What Matters Is Unsayable

What Matters Is Unsayable July 27, 2015


The challenge of poetry is that the only things worth saying are those things that are unsayable. The joy of such work is that whatever we come up with is more than enough.



As a boy, my father introduced me to the sea. Something in it was his home. It held him and received him. He would sail on it for hours, days—weeks if he could get away. It was on that boat that I first saw the sun glitter up the sea. That sheen hypnotized me, as if the back of some luminous creature was just under the surface about to show itself. I thought if I could enter the deep, I might meet that luminous creature too big to name.

The sheen of the sun on the sea befriended me. But I would forget about it, and the enormity of the sea, and the endless dependability of the waves until the noise and tumble of life in the world would lead me back to the sea. Then, usually when exhausted, I’d walk along some patch of surf where the clouds would part and the sun would glitter up the sea again. And I’d remember, as someone waking from a long sleep, I’d remember all that is out of view, all that we stand on, all that holds us up.

When teaching creative writing at SUNY Albany in my late twenties, I shared the worst image I ever came up with, calling that sheen of sun on the sea, “liquid tin foil.” Though the image wasn’t right, I told my students that I used it as a placeholder, a visual bookmark that would bring the irreducible sheen of the sea back to me. This is the power of symbol and metaphor. Regardless of their clarity, they point to what is clear and unsayable, so we can remember and revisit what has meaning.

Buddha would remind his students that his teachings were only fingers pointing to the moon. His teachings weren’t the moon. He encouraged them not to get caught up in his gestures, but to look at the moon! And even here, the moon is pointing to the unseen source of light that paints its face. These are the very real depths we live in, day by day.

This morning, some forty years later, I’m again by the sea and the sun is high, the clouds are few, and there, the familiar sheen glittering up the sea—old guide, old friend. And still, after a lifetime, I can’t describe it or name it. I can only feel it.

I only know that what matters is unsayable. And yet, every attempt to reveal it helps us live, the way every plant grows by reaching for a light it can’t see or name. God is such a sun. Truth is such a sun. Love is such a sun. And each of these—God, Truth, and Love—is just a temporary name for something too big to stay named.

I only know that to be alive and to gather meaning from living, we’re asked to throw our words and feelings and questions, like wood, onto the fire of all that’s unsayable—to keep the shimmer of what matters before us.

A Question to Walk With: In conversation with a friend or love done, try to discuss a feeling or thought that feels unsayable.

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