I’m not sure how it happened, but The Great Silence by Ted Chiang became our Thursday morning poetry group’s story of last year. First one person read it, then another, and finally I read it too. And I immediately thought of Poetic Earth Month.
Like Poetic Earth Month, “The Great Silence” invites. Both these creative endeavors sometimes amuse and sometimes nudge, but neither tells you what to do. Instead they invite you to see the earth differently.
Poetic Earth Month was created by L.L. Barkat “to provide a month-long poetic focus for earth care.” It’s expanded to year-round inspiration, with art, story, poetry, simple ideas, and in 2020, vegetarian menus. So far the site has not yet advocated “Talk to parrots,” but perhaps that is because few of those birds live in New York as opposed to the many who live in the rainforests of Puerto Rico, where Chiang’s story takes place.
The Great Silence is narrated by a parrot who lives in the Río Abajo forest, where the telescope at the Arecibo Observatory has been searching for extraterrestrial intelligence since 1973.
The title of the story comes from something the parrot, who narrates the story, says:
The Fermi paradox is sometimes known as the Great Silence. The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it’s disconcertingly quiet.”
The parrot knows some humans think the universe is quiet because there is nothing there, but it offers a different explanation: keeping quiet is one way to avoid extinction. And yet it affirms that the universe is never silent. The telescope has already heard something:
When the Arecibo telescope is pointed at the space between stars it hears a faint hum.”
Like a parrot, a short story is an odd bird. Like a poem, it communicates a lot with few words. Tom Hanks has said if a novel is a deck of cards, a short story is one hand. “The Great Silence” might then be described as one pair: a parrot and humanity. In this very short story, the parrot has four questions for humanity. He goes on to explain how parrots communicate, how human communication works, and how the two species might learn from each other.
We parrots used to think humans weren’t very bright. It’s hard to make sense of behavior that’s so different from your own.”
This year Tweetspeak Poetry is considering wisdom, especially in William Stafford’s poem A Ritual to Read to Each Other. If the parrot were to borrow the poet’s words, he might say something like this to humanity:
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
The sounds we make with our mouths — whether we are the story’s “Pythagorean mystics” or “Pentecostal Christians” or “Brahmin Hindus” or parrots sharing myths — should be clear. Recent weeks have revealed the depths of the darkness around us. The fate of the earth may depend on our ability to communicate, not only with people but also with the creatures who share this space.
We can start by listening to the parrot’s message, one it says twice in this very short story, just to be sure we don’t miss it:
You be good. I love you.”
This month is National Poetry Month, and Tweetspeak Poetry is celebrating in a variety of ways. You can learn William Blake’s The Tyger with us, By Heart. You can download our free cut ‘n’ color poets and learn 10 fun ways to teach them. (At home too!) And you can head over to Poetic Earth Month and interrogate your own eating habits. Become a Patron and receive a daily email prompt for Poetry on the Menu: A 30-Day Writing Challenge.
Poetry for Young People: Carl Sandburg, ed. Frances Schoonmaker Bollin, illus. Steven Arcella (illustrations are poems themselves)
A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, Nancy Willard, illus. Alice and Marten Provensen (more about this one in April’s By Heart, as we learn “The Tyger”)
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
The Great Silence, Ted Chiang
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, Garrett M. Graff
Early Readers and Picture Books
How to Read a Book, by Kwame Alexander, illus. Melissa Sweet (This is a poem turned into a picture book)
Fear the Bunny, by Richard T. Morris, illus. Priscilla Burris (Join us for Children’s Book Club, April 10!)
The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Matel (It seemed like a good time for a 700-page book, ending a trilogy, about another time the world changed.)
1. Too often I forget about short stories when I am choosing what to read. What collections or authors can you recommend?
2. Have you read any books that stimulated your desire to care for the earth?
3. Share your March pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
Browse more from A Ritual to Read to Each Other
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro