Saying the Unsayable

The other day, I had lunch with a fellow poet and we started talking about the unsaid in our writing. In general, why are we afraid to approach certain topics in our creative space? Are there topics that shouldn’t be put on paper and made into art? Why are we afraid to write about what frightens us? I mean, isn’t that what our poetry is for?

In this age of Reality TV, it’s hard to believe that there are topics that are too taboo. Once we put these thoughts on paper, they live and breathe outside of us. I’m not even talking about publishing poems, but the act of creation using our raw subject matter can be daunting.

Personally, not being able to write about certain topics is hindering my creativity. I have a lot to say but am afraid to write about it. Part of my discomfort comes from approaching painful topics such as divorce. Also, part of me is worried that I’ll write the same poem over and over again. Maybe I’m not ready for it. But when I do start to write about it, I won’t be able to stop.

I think about poets such as Sharon Olds, who seem to say—and publish—it all, yet I wonder what qualifies as the unsaid for her. Can’t imagine what it must be like to reveal such personal family details. Yet, I admire her ability to tap into memory and turn it into poetry, seemingly without any self-editing. It must be hard for Sharon, but she's able to put aside her fears and just "go there."

Are there topics so personal you choose not to write about them? If so, are you worried about going to those dark places, or are you concerned about who it might affect?


The unwritten, for me, tends to have more to do with what I am not yet ready for people to read/know than with anything dark within me that I am unwilling to face. I have always found that those darknesses just take more time to get to the point where I can enter them and write about them, and for me that is key. Giving it time. Not worrying whether I am being a coward by not writing about it now, while it's happening, while it's fresh and, for me at least, immediately relevant. Because that has always been my temptation, to make sure I get it down and get it out while it's immediate for me, forgetting that it will be just as, no, more immediate for a reader if I wait, let it sit, and write it--or at least make out of what I have written the poem I want to try to get out there--when enough time has passed and I have the perspective I need.

The other thing I have found over the years is that, where I once insisted that all the things I wanted to write about needed to be written in poetry, what is a silence in my poetry does not have to be a silence in my writing. Some things are better dealt with in prose--and for me that means essays, not fiction.
January said…
Thanks for your thoughts, Richard. For me, I think I have difficulty coming to terms with the dark parts of my personality. It keeps me from really saying what I want to say, even. But maybe giving myself time to write through difficult subject matter is what I need to do.

And I agree with you about the silence between genres. Sometimes prose is the best venue for heavier subject matter.

In general, I think all topics are fair game. I don’t think there’s any subject matter that can’t be addressed by poetry—if it’s done well and not for shock value.
I had a very interesting thing happen with a friend of mine, a colleague, whose second book of poems was full of work that, in my opinion, was full of gratuitous sex and, in particular, sexualized violence against women. I wish I could remember the poems more specifically, but a couple had to do with being a professor with very attractive women in his class, or looking at them on campus, and his fantasies about them, and there were others in which he fantasized about a woman--whom he spoke about in derogatory terms--and how he wanted to make her give him a violent blow job. There was, actually, the potential for some really interesting exploration of violence and male heterosexuality, and the connection between teaching and eroticism, but pretty much all he did--in my opinion anyway; others did feel differently--was put the images out there, without any context, without any attempt to take responsibility for what they were.

I told him what I thought about the poems and he responded by pointing out that people who heard them actually applauded his courage, and I thought: As if people don't know that men fantasize about women, that teachers fantasize about students and so on. I asked him why bother putting something so obvious in a poem; what is the point, what is the value in making a poem out of it?

I will not summarize our entire exchange, which was very frustrating, and in the end, we had to agree to disagree, but that conversation ended the small friendship we'd had. My colleague cooled towards me considerably.

This whole question of how to write responsibly and with accountability about the dark in us is so interesting to me.
Jim K. said…
In prior centuries, an alias was accepted. Nowadays people get all twitchy over it. I took out an alias early on, but it was betrayed unintentionally, in text, and the search engines immediately cross-linked it to my name. I think that's still an option, but you have to go deep under with it. Even a mail address might crosslink.

A lot of life is washed away, except for people who are somehow detached or simply don't care.
Collin Kelley said…
Issues with body size, my mother's affair and how it almost destroyed our family have been no-no's until lately. Now it's front and center. Being unafraid to write and verbalize your personal history is a tough goal, but I'm getting there.
Anonymous said…
not sure if this is related but there are things/times i crave to talk about in poetry but can't seem to because i've not found the language to do so in a way i find satisfactory. so i write and write and write individual pieces and then maybe ONE poem gets at a possible language for that thing/time in my life. frustrating! i don't know if there is something in me that doesn't allow the expression (self-censor/protector) or if the topic is too much on a felt level to be verbalized just because the artist in me wants it MAKE something worthwhile (like poetry) come out of (be transformed from) the pain... i know i was very shut down (in denial) about growing up in poverty and all the attendant implications, that some of my writings on the topic almost sound false...
Jessie Carty said…
I have to agree with a lot of what jennifer said. The things I used to think were off limits I want to write about but they never come out the way I want them to!

Someday..perhaps. Someday
January said…
Jessie and Jennifer, I agree 100 percent.

Once a professional photographer once told me that you have to take eight shots to get one photo that's halfway decent. Maybe our poetry's like that, too. We have to write on the topic over and over again to get it right. And for me, the intensity has to match the technical effort I put into it. Often, the emotion is there, but I just can't bring the moment to the level that make it poetic. Does that make sense?
January said…
Collin, I hear you. I think if we ever really got "there," then we would stop growing as artists and as human beings.
January said…
Jim, our lives will never be deleted because of the Internet. Someone is always looking for us--what a comforting and weird feeling.
January said…
Richard, the idea of writing responsibly is complex, as you know. It adds another layer to the work of a writer. Too bad the poet you speak of didn't get it, because gratuitous violence against women is so rampant—and from your description his poetry sounds two dimensional. But it is an interesting dichotomy, the role of the artist vs. the issue of accountability. Certainly a topic for a longer blog post.
Writer Bug said…
I so agree with the concept of having to write the same thing 80 times before getting it right. In fact, sometimes I'll start writing a story and forget about it. Then I'll start writing what I think of as a new story, only to flip back in my journal/in my computer files and find a much rougher version of the same thing... There are definitely a few topics I can't write about, at least in any way that is at all biographical. Mainly to protect loved ones' privacy. But also because I would need to delve very deeply in painful territory that I'm just not ready to go into yet.

Do you journal? That can be a great forum for writing about things you don't feel ready to put out there in poems yet.

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