The brown hen and the Continual Conversation with a Silent Man

Thoughtful analysis by Gary Witt of Continual Conversation with a Silent Man, the Wallace Stevens’ poem from which gets its name:

This is one of many poems by Stevens that I can return to again and again, and pull something new out of the words almost every time. The central theme here is man’s relationship to God. Our lives are, in fact, a continual conversation with a silent man, God. I suspect, without knowing for certain, that Stevens was an agnostic, or at the very least someone who constantly questioned his faith and his beliefs. It appears from his work that he was also a perpetual student of comparative religions. As a result, much of his work brings in viewpoints that are non-Christian. “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” is a good example of this.

BTW, I think this poem (“Continual Conversation”) makes a splendid introduction to “Sunday Morning.” It contains many of the same elements. On a literal level, both share images of birds and the sea. On another level, the two poems both deal with the ambiguity of the natural world—here it is “…the wind, / Of many meanings in the leaves, ” and in “Sunday Morning, ” it is the “ambiguous undulations” of a casual flock of pigeons. We live and die between the old brown hen and the old blue sky—roughly between a small (perhaps decrepit, and for all practical purposes flightless) bird, and the heavens above. We are ‘above’ the beasts, but not quite angelic. The image calls to mind the conflict between the book of Genesis and ‘On the Origin of Species.’ Oddly enough, however, it is a sentence upon which both Darwin and the author of the biblical text would likely agree. (I might add, it is written in a deceptively simple style, almost like a nursery rhyme. It seems harmless, but contains the seeds of genuine conflict.)

When we die, our lives become like a broken cartwheel on the hill: our earthly endeavors come to an immediate halt, irrespective of where “on the hill” our progress may have brought us. (The “hill” motif reminds me of two things: first Sisyphus, and second a quotation from Samuel Johnson: “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.”) It is “as if, in the presence of the sea, we dried our nets and mended sail.” We can “talk” of never-ending things. We can believe we are here on earth to prepare for a journey elsewhere, an afterlife perhaps. Stevens also allows for the possibility of a “before life” in the Hindu tradition, which has caused us to have to mend sail. The reference to drying nets also calls to mind Jesus’ promise, “I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1: 17) And then my favorite stanza here, “Of the never-ending storm of will, /One will and many wills, and the wind, /Of many meanings in the leaves…” There are the never-ending struggles of wills: an individual’s will against other people’s wills, or our will(s) against God’s, or against Nature’s (the wind) .

And Stevens here mentions the “many meanings in the leaves.” God (or Krishna or Nature or Chemistry or Physics) has created a world of great beauty, boundless possibilities, and, ultimately, supreme chaos. There is ambiguity everywhere: on the wind, and in the leaves. But somehow, all these separate meanings are reduced to one, “below the eaves.” When mankind has achieved a certain level of comfort and protection—when he has eaves, whether in the structure of a farmhouse or a church—he is able to reduce all these various meanings to one. Man’s pantheism becomes monotheism and his uncertainty becomes strident dogmatism. He begins to associate his religious beliefs to his own prosperity. His beliefs “link” the storm of wills to his farm, to his livelihood, to his “eaves.” The old brown hen becomes a turquoise (bejeweled?) hen, artificial but perhaps a great deal more valuable to him.

The old blue sky also becomes turquoise—a bit surreal, and perhaps also bejeweled (a reference to the Muslim view of heaven or paradise?) . And all these things (the many meanings of the wind in the leaves, the tempest of wills, the farm, the turquoise hen and the sky) are “linked” to death—the wheel that broke as the cart went by. Are there any wars that are truly “religious” at their core, or are they all about a tempest of wills, turquoise hens, and farms? Control, wealth or jewels, and real estate. Throughout all this, we are incapable of actually hearing the voice of God. It is not a voice that we hear “under the eaves, ” or in our protected world (maybe even in church) . We only hear “the sound of things and their motion.” For all we know, God (the other man in this conversation of ours) might be a turquoise monster (a bejeweled and graven image?) moving round. Still, we do hear something in this conversation. And for that reason, we continue to listen.

And this addition just after from Witt. Henology!

Let me add to the comment below. Henology (prefix hen, from the Greek, for ‘one’ or ‘unity’) refers to a philosophical study or discourse on ‘the One’ which appears notably in the philosophy of Plotinus, and certainly in Plato. Stevens was most emphatically familiar with both, and his use of the term ‘hen’ here must be viewed as referencing ‘the One.’ Note also that ‘the One’ is different from a sentient God. It is the First Principle, or Prime Mover. It is found in the difference between Creationism and Emanationism. Our physical world ’emanates’ from the ‘will’ of the Prime Mover.

Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival

Shakori. Even the general soddenness does not lower the spirit. You can feel so lifted there you walk on water—over the spring runnels and deep, red, sucking Chatham County clay. There was a lot of mud this year. Sections of the music festival that in years past have been meadows for camping and lying around in were shin-deep in rutted pools. Everything was mud-colored. People were mud-colored. “Hey, mud family!” one dread-locked celebrant yelled to a glistening, caveman-like four-pack who’d obviously done some kind of slip-and-slide down the hill for goofs. Stages were muddy. Cars, of course, whose models you couldn’t make out, slipped all over the place getting in, ours included. We pushed cars out of mud and got help pushing ours. Campsites were pure mud. Experienced festival-goers wore galoshes while the rest of us went barefoot or in subterranean, throwaway tennies.

