On Autumn and the Unsayable,
Hints from the Publisher on Your Anthology Submissions
In writing inspired by the autumnal (in all of its exterior and interior manifestations), there’s a world of difference between trying to capture the unsayable through mere description (or indulgence in plangent abstractions) and forging a bodily connection with what originally brought us into the moment of the poem.
The same goes for simply “describing” what we see. If poetry merely took on the role of description, we’d all be writing catalog copy. Move beyond descriptions of milkweed or falling leaves. Move beyond the notion that the “autumnal” is about foliage or plummeting temperatures. Sure, autumn can be found in things and in ideas, but those are only surface layers.
We want readers to feel something unaccountable. How might that happen? As ever, poems take root in the soil of mystery. From that beginning, the success of a poem is all about the choices we make, and the risks we take in making them. We form our world out of what we choose to see. So much the better if those choices arise out of our unconscious selves, leaving the rational, waking self behind, as we do in dreams.
Remembering that the poem’s suspended moment (“a momentary stay against confusion” – Frost) is a threshold between disorder and order can tell us a lot about poetry and about ourselves. The dictionary definition of threshold is “the sill of a doorway,” “the entrance to a house our building” and, in psychology and physiology, “the point where a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to produce an effect.” That effect embodies a sudden awareness of the disorder—that moment when we and our poem feel destabilized—and the imagination’s response to it.
It can be helpful to go directly to the most physical manifestations. Imagine the doorsill as both entrance and exit to a house. A threshold, then, a place of transition. That liminal location where a person—or a poet—might pause to give form to the inner. According to Marie Howe, poetry is “a cup of language to hold what can’t be said . . . Every poem holds the unspeakable inside it. The unsayable.” What can’t be said. That’s what we are compelled to write, and how we are compelled to write it.
In other words, the work of the poem is to help us come to know something beyond what we already know. Not to teach the reader, but to discover something for ourselves as poets. “Language is a skin. I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words.” (Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse).
Let your language be your skin. Let your language rub up against any part or parts of the autumnal world that calls to you, whether from the outside in, or the inside out.
In other words, your autumn poems need not be about, or even mention fallen leaves or milkweed or even “autumn.” Autumn is the inspiration, but not necessarily the destination.