And at the same time, I felt as though no one understood me amid waves of massive insecurity about all of the little codes and clues and hints about which I knew nothing at all. Adolescence.

One day at the record store, I came across a new Pete Seeger album, Rainbow Race and bought it. I don’t think that it is a very well known album of his, but I listened to it endlessly. It was in a stack of vinyl records that I typically played on Friday afternoons, getting ready to go out—along with David Crosby (If I Could Only Remember My Name), Incredible String Band (Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air), Pink Floyd (Meddle)—granted, an odd mix. Who remembers stacking vinyl records on the long spindle of the changer and letting them play?

This song, Words, Words, Words, suited my adolescent angst. However, more than that, it likely shaped my sense of epistemology, of how we really don’t understand words, how we get tangled up in questions of meaning, how the structures they appear to build so easily come tumbling down… While I was still 16, and at the time thought that others were the ones who didn’t understand the words, the message of this wise and humble man tell me (us) that he also didn’t understand them planted a seed:

If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

I’m not sure that we can truly understand words the way an Other understands them. Part of understanding language, for me, is to remember that we all read the words from our own context and experience. While I may try to paint a particular image or idea with words, what it “means,” rather than being 16-year old sure of itself, shifts with the lighting and the seasons, with the perspectives of each reader.

This does not mean that every perspective is as acute or as accurate as every other perspective. However, it does suggest the necessity or empathy and compassion in writing and speaking—even or especially when communicating with those with whom we disagree. We might actually find that the Other’s perspective makes sense in context and from that Other’s experience, even if we still feel there are errors produced from the perspective and context. Experience, identity, so many things shape our understanding of the world. I hope to learn to better listen for those shaping forces and to the Other, toward an empathy of hearing, reading, speaking and writing.

So, here, for your listening pleasure, Pete Seeger singing Words, Words, Words from the album Rainbow Race.

Words, words, words

In my old Bible
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
In Tom’s old Declaration
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
In my old songs and stories
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
On cracked old pages
How much of truth remains?
If my mind could understand them,
And if my life pronounced them,
Would not this world be changed?

Words and Music by Pete Seeger (1967)
© 1967 by Sanga Music Inc.

© 2015, feature, Michael Dickel, All rights reserved

Songs Around the City

Scotch taped prayers
dot plaster walls of gray bungalow
Behind doors, above beds,
petitions hang like pressed
summer flowers
Pól writes his finest love song
Sings it daily in radiated ears of his mother

Humming a song her daddy taught her
Katie pushes her toe against a cloud
“I’ll fly away, Oh Glory…I’ll fly away”
She swings higher and higher
stretching pint-sized legs
toward the top of the sky

On stretches of cosmos
Alejandro paints copper suns
from his cube of apartments
ether fragments
of warp and weft light
weave chords that ring bell

The old Colonel runs finger
‘round aqua glass, catching
final golden drop from last jar
of peaches his wife canned
Honeyed shades of her quiet songs
pulse once more like glucose
through his veins, he sings

A neighbor’s Christmas lights
scuttle across rooftop in July
Random trails slapdash shingles
like slug patterns
Still, mourning doves coo
three-note trinities
above kitschy red bulbs

We all fly away, we all fly away…

– Sharon Frye

© 2015, poem, Sharon Frye, All rights reserved

Reel to Reel

High Fidelity. He was on it like a plague.
Four tracks just coming into pocket range.

Every visitor loosened up to it eventually.
It was all on the tapes – laughter, singing –
‘Dis aubudy kaen this wan?’ then a flurry
of snippets, of songs old and new,
Campbeltown Loch, Paper Doll,
and now and again a strident voice…
‘Huv ye got the knives and forks oot yet?’
from the kitchen ben to the living room,
the occasional fssss of taking off a bottle top,
then ‘Jessie! Jessie! Come oan, hen!’
knowing she’d sing one everybody knew
and the party was on for real…

Soon enough they’d be in the swing,
there’d be calls for the favourites – each singer
prized for their own particular songs –
and here, fifty years on, a wee bit of him
singing Heart of My Heart before he’s cut across
by a voice I can’t place, a feisty woman:
Aw, Joe! Gei us the wan ye got 6 months fur!’
But who was Joe? What had he done!?
And the old man who sang next – ‘There iisss
a tavern in the town…’ – was this him?

I’m filled with names and questions: That’s Grace!
Grace the big belly-laugher – if a corner of her lip went up,
you knew, any minute, the whole place would go up with it
but is Al’n no there? Alan, who brought his drumsticks
and gave it laldie on the smokers’ stands? What was
the name of that woman who used to fling in all
the Heee-euchs! to the old Scots dancing songs?
And why, four hours, three tapes in, have I not heard
the famous cuckoo clock? Famous for having lost its ‘oo’,
that left us hanging on the quarter hour with just a rising ‘cuck’?

It’s mostly weekend radio shows, behind them
incoherent chatter, the odd faint conversation.
She: ‘They say it’ll be some weeks.’
and he: ‘It disn’t sound too good then.’
Another tape, in the reel to reel’s last days,
him and a man I don’t know, who says
‘Aw right then… C’mon… Oan ye go’
then a bairn, all of four, by the sounds of her,
singing Flouer o Scotland –
this isn’t what I’m hoping for. It’s not my mother’s
Banks and Braes, his web-footed friends… it’s not Grannie
kicking off a round of I am the music man annnd
I come from down your way, not Uncle Stan’s
Moon River, Margaret’s infamous Granada...

Did he save nothing of family? His children?
None of those New Years chock-full until
Four in the Morning and The Foggy Foggy Dew?

Dear Heart, there is something I must tell you.
They don’t say the words I wanna hear.

I want my mother singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
I want her in her white dress singing Summertime,
just as though the living had been easy,
just as though, Lord, he really did have
kisses sweeter than wine.

© 2014, Anne Stewart, all rights reserved; originally published in ARTEMISpoetry Issue 13, Nov 2014