Tragedy (when you lose control and you got no soul)

1 from ‘Moonlit Ocean’ by Rowey GI’ve just spent a week trying to work out, to my own satisfaction, the difference between ‘unknowable’ and ‘unnamable’.

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.


2 from ‘Moonlit Ocean’ by Rowey G

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.

12 Replies to “Tragedy (when you lose control and you got no soul)”

  1. I am firmly on the side of ‘not menacing’ – especially in the context of the “furthest shore”. Something not to be encountered and therefore not a threat, particularly to the dispassionate observer. My five cents worth.

  2. Having been brought up a Presbyterian, both unnameable and unknowable have religious overtones – in the sense of the hymn which says “’tis only the splendour of light hideth thee” and therefore not threatening at all. Just a mystery beyond our understanding..

    1. Hi Catherine,

      good, I was hoping to get that sort of feeling! I’ve got other small changes that may need to be made, but I’m beginning to think that this is one of those poems where you just have to accept that some people will get the emotional context the way you intended, and others won’t.

  3. No matter what word you pick what you can’t factor in—what we poets almost always forget to factor in—is the reader and his or her personal experiences. For you this poem will always recall Frost but here in the UK I never even read a single poem by Frost until I’d left school and only those few that appeared in anthologies so I’d approach the poem with a completely different mindset. More and more I think of poems as icebergs: 20% on the page and 80% still in the poet’s head which is why we’re so bad at judging our own work until years have passed and that 80% has all but melted away.

    But to address your current problem: might I suggest ‘unreachable’ since there’s a physical divide between the viewer and the ‘something’? Of course I’m going down the road you’ve signposted with your uns—‘unknowable’, ‘unnameable’—and I could just have easily have suggested ‘unimaginable’ when a simple adjective like ‘strange’ would do the job just as well or even “some thing”. Or what about ‘distant’ again emphasising the gap and not merely the physical?

    Irrespective of what you pick it won’t be right. That’s the problem with words. We expect too much from them.

    1. Good to hear from you again, Jim.

      I’m with you about the iceberg nature of poems. It’s the great strength – as well as the potential catastrophic weakness – of all art, especially poetry. But I don’t agree that it’s impossible to pick the ‘right’ word. Just very, very difficult sometimes. (I guess it opens up the question of ‘right for whom?’ Right for me? For an unknowable reader ‘out there’? We’re teetering on the verge of the postmodern assertion that meaning is impossible … yikes. Lets not go any further.)

      I actually quite like your suggestion of ‘some thing’, although you lose the hovering sense of mysticism. I think it does need the slight uplift in diction that a suitable latinate word would give. ‘Unreachable’ … hmm, possible! It takes things in a slightly different direction, but definitely one to add to the list of candidates. Thank you sir!

      1. I don’t think meaning is impossible but it is unpredictable. At least people are and since they’re the ones we entrust to give meaning to our precious texts the sooner a writer grows a thick skin the better. I used to fret far more than I do nowadays over choosing the best words but it’s really not worth the effort. My wife has an expression she’s fond of—good enough for government work—and although all my life I’ve resisted taking an ‘it’ll do’ attitude towards things that’s how most readers approach what we hand them; as long as they get the gist they’re pleased with themselves.

        I’ve just received my copy of Echo’s Bones which was a long short story that Beckett wrote to pad out More Pricks than Kicks which the publisher subsequently rejected and it’s now finally seen the light of day and it is oh so clever—the notes to the story are longer than the actual story—but no normal reader is ever going to pick up on all the allusions and wordplays or even a fraction of them and to be honest the only real market for a book like this is for completists like me.

  4. ‘some sense of context:’Maybe it is difficult to comment intelligently without having read the whole. Nevertheless if you are going for a feeling of “strange” rather than of menace, is it the word ‘wades’, that being so conventional a manner of speaking about entering or exiting the water, wants to be changed? Some alternate mien or style could give you the effect you wish to conjure.

    1. difficult to comment intelligently without having read the whole
      True Ian, but then I usually consider these blog posts more as a way of talking to myself in public than requests for informed assistance. They usually come flagged much more obviously. (The word ‘Help!’ in the title, for example.)
      Can you explain why you’re suggesting ‘wades’ as the problem, given that you also characterize it as ‘conventional’? (I would assume that fact alone would help defuse any sense of menace …)

      1. ‘ what I’m wanting for that final couplet is something of the same sense of strangeness…’ Yes I agree that ‘wade’s’ ‘defuse(s) any sense of menace’ but also detracts from a ‘sense of strangeness’.

        1. When you say ‘final couplet’, what you really mean is ‘the only bit of the poem that anyone else has seen’ … 😉

          I disagree about ‘wades’. It’s not a passive verb, and it’s not really common. ‘Got’ out would be wussy. ‘Stepped’, ‘climbed’, ‘came’ … those are ordinary. ‘Wades’ implies a couple of things about the purposefulness of the action, not to mention the expending of a certain amount of physical power – you don’t ‘wade’ in water that only covers your toes, so the action is directed and begun from a fair way off the shore. Against a reasonable weight of water. So you don’t only see the entity wading, you also get a sense of the surge of the water. Which again is why I’m pretty sure about this verb – the movement of the water helps to disguise the entity. You see movement, as much as a thing moving. You also keep your gaze lower, around the legs and the water level. Maybe as high as a chest, to begin with. Not up around the face.

          You’ll just have to see if you agree or not when I finally get the @#!$?*&ing poem finished and published somewhere …

  5. Thank you – most interesting comments which make the go on thinking. I like the endingwith its possibilities and like to think hat one reason the poem works so well, is nothing is settled. Jan

    Date: Tue, 8 Apr 2014 23:05:52 +0000 To:

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