For a period in the sixties and seventies, Mary Caroline Richards was a counterculture heroine. A celebrated potter, her book Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person held an honorific place on many bookshelves as a sort of contemporary secular Dao de Jing.
“Poem” seems like it had to have been written by a potter. The utility of an earthenware or clay pot—Lao Tzu famously wrote—depends on the emptiness. “Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein… and you will have the use of the vessel.” When most people speak of poetry, it is to describe images, thoughts, sounds, feelings. But poetry is something more than that. Using Lao Tzu’s terms, poetry is a precise way “to adapt the nothing” in speech—the emptiness, silence, or unspoken wider context that poetry is particularly adept at pointing toward. All the rest of the poetic “material”—the click of consonants, the open sounds of vowels, the rhythm, repetitions—may be rough or refined, wobbly and thick or paper-thin, heavily glazed or coarsely baked. Does the nothing that poetry holds make a poem “useful?” John Cage, the composer, philosopher, poet, and Richards’ friend, described this nothingness in poetry and music as silence.
Some may think this poem is merely a trick. But there have been many traditions, both poetic and spiritual, that have attempted to find the full power of language by stripping speech back to a skeletal structure. Think of prayer or mantra. “Poem” makes the silence between two nouns tactile. Just what is this distance between hands and birds? Here is what Richards said of her poem: “Two nouns, two sounds, with a long-silence between. A long time of silence, which on the page, is a long space of emptiness.”