Sheila Wild: Poetry and the Art of Unsaying

In this illuminating essay in The High Window, Sheila Wild discusses the unsaid in poetry.

The High Window

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…

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3 thoughts on “Sheila Wild: Poetry and the Art of Unsaying

  1. A profound and beautiful essay. But, to younger poets reading this, a word or two of caution:

    A few years ago, a friend of mine, the singer/songwriter Kat Eggleston, was visiting. She asked my son, a guitarist, what he was working on. His answer (He was 16): “I’m working on the silences between notes. Those are important, too.” My friend was quite impressed, as she should have been.

    Silences are really important in poetry. One strives for minimalism—for saying just enough to render, deftly, in a few strokes, a world into which a reader can enter and have an experience that will then be significant in a particular way. This works because the mind is a narrative-spinning machine that fills in gaps, automatically, when we perceive, when we dream, when we call up memories, and when it does this, the person feels as though he or she owns it, and it reverberates like a bell, and that’s what’s supposed to happen when a person reads a poem.

    So, economy is important. However, and here’s a BIG caveat: It’s also really important that enough be said. T.S. Eliot, master that he was, did generations of poets in English a disservice by being himself a master of ellipsis. I say “a disservice” because copy cats of Eliot became copy cat killers of poetry by following his lead too far. Longfellow and Wordsworth and Byron and Tennyson were among the best-selling authors of their times. A young woman once wrote to Wordsworth asking why he didn’t try his hand one on of the new German romance novels that were all the rage. His answer: Poetry has a much bigger audience.

    Fast forward to today. Poets are now published, if they are published at all, in editions of 500 copies, mostly bought by their friends and their mothers and, in some cases, by libraries. When Randall Jarrell accepted the National Book Award for poetry, he carefully folded the check and put it into his shirt pocket and said, “If I wrote prose, mostly, I wouldn’t have to be so careful about this.”

    A lot of what happened, there, is that poetry became so elliptical that most people don’t want to have anything to do with it. And they sat through endless English classes in which teachers approached poems as meaning hunts, asking, “What does the poet mean by this?” as though poets were these perverse people who hid their meanings and seemed to have little interest in, say, communicating.

    The same thing happened with jazz. It used to be THE most popular musical medium in the US and in Europe. Then along came Byrd and Trane, and they were amazing. But Hard Bop went over the heads of most in the audience, who simply couldn’t follow them there. This also happened with serious classical music. Along came Schoenberg and Weber and atonality and other avant-garde movements, and audiences were left behind. The people who filled the concert halls to hear Hayden and Mozart and Beethoven and Liszt vanished. Poof!

    The silences are important, the reverberations between the words in a poem. In these spaces, the world of the poem is created by those automatic mechanisms in the brain. But this has to be doable by a reasonably attentive reader, and it takes a lot of skill to figure out how where just enough becomes too little. Add to this issue obscure allusion, and you’ve got a bigger issue. Eliot at least provided footnotes to The Waste Land, even if he did so as a matter of lucky accident because the American publisher needed more to fill out the volume.

    Too many poets, since Eliot, have given us muddy water that, they believe, looks deep, to rephrase, a bit, Neitzsche’s justly famous formulation.

    Liked by 2 people

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