The art of saying what cannot be said

Koshiro Onchi Poem no 6 1948 woodblock

Koshiro Onchi, Poem No. 6, woodblock print (1948)

I’m currently reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and it has got me thinking about the ability of poetry to ‘describe the indescribable’, as Alan Watts puts it in his lecture ‘Buddhism as Dialogue’. ‘Poetry is the great language,’ he says. ‘It is the art of saying what cannot be said.’

Sometimes a particular choice or juxtaposition of words can have the effect of interrupting our habitual way of thinking, enabling us to see the world in a new way. Contemporary artist Junko Chodos writes in her essay ‘Spiritual refugee’ that in Japan the goal of the poem or haiku is not to explain in language; rather, it ‘allows only short, ultimate symbolic expression’. She uses the poem Nobel Prize–winner Yasunari Kawabata delivered in his 1968 acceptance speech to illustrate:

In the spring, cherry blossoms

In the summer the cuckoo

In autumn the moon, and in

Winter the snow, clear, cold

‘The poem is an expression which is final,’ she writes, ‘it will not develop any further, it will not expect any response to follow it, it will allow only silence to follow.’

Who will shatter the illusions? Junko Chodos, collage of computer prints on mylar with acrylic (2003)

On an episode of Dan Harris’s podcast 10% Happier, meditation teacher Shinzen Young talks about the difficulty of using language to describe Buddhist or metaphysical concepts such as non-duality. Ideas like these may be easy enough to grasp on an intellectual level, but this is not the same as understanding them experientially. Religions, science and art use different explanations and methods to try to uncover the wisdom that is beyond words. The goal is to jolt us out of our programmed way of seeing things. Alan Watts says of Zen Buddhism:

The real concern of Zen is to realize not merely rationally but in one’s bones – that the world inside your skin and the world outside your skin are all one world and one being, one self. And you are it. … There is not life on the one hand and you on the other. You and life are the same. But you cannot tell people that and just by telling it get them to see it … If somebody says, “You are not really separate from life; your feeling of separateness is an illusion,” that is all very nice – in theory – but we do not feel it.

In Japan, where humans are regarded as an inseparable part of nature, ‘only one element in the cycle of life and death’ (Ian Buruma, A Japanese Mirror), natural metaphors and images are frequently woven in to poems and stories. For centuries writers around the world, from Keats to Thoreau, have looked to nature in their search for meaning. Perhaps the most well-known contemporary nature poet is Mary Oliver, whose poem ‘Wild Geese’ expresses on a deeper level the ideas Alan Watts describes:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

House in Tamugimata, Ray Morimura, woodblock print  (1999)

There is a limit to what language can express, and it can sometimes create separation, too, dividing the object being labelled into the name and the thing itself (the Tao that could be named is not the Tao). But if words have to be used, I think poetry, with its ability to awaken the senses, comes closest to expressing the truth.


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