Joint Runner-Up in The Poetry Society's Stanza Competition in 2016, judged by Ros Barber. Ros: Performance was not the only poem about John Cage's 4'33", but the very first line - 'He would staple a piano string to a cloud' - lets you know you're in for a fascinating ride. Of all the poems that listed what one might hear in silence, this was the most wide-ranging sensual experience, incorporating not only sharply realised sounds from the stage and the street outside - and even a heard 'smell' - but 'the "happy birthday" you sang over tequila shots in Bangkok which I don't remember, those final four words adding an exceptional punch. So much to unpack here, all the way to its emphatic ending. Robin: I always used to wonder if there was something very 'emperor's new clothes' about John Cage's 4"33'. But the formal framing of 'silence' in this way is fascinating - the piece is experienced differently not only each time it is performed, but for each audience member. This poem has been reworked many times over the last two years, but when the theme of 'Silence' came up it gave me the push to get it out again and try to work it up.


by Robin Houghton

John Cage, 4’33” (1952)

He would staple a piano string to a cloud
in his empire of structured air – composer
of play nothing, suspend everything – the big unsung

serenade of O unravels. What do you hear?
Fricative chip of a cough, metallic snap stage left,
wet streets ribboned by tyre treads. Breaths

in the past tense, beyond useful. The ‘happy birthday’
you sang over tequila shots in Bangkok
which I don’t remember. Strangers crossing legs,

picking teeth. An age-old threat disguised as a cake.
A brace of whispers, an ice cream van – that smell.
I can’t tell if I’m thinking out loud. There’s a drill

at my temple, unhammering the outside world
into one tiny scratch as someone pushes back
his sleeve to reveal a watch, and wishes away

the awkward sounds of living. One unspoken and
hangs in an unreachable corner of the room
safe in the dust, needing no audience.

Is this the music we came here for? A piano grows old,
cars pass and people wait. Play nothing.
Suspend everything. Empty your head. Listen.

The Poetry Society was founded in 1909 to promote “a more general recognition and appreciation of poetry”.  Since then, it has grown into one of Britain’s most dynamic arts organisations, representing British poetry both nationally and internationally.  Today it has more than 4000 members worldwide and publishes The Poetry Review.

With innovative education and commissioning programmes and a packed calendar of performances, readings and competitions, The Poetry Society champions poetry for all ages.

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