The other day we were talking about what it feels like to write poetry and I said that there are parts that are very similar, for me, to analyzing numerical data or to solving logic problems. There is a reductionism in poetry that doesn't happen with prose. There is also a satisfying sense of problem-solving that may happen for fiction writers but doesn't happen for me when I write fiction.
It was a fun conversation. The kind I like to have with students. The kind that got me into academia so I could have them on a regular basis. Afterwards she sent me a copy of the Nobel Lecture by Wislawa Szymborska. In it is this:
This is why 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 the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself "I don't know," the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself "I don't know", she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying "I don't know," and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.Which so hits the nail on the head for me.
Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating "I don't know." Each poem marks an effort to answer 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 that's absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their "oeuvre" ...