Ha Jin, “Because I Will Be Silenced”

Express yourself in a manner so quiet that anything you say seems understated. With that tone established, make a radical claim, that your few words try to do nothing less than “break the walls that cut off people’s voices:”

Because I Will Be Silenced (from Poetry)
Ha Jin

Once I have the freedom to say
my tongue will lose its power.
Since my poems strive to break the walls
that cut off people’s voices,
they become drills and hammers.
 
But I will be silenced.
The starred tie around my neck
at any moment can tighten into a cobra.
 
How can I speak about coffee and flowers?

I’m curious as to how the stark, plain language creates a sense of understatement, and further, what that could mean. I want to express myself in the manner of this poem. I wish I could quietly say profound things, declare my powers and limits, then illustrate the difficulties which underlie any profundity.

If I could, I would be a better democratic citizen. The plainness of the poem starts with a sincere belief in equality, that sacrificing to stand as one is true freedom. Once I have the freedom to say / my tongue will lose its power. The poet contends his words empower others at the expense of the power of the words. Once your attack on censorship, your timeless defense of the right to speak, has become the rule, it falls into disrepair and disuse. This poet does not think of himself as conferring immortality through his craft, but instead sees his words as disposable.

At best, his words are tools, drills and hammers others employ to break the walls that divide them. Since my poems strive to break the walls / that cut off people’s voices, / they become drills and hammers. He doesn’t see himself as any kind of hero, but someone striving, striving to give others things they themselves will use. The plainness of the poem hides, again, a teaching which might stun one trained in classical literature: the rhetoric to defend freedom is no rhetoric at all. All that matters is that the poet tries, that others’ voices are cut off by walls, and drills and hammers are available. He can justify his treatment of the grandest themes by making humble claims.

It is precisely the humility of the claims which causes them to be silenced. Plenty have waxed eloquent about things which caused the displeasure of people with power. Family members with no boundaries, despotic states, and majorities who have willed themselves tyrannical see the threat as mere openness. Tyrants in families shelter their families, despots arrest crowds and journalists, and majorities make the reasonable illegitimate, elevating the absurd. But I will be silenced: the worst part is that you will utter words, and they may be forced into meaninglessness. The starred tie around my neck / at any moment can tighten into a cobra: in the very sense you speak for many, speak for a diversity, you are at risk of poisoning yourself. Your speech is not your own.

All of this leads to a complicated conclusion. How can I speak about coffee and flowers? Free people should be able to speak about whatever they want. People who love freedom, even if they don’t have it, need to be able to celebrate life’s graces. Yet only speaking of “coffee and flowers,” celebrating the world too much, allows no less than totalitarian societies to justify themselves. They can say that happiness and security are far more valuable goods than freedom, as everyone can attest to the value of happiness and security. How can I speak about coffee and flowers? One has to keep saying “freedom,” over and over, reaffirming one’s commitment and sincerity. Otherwise, it is possible that one will not become many, or an I becomes a We.

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