Photo by Ania Welin

And yet the festival was full and vibrant. It always is. Our friends arrived early, in the classic, corrugated tick-body campers of pros. They set up pavilions and bag chairs and fire rings, made home for our group, set their kids loose. As in years past, we were in the “family camping” area next to the long road that enters the Shakori Hills festival grounds. Also as in years past, we took up with a party of friends and new, friendly strangers, with whom we parented and shared food and spent time. In principle the family camping meadow is quieter and more organized into little plots than the wooded areas up the hill, but the music plays every night until dawn and can be heard from every corner, music from the several different stages and venues merging and reaching into tents and bedrolls. At these volumes and in these circumstances, you don’t hear zydeco, bluegrass, cowpunk, or drum circle. It’s like one big Radiohead album (or maybe Band of Horses is a more appropriate analogy here), ambient but primal, all-night polyrhythms that in their persistence can be just a tiny bit frightening, but also like a lullaby. You sleep to it or just lie there and feel it wash over you. At dawn it is quiet again. Thick fog (or rain) and the sound of the odd tent zipper, birds waking, and cows lowing.

You meet people. Everybody is smiling, greeting one another. Fellow travelers, exchanging pleasantries about all the mud. There are several thousand attendees at Shakori, many of them not only listening but playing, making things, volunteering. There’s a place where you can build little rock towers. A rock labyrinth to walk through. Parades happen. You make a spirit mask or two. Kids in vintage dresses and trucker caps and bright blue hair are making out in the trees above the meadow stage. There are massage tables on rugs under little tasseled pavilions. In the DJ beer tent, there’s a handsome bearded galoot with all his belongings and liquids stuff into a Camelbak, a solo, shirtless, grinning dub-dancing marathoner. Also really classic, unreconstructed hippies–like, first generation hippies with stringy beards and rainbow mirrored sunglasses, two-finger peace signs for everyone and rope sandals (muddy).

The main thing about Shakori is that people from all different ages and walks of life are there together. It seems natural and it makes you feel how unnatural other parts of your life may be, how segmented. Days camping and talking and having coffee with hipsters and little kids, with old couples, fire-breathers, Africans and Appalachian banjo pickers and bolo ties. It’s the natural we don’t have any more.

We give lip service to the idea that music and art and diversity give us “perspective”, but you can feel real perspective in situations like this. Like I don’t have one of those ear piercings that stretches a golf ball sized hole into my earlobe, but when I see those or jaw tattoos or something like them at Shakori, I think, Well I could see how that would be nice. I can see what that young man means by that giant hole there.

Photo by Ania Welin

I want more of my life to be like Shakori. I want to be the person I am at Shakori. This happens at music festivals. You go away eager to bend your life to their rhythms. It’s kind of the idea —as in Shakespeare’s forest comedies, where the ordinary rules are suspended in generative ways. “You must change your life!” the poet said. This is what I felt. This time, my wife and I made a fetish out of campers to contain all our zeal in something concrete (and dry. Our tent was stinky and sodden within minutes of being set up): It was campers that made this communion possible! You lived simply, traveled where you wanted, home-schooled your kids in the back to keep them from being tested out of curiosity, boiled water. Put little blocks under your camper tires when you found your friends.


Most years, at least one of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more legibly. Sometimes it’s my only resolution.

By legibility I mean literally making the words in my notebook something I can return to and read. I often can’t decipher my own writing, even immediately after. Why is this? Why don’t I write more clearly the things that I presumably mean to preserve?

It’s bad. Here’s a sample. No idea what it’s about, though it’s just a few days old. Something about Django :-)


I could say the thoughts are so urgent I can’t slow down and risk losing them, but that’s not right at all. I go on for pages like this and worse, sometimes just writing lines to make the thoughts come. What good is writing if it’s unreadable?

No, I know at some deeper level I’m not valuing the writing itself enough, that the sloppiness is a way of being dismissive about what’s in there. (And yet when I go back through and can decipher things, I sometimes find such interesting stuff!)

In a way illegibility in your own writing is a lack of regard for your other selves, for the you who will read this down the road, and maybe do something with it, reshape it, reconsider it.

This lack of regard is contagious, too. Ian-the-sloppy-writer transmits his lack of care via page to Ian-the-reader, who cannot bring himself to understand what was meant, what these garbled scratchings are. Ian-the-guy-from-yesterday-who-was-in-ecstasy-about-something-that-looks-like-care-or-is-it-core? Illegible writing makes the thinking itself less real. The words are like a dream that you forget upon waking.

Legibility is a way of taking yourself seriously. Connecting your different selves and benefiting from them, maybe. Valuing thoughts. Making ideas more substantial. Like a time machine, clearly written words transport you to the place and state of mind in which they were rendered. When you read a printed novel, even the third or fourth time through, you get into the frame of mind the author must have had when he or she wrote it 1. This is in fact what literature is for, this going out of you and going into someone else, some place else, using texts like tools for small acts of self-transcendence.

I wrote this on my laptop to avoid the risk of losing it all somewhere in a Meade notebook and a Uniball, but I’m going to be making a practice of my slow, long hand this year.


  1. There’s a contrary view here, I realize: The actual longhand notebooks of Hemingway or Proust or whoever are for many readers way more time-travel-y and evocative than their published, new-paper-smell novels. I guess I’m trying to say that printed words and really legible handwriting can sort of disappear and not get in the way of what is written.