I know. It’s simple – the first means ‘you can’t know it’ and the second ‘you can’t name it’. But there’s so much more to it than that. It’s to do with a poem I’ve been working on – it was actually the first poem I managed to write this year. It’s somewhat influenced by an incredibly beautiful and eerie poem by Robert Frost:
The Most of It
He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.
– Robert Frost
Gorgeous, isn’t it? It’s a side of Frost that most people don’t realise is there – I think of it as his wild side, his mystical side. ‘The Road Not Taken’ has a hint of it, and so does ‘Acquainted With The Night’. It’s where Mary Oliver takes off from, I think. And it’s a dangerous place, especially in this (cynical) modern world. It’s so easy to tip over into a kind of gnomic pretension. Earning it, is hard.
Which brings me back to my word dilema. I’ll give you the relevant two lines, so you get some sense of context:
and something unknowable
wades out onto the furthest shore.
Part of the problem is that I don’t think of ‘unknowable’ as menacing, but it seems other people do. I’m sure you could
psychoanalyse that fact and derive some sort of insight into the differences between people’s upbringings. But from my considerably simpler point of view, it’s mainly a bugger.
Unknowable, to me, is just simply that – something beyond understanding. Something fundamentally other. Sacred things are unknowable. The vastness of the universe is also unknowable (virtually by definition), but it doesn’t make me feel afraid. To my thinking, ‘fear of the unknown’ is actually a misnomer – you don’t really fear the things you don’t know. You fear they may contain things that are dangerous (which is something you know) or malicious (ditto) or which will harm you (yadda). That will overwhelm you (a feeling you remember from childhood at least, and a state you strive to avoid) or overpower you (ditto yet again). What you fear is the potential peril, and the fact that it’s a sort of existential fog. Which in turn means you can’t see clearly enough into whatever it is to be able to set up appropriate defenses. But the scary part of ‘potential peril’ is the peril, not the potential. And you only feel these fears when you are already in a state of alarm. Your fear reflected back to you, like lights reflecting off a bank of fog. Otherwise it’s an amazing well of possibility. Something to explore. Somewhere you can empty yourself out into.
O-kay, that took a rather more philosophical turn than I had intended. Back to the original point: that I find ‘unknowable’ a numinous thing, not a threatening thing. And the views of all the people who’ve read the poem are (so far) split 50/50 on it, with half saying they find it menacing, and half quite the opposite.
‘Unnamable’ is also problematic. To me, it’s much more menacing – ‘nameless dread’ is the first phrase that comes to mind when I think of it. (We are not going to get into a long, rambling dissertation on the many possible shades of meaning or implication of that phrase, and why it might also be a misnomer. Do that on your own time.)
As you’ll probably have worked out, what I’m wanting for that final couplet is something of the same sense of strangeness and agency as the ending of the Frost poem. I’d assumed that the fact I have the whatever it is (unknowable or unnamable or … thing) wading out onto the furthest shore would have been a release of tension – it’s obviously moving away from the speaker, and therefore (I thought) is not a threat to them. Is probably not even aware of them, in much the same way that Frost’s stag swims towards him, past him, gets out of the water and disappears into the undergrowth – and that is all. Which is why ‘unknowable‘ seemed right to me – it’s so completely other that it isn’t even aware of the speaker. It exists in its own space.
But obviously there were enough other people disagreeing with that assumption for me to have to try and find some other approach. Or at least to consider another approach. Unnameable … unknowable … other? I could use ‘other’, but I would have to italicise it to make people read it properly, and I prefer the level of understatement that I currently have, with the linebreak doing the work behind the scenes. Another suggestion that was made was that I could try and bring some menace into the poem a bit earlier – this was from the people who thought of the ending as menacing – so that it seemed a more natural way of concluding. Except the poem isn’t meant to be menacing.
Argh. Welcome to the world (or possibly ‘ongoing mental breakdown’) of the practicing poet.