The Unsaid

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Recently I have been scrolling through the “Words of Wisdom” at the bottom of the Shenandoah website (an activity I recommend with enthusiasm), and I came across a couple ideas that sparked my interest. The first is a quote from Logan Pearsall Smith: “What I like in a good author is not what he says but what he whispers.” The other excerpt, which I find to be more profound, comes from Louise Gluck’s essay on poetry entitled “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence.” Gluck writes “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: I often wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary.”

Both these writers assert that perhaps a hidden theme or a vague notion can be the most unsettling part of the written word. This theory immediatly draws my memory to Percy Shelley’s poem, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” which starts out, “The awful shadow of some unseen Power/Floats though unseen amongst us.” This unidentifiable power, Shelley insists, is, “Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.” In this first stanza, Shelley demonstrates that poetry about a vague subject can still evoke vast concepts (and chills) in the reader.

Does a poets lack of exactititude add to a poems effect? Is there not something to be said of beautifully descriptive poetry? I will save you the lengthy essay that could ensue and instead leave you with the unsaid.

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4 Responses to The Unsaid

  1. Jack B. says:

    I certainly agree with you that the unsaid is often the most prevalent theme of well-executed literature. That fact mirrors the essential problematic nature of communication: artful language is designed in order to express that which cannot be put into words. The strongest lessons and impressions made by a poem or story are those that cannot be put adequately into words. Instead, the language circumvents them, delineates their nature, without explicitly stating the unspeakable. However, I think it is an error of judgement to say that this delicate process implies a ‘lack of exactitude’. I would call it a task steeped in exactitude. Navigating around the unspeakable concept a poet wishes to convey requires incredible creative skill. The greatest poems are indeed ‘beautifully descriptive’, but their descriptions are, in the most powerful cases, shadows of that which remains unsaid.

    • rod smith says:

      Going back to Morey’s question, I’d like to argue that the most precise words are often the most mysterious. Teachers like to distinguish between the vague and the ambiguous, roots being important. If the numinous is also the luminous, we go into the dark to find the light. Travel safely.

  2. bellomyc12 says:

    It seems to me that poetry is the genre of ambiguity and imprecision. The very nature of writing a piece with fewer words and lines that don’t reach all the way to the margin seems to encourage the poet to leave things out. I think this has created the misconception that the point of poetry is mystery, and amateurish poems often seem to force ambiguity upon the reader, when what is more interesting, at least in my opinion, is when percision invites mystery. Poets have to economical and efficient with their words, they are allowed less of them after all, and this hopefully leads to percision, which I think Professor Smith is correct in saying can be the most mysterious of all.

  3. Rod, I recall someone telling me years ago that a poem is really not about what it seem to be “about.” The real meaning of it lies behind or beneath the surface. My first teacher of poetry at Wesleyan described his ideal poem as being clear on the surface but underneath hiding its mysteries, which I took to mean its emotional complications, its unansweredness, its everything else that the emotional weight of the images pulled the reader, and the poet, down into. I like the emotional weight of the image—a quote from a Chinese-American poet whose name I can’t pull up now. It pulls you down even as it seems to be so clear and of itself.

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