Sheila Wild: Poetry and the Art of Unsaying

Many years ago, at a time when I was beginning to take seriously both the writing of poetry and my Buddhist practice, I sat in the prayer hall of a Buddhist monastery and listened to the monks chant the evening puja, or service. It was the end of a busy festival day and most of the visitors had gone home, leaving me as the sole lay person present. I felt privileged to be there.

A white peacock appeared at a window and peered in, curious to see what was going on, and I began to shape this unusual incident into the beginnings of a poem. The words inside my head merged into the sound of chanting, and, after the initial resistance to an aural tradition alien to my own, my mind became trained to the alternation of voices and brass standing bells, the patterning of sound and silence. The subtle harmonics of the singing bowls had a quality that was of itself akin to silence, and suddenly I knew, with absolute clarity, that for me the silence between lines, the white space on the page, had to have equal weight with the words. What was left unsaid had to be as full of meaning as what was said.

The American poet Stanley Kunitz in The Wild Braid, his beautiful book about creating poetry and tending gardens, says:

‘And you need the silence. So much of the power of a poem is in what it doesn’t say as much as in what it does say. As when a flower is preparing to bloom, or after it has bloomed, when it is suspending its strengths and its potency, and is at rest – or seems to be . . .’

and goes on to say

‘What bothers me about so much contemporary poetry is that . . . it is all exposition, all revelation. I find that to be a diminishing factor’

The Wild Braid is an insightful book. It has more to say about the writing of poetry than many of the books found on the lists of recommended reading attached to poetry and creative writing courses, because it speaks to the heart.

But, like some parts of a garden, the unsaid is difficult to work with, and all those years ago I didn’t know how to do it. ‘Show, not tell’ is what we are taught on poetry courses, but the art of unsaying is greater than the craft of showing. I didn’t know where to turn. I knew I had,  temporarily at least, to abandon Hopkins, David Jones, even the precise observations of Ted Hughes, but I had no idea of what to put in its place – and I did need to put something in its place, for unless I read poetry, I cannot write it.

Poetry has its own ways of teaching. A boyfriend who had previously lived in the Far East gave me a translation of some poems by Ryokan. Ryokan was a Zen Buddhist monk born in Japan in around 1758. He spent much of his long life living alone in a mountain hermitage writing unusual, and, what on the face of it appears to be, highly personal, poetry. The following poem is typical of Ryokan, but also exemplifies the issues that arise out of leaving things unsaid:

Blue sky, cold wild-geese crying;
Empty hills, tree leaves whirling.
Sunset, road through a hazy village:
Going home alone, carrying an empty bowl.

(Ryokan)

Poems as spare as this are kaleidoscopic. Shake the cardboard tube one way, and you will see red and yellow rectangles; shake it another way, and blue-green flowers will appear. Sometimes the hills are empty because the foresters have gone home for the night, at other times they’re empty because a storm is blowing up. Such ambiguity goes to the heart of poetry.

The simplicity of the man, as well as his poetry, attracted me, and for several years I carried one or other of the translations of Ryokan’s work in my overnight bag. I read other works by Japanese and Chinese poets. I envied those who could read them in their original language. I became obsessed by haiku:

the beggar remains
sitting in evening rain –
few coins in his box

(Kobayashi Issa)

in the middle of a field
with nothing to cling to
a skylark sings

(Basho)

Like Kunitz, Basho, the most famous Japanese writer of all time, understood the importance of the poet stepping aside. To do so takes courage, modesty, confidence, and years of practice.

I lacked those years of practice.

I imitated and failed; I tried again; imitated and failed again. My choice of poetry broadened out to include contemporary American poets – many of whom were strongly influenced by Japanese and Chinese writers. I discovered the Norwegian, Olav Hauge, and rediscovered Jaques Prevert, whom I had read at school.  I found I was choosing books by the amount of white space on the page. The fewer the words, the more likely I was to take the book home with me. Only a handful of British poets passed the test: Michael Longley and Pauline Stainer, sometimes; Gillian Allnut, always.

Still, perhaps, following Buddhist teachings, I was looking for poems that expressed, in the fewest possible words, the essence of things, and in the process of reading such poems, I learnt a lot about the complexity of simplicity, for, as poet and translator Robin Fulton writes of Hauge:

‘  . . . something very unsimple may be going on behind the apparent simplicity.’

I see you’ve learnt
I like
you
to use
few words,
few words and
short sentences
that drift
like a rain shower
down the page . . .
I see you’ve learnt
to stack
a wood-pile in the forest . . .

(Olav Hauge)

Fulton argues that such poems are not as easy to write as their manner might suggest. It is not a case of letting words drift down a page. I think that the strength of poems forged in the realm of the unsaid lies in their privacy, in the sharing of understanding between poet and reader, in an undertow of emotion for which no explanation is given. If the poet has no hinterland, her words are just so much confetti showering down onto a wet path.  The poetry of the unsaid is authentic: it cannot be otherwise – but it is often brief. Sometimes it may even be hard for the poet to conceive of his poems as poems. Hauge saw his own poems as no more than the stubs and fragments of a life more amply recorded in letters and diaries.

Emily Dickinson was perhaps the most obsessively private – and succinct – poet of the unsaid, the ‘Queen Recluse’, whose poems were written on random scraps of paper, often at 3 am. Dickinson, more than most, understood that part of a poem’s meaning lies in its recipient, which may be why I was a long time coming to her. Some people never do. I gave a skilfully illustrated volume of Dickinson’s work to an American friend, only to retrieve it some months later from a local charity shop.

If what we could were what we would,
Criterion be small:
It is the ultimate of talk
The impotence to tell

(Emily Dickinson)

I still struggle with Dickinson. I don’t share her hinterland of small-town family discord. I lack her wish to work up the dramas in my life; I mistrust poetic eruptions. I am not the reader for whom she wrote.

In the poetry of the unsaid, the role of the reader is at least equal to that of the writer. I don’t think of Mary Oliver as a poet of the unsaid – her descriptions are too finely detailed, her own presence in her poems a constant – but her take on writing a poem is highly pertinent.

‘The point is not what the poet would make of the moment, but what the reader would make of it.’

Oliver also says that a poem should ask something, and that she wants the question to remain unanswered. I’d go further than that. I’d argue that the question itself may be best left unsaid. In the poem by Ryokan quoted above the question that is hidden is ‘why is his begging bowl empty?’ To answer it would necessitate a lecture, not on the unsaid in poetry, but on the entirety of Zen Buddhist teachings.  Ryokan knows that, and knows too that answering the question is for the reader, not the poet, to do.

In English poetry, the unsaid is a rarity. English poets tend towards prolixity – and very good some of it is; think Milton, Dryden, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth. And yet, Wordsworth too could work with the unsaid.  The sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’, contains within its 14 brief lines not only William and Dorothy’s amazement at the City of London, but the whole of the young man’s emotional life: his enforced separation from Annette Vallon and their daughter Caroline; his impending marriage to Mary Hutchinson:

COMPOSED UPON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, SEPTEMBER 3, 1802

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

(William Wordsworth)

The sonnet form lends itself well to the unsaid, even to concealment.  Thomas Wyatt’s ‘Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind’, based on an Italian sonnet by Petrarch, is often presumed to be about Wyatt’s relationship with Anne Boleyn, mistress, and later, wife, of Henry VIII.  It is a love poem; a poem of loss and hurt, but not expository, not revelatory. To be explicit, would, in this instance, have been to court danger – and indeed, Wyatt was imprisoned for alleged adultery with Anne; he was the only one of the six men so accused to escape being beheaded.

WHOSO LIST TO HUNT, I KNOW WHERE IS AN HIND

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

(Sir Thomas Wyatt)

The subject matter of the unsaid does not have to be slight; it does not have to be personal. Just as Ryokan succinctly references the complex philosophical issues of greed and forbearance in one line of a five line tanka, so the English divine, George Herbert, deals in three short verses with the theological conundrum of the Trinity.

