Poets Don’t Know

According to a piece by columnist Matt Miller, not knowing, and not denying that they don’t know, is what drives poets. Not knowing and denying that they don’t know is what drives politicians and ideologues.
Miller quotes poet and Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska:
Szymborska’s response to the ideologues is that “knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out.” In her wonderful phrase, “it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life.” And, as history has shown, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, such dogmatism can pose a lethal threat to society.
“This is why,” Szymborska says, “I value that little phrase ‘I don’t know’ so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include spaces within us as well as the outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended.”
If Isaac Newton, Marie Curie or countless others had not constantly said to themselves, “I don’t know,” Szymborska argues, most of what we consider progress would have eluded us. For example, what if, instead of being inspired to think about gravity, an unquestioning Isaac Newton simply gobbled up his fallen apples?
Thus Szymborska insists, in words that have wider application, that “poets, if they’re genuine, must … keep repeating ‘I don’t know.’ Each poem marks an answer to this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate. So poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together” as their legacy.
Substitute the words “policymaker” for “poet” and “policy” for “poem” and the political lesson is clear. In solving human problems – the purpose, after all, of politics – unmerited certainty is the road to ruin. It doesn’t take a genius to see that our problems are complex. Yet when it comes to stimulating the economy or planning for the day after in Iraq, how often have you heard a politician admit, “I just don’t know”? Our leaders pretend they have “answers” because they think we expect them to act that way. Often we do…… Maybe if our leaders became a little more like poets we’d all muddle forward better together.

I liked my life better when I had the space and time to do, according to Szymborska (as reported by Miller), what poets do:
“Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down several lines, only to cross out one of them 15 minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens”.
“Their work,” she writes, “becomes one continuous adventure … A swarm of new questions emerge from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.'”
As a caregiver, there are so many, many things I have to know, have to make decisions about, keep track of. I don’t have the “disposable” time to not know, to embark on the poet’s great adventure.
Today begins a new year, but today is like yesterday, for me, confined by tediuim and details and interruptions. I have made some resolutions, though.
I’m going to spend one day a week throwing things away, cleaning out those parts of my life that I can clean out. The clutter of things that I really don’t know if I’ll ever need again. If I don’t know, I’ll let it go.
I’m going to stop snacking at night. Oprah said that’s the key to losing weight. But that’s not the reason. Getting the nightime acid reflux under control, that’s the reason. Losing weight will be a bonus.
I will continue to stand against dogmatism, which is easy in the “big picture” but a lot harder in the “little picture” because my mother, who some friends of mine once titled “The Pope of Yonkers,” is dogmatic about just about everthing.
Even if I’m not writing poetry, I will read more of it. I will make Szymborska’s words my mantra:
I don’t know. I don’t know why. I don’t know if. I don’t know who. I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.

2 thoughts on “Poets Don’t Know

  1. Except for the contradiction: saying you don’t know means you know you don’t know — therefore, you know. That is the conundrum of living: we’re surrounded by paradox.

  2. Elaine, your post was balm to my ears. Thanks! I wish you many, many moments of “not knowing” in the new year!
    There was also the poet David Rivard talking in an article in The American Poetry Review about interruptions and writing not long ago. He had the following to say on the topic:
    “… it’s best to say that interruptions in anybody’s life are actually all there is to life. Maybe what we call consciousness or awareness is simply one interruption after another. And what we call interruptions are only a series of visitations aimed at waking us up to the fact that we are alive.
    A poem is reminder of what’s at stake in these visits. It wants to come to us the way all those moments of our waking come to us – sometimes amazing, sometimes comic, sometimes, terrifying. It wants us to feel what it’s like in waking’s slipstream.”

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