Poet Sam Rasnake posted Francis Bacon’s painting Head VI on his blog the other day, and accompanied the painting with a quote from Bacon: “If you can talk about it, why paint it?”
Great question. In some ways, I think it's a perfect question for poetry, as well—though an odd one, given that poetry trades in words; to transfer Bacon’s thought to our medium would be to say, If you can speak of it, why write it? Which seems only a small step from saying, If you can speak of it, why speak of it? and from there, one might descend down a long slippery slope of verbal insanity, at the bottom of which one would find Yogi Berra, explaining how he’d give his right arm to be ambidextrous.
For all the wackery in that line, though, to say that poems are unspeakable speeches seems very close to the truth—and not “the unspeakable” meaning solely "awesome" or "horrifying" (as many of Bacon's paintings are), but the things that simply cannot be conveyed in conversation or in narrative prose; what can be expressed that way is not poetry. And in fact, I find that the more I struggle to “say something” in a poem, the less happy I am with the outcome. When I try to say something, it often results in a highly crafted, overthought piece that doesn’t succeed at all in creating the feeling I get when I read a really stunning poem—namely, of having been momentarily removed from my body by a strange confluence of image, sonics, feeling, and idea.
Like so many poems, Bacon’s unsettling canvases are describable when it comes to method—you could talk about the thickness of the white and the purple here, the vertical dry brushiness of the black obliterating the figure’s eyes—but as with a poem, the painting’s final impact cannot be described or summed up the way an article or even a novel might. Many times that’s because poetry, or at least the initial impulse toward poetry, comes from somewhere else, a place even the supposed creator of the poem usually can’t explain. At least I can’t. Writing-wise, there’s little I dread more than having someone ask where I got the idea for a poem. (I’ve noticed other poets never ask this question.)
Jane Hirshfield’s “The Envoy,” from her book Given Sugar, Given Salt, captures this unconscious aspect of writing better than any other work I know; in fact, Hirshfield’s study of Buddhism seems to have led her to become an astute and precise observer of her own mind at work throughout much of her poetry.
What I want when I write a poem is to be able to access the “belled herds.” But they do not come when I call, I cannot look directly at them, and they often dissolve when I try to speak them into being, leaving in my mind a pungent bovine smell that will not turn up on the page. When it does turn up, I feel justified in cracking a beer and calling it a night. But most of the time my brews are unearned, opened because the magic isn’t happening rather than to celebrate its visit.
One day in that room, a small rat.
Two days later, a snake.
Who, seeing me enter,
whipped the long stripe of his
body under the bed,
then curled like a docile house-pet.
I don’t know how either came or left.
Later, the flashlight found nothing.
For a year I watched
as something—terror? happiness? grief?—
entered and then left my body.
Not knowing how it came in,
Not knowing how it went out.
It hung where words could not reach it.
It slept where light could not go.
Its scent was neither snake nor rat,
neither sensualist nor ascetic.
There are openings in our lives
of which we know nothing.
the belled herds travel at will,
long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.