‘Trinity Sunday’ has been described by Herbert’s biographer, John Drury, as:

‘a perfectly crafted miniature. The ponderous theological complexities of three divine ‘persons’ unified in monotheism are not for him.’

In Drury’s analysis, Herbert posits the Father as maker, the Son as redeemer, and the Spirit as moral supplier.

TRINITY SUNDAY

Lord, who hast made me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score’
And I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee.

(George Herbert)

In such compact allusions as these, two poets from two very different cultures offer their readers not only a poem, but a teaching. Such simplicity also ensures longevity; these words were written centuries ago, but I still turn to them.

Amongst contemporary English poets, the art of the unsaid is a rarity. An exception is Gillian Allnut. Allnut’s most recent book Indwelling is a collection almost entirely of the unsaid, of the private – many poems are about the loss of the poet’s mother and grandmother – but she also writes about public culture:

SIBELIUS

The forests discern him.
The forests of idle turbulent rain,
Whose horses bridled, barely,
Whose chariots burn.

The rarity of the unsaid tells us something about the state of poetry in Britain today, for the poetry of the unsaid does not in general, play well at poetry readings: it is too short, too oblique, it asks too much of the audience. It isn’t easily marketable; it is private, but not confessional, universal but not populist. It lends itself better to being read on the page. And yet.  And yet. In this age of diminished attention spans, tweets and sound-bites, maybe we could find a place for more of it.  Maybe we should find a place for more of it.

So, during this long and very pleasurable journey through the poetry of the unsaid, what have I learnt about the art of unsaying? I have learnt how difficult it is, and yet how well it suits me. Like Hauge, I sometimes wonder if my poems are poems: do two lines count as a poem? Michael Longley asked himself the same question, and in response, wrote Terezin.

TEREZIN

No room has ever been as silent as the room
Where hundreds of violins are hung in unison.

(Michael Longley)

I have learnt that the poet must trust simplicity, eschew sentimentality, and be deeply engaged with the subject matter. I have learnt that the unsaid must enter into a pact with the said, and that in the poetry of silence, the poet must enter into a pact with the reader: the poet must respect the reader’s capacity to receive what the poem offers. There is no telling the reader what to think or feel – and yet how strong is the emotional charge in all the poems included here.

The reader must be attentive, not only to the immediacy of the subject matter, but to its hinterland, whatever that might be. The reader must be comfortable with ambiguity, and prepared to play her part in the poetic process.  Success in this endeavour is not measurable in terms of books sold or prizes won, but by how often the reader returns to the poem. It is the ambiguity, the uncertainty of the unsaid that brings the reader back, for each reading yields a new insight, a new shiver on the nape of the neck. And for me, that shiver is what poetry is all about.

*****

References:

Indwelling, Gillian Allnut, Bloodaxe Books, 2013
Basho, The Complete Haiku, Kodansha International, 2008
Lives Like Loaded Guns, Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, Lyndall Gordon, Virago, 2010
The Single Hound, Emily Dickinson, Hesperus Press Ltd, 2005
Leaf-huts and snow-houses, Olav H. Hauge, translated by Robin Fulton, Anvil Press Poetry, 2003
Music at Midnight, The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, John Drury, Penguin, 2014
The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku, Kobayashi Issa, translated by Sam Hamill, Shambala Publications, 1997
The Wild Braid: a poet reflects on a century in the garden, Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine, Norton, 2007
Gorse Fires, Michael Longley, Secker and Warburg, 1997
Wild Geese, Mary Oliver, Bloodaxe World Poets, 2004
Ryokan, Zen Monk-Poet of Japan, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 1977
Delphi Complete Works of Thomas Wyatt, Delphi, 2014

*****

Sheila Wild is by profession a policy analyst specialising in gender equality and a writer of grey literature, She is also an award winning poet whose first collection Equinox was published by Cinnamon Press in 2016.  Her poetry is mature, balanced and humane, and her observation precise and compassionate.

*’Poetry and the Art of Unsaying’ is one of the 21 lectures in Kava Poetry Lectures, commissioned and edited by Anthony Costello, and due to be published by Poetry Salzburg in 2018

 

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