When I was in college, a lot my friends were trying what could be called controlled substances. After they returned from various journeys of the imagination (sometimes jetlagged) their reactions were often, “Wow! Indescribable. Words can’t express what I experienced.”
I was always a little dubious when people reacted in that way to an ecstatic or psychedelic experience. Part of the reason I was skeptical is that I was then reading a lot of poetry by the French surrealists, who were particularly good at spinning out hallucinatory imagery. Here’s an example from the long love poem by André Breton, “The Air of the Water”:
But the earth was filled with reflections deeper than those in water
As if metal had finally shaken off its shell
And you lying on the frightening ocean of precious gems
In a huge sun of fireworks
I saw you slowly evolving from the radiolarians
(translated by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow)
That’s about as trippy as it gets. If you’ve had any visions more detailed or more dynamic than those, I want to know what you were on. Breton’s imagery is not only visionary, it is also sensual in a way that breaks the rules that forbid certain topics.
It’s not just in the realm of surreal imagery that poetry ventures into the unsayable. Poetry also conveys ideas, emotions, and situations that are often considered taboo or verboten. In fact, poetry seems uniquely well-suited to expressing the inexpressible.
I’m thinking of a book such as Linda McCarriston’s Eva-Mary, where she shines the light of poetry on one some of the most difficult subjects to speak about publicly, physical and sexual abuse within a family, in this case, during her own childhood. Amazingly, McCarriston does this without any loss of the texture of language that we hope to find in poetry. Issuing a summons to the judge who refused her mother’s plea to separate from her violent husband, McCarriston writes:
…When you clamped
to her leg the chain of justice,
you ferried us back down to the law,
the black ice eye, the maw, the mako
that circles the kitchen table nightly.
("To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons)
These few lines are so filled with the imagery, diction, and music of poetry, that they are almost a textbook of how a writer can shape language to express an idea powerfully in words. McCarriston also speaks about another taboo subject in her poems: class.
So, next time you think that visions, ideas, or experiences are beyond words, check out the poetry shelf of your local library. I think you’ll find that poets have come close to expressing those inexpressible truths. I hope those poems will empower you to speak your own unspeakable truths.
Other recent posts about writing topics:
Why Write Poetry? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer