What Do You Know?
Judith Shklar introduced her book Ordinary Vices by saying, "It is only if we step outside the divinely ruled moral universe that we can really put our minds to the common ills we inflict upon one another each day." I suppose poets these days aren't supposed to put their minds to grand tasks - you know, it's more like write a poem every day for a month. But since it's not only National Poetry Month but National Uh-Huh month, I thought I'd post something, you know, deep.
Montaigne, whom Shklar mentions in that introduction, was famous for his skeptical remark 'Que sais-je?" ('What do I know?'). He wasn't a poet (though his best friend Étienne de la Boétie was), but like a poet, he was quite good at making big pronouncements. Take these, all nicely applicable to poets:
* Obsession is the wellspring of genius and madness.
* Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.
* If you belittle yourself, you are believed; if you praise yourself, you are disbelieved.
* No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, whatever contrast it offers to my own. There is no fancy so frivolous and so extravagant that it does not seem to me quite suitable to the production of the human mind.
* Nothing is so firmly believed as that which least is known.
* Man cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen.
What is it about the French that makes them able to come up with this stuff? In the April 2009 issue of Poetry - which is our annual translation issue - we've got a poem that seems to take up where Montaigne left off. It's called "What I Know," by Patrick Dubost, who has published more than twenty collections (including under the alias Armand Le Poete, a trickster alter ego) and several CDs. Trained as a musicologist and mathematician, he's collaborated extensively with musicians, theater ensembles, and puppet theaters, and performs his sound poetry internationally. Here's the poem in Fiona Sampson's translation:
1. I know that language is within the world and that, at the same time, the world is within language. I know we are at the border between language and the world.
2. I don’t like phrases such as “nothing new under the sun” or “it’s all been said already.” I know that at every moment we could affirm: “everything is always new under the sun” or “almost nothing has yet been said of what could be said.”
3. I know that there’s no true coherence except in apparent incoherence. Every object clothes itself in chaos. To take shape, every thought must manage its own vagueness.
4. Among the obvious: I know that every human activity consists, one way or another, of battling death.
5. I know that time is bound up with space. Time is the shadow of space. Space the shadow of time. I know that we live in the shadow of a shadow and that it returns to the light.
6. I know that I know nothing about love.
7. I know that I live not in the world, but in the shadow of the world. I know that I go through the world the way an insect goes through its entire life in the shadow of a bank.
8. I know that nothing is simple. Or more, that what’s simple is never truly, never completely, so. I know that everything adds up and that every element of this total depends on the whole.
9. I know that everything around me is nothing but a mass of contingency. I know that every word props itself up on an immense architecture of contingency.
10. I know that thunder comes after lightning and sometimes, in my dreams, thunder precedes lightning. I know that to see its opposite simultaneously with every phenomenon you must widen your eyes.
11. I know that whoever finds himself loses himself a little.
12. I know that I love a woman enormously, but I don’t know which one.
13. I know that to talk is to walk a path with emptiness to the right and emptiness to the left. I know that nothing can grasp this path with two ends. I know that writing is talking in frozen time.
14. I know that the word “table” is like a thousand tables. That a phrase is like a thousand thousand phrases. And that thinking is a match for water sports.
15. I know that every authentic poet is in decay.
16. To read isn’t necessarily to analyze, is not necessarily “to understand.” At the swimming pool, we don’t ask the swimmer the composition of the water, the number and distribution of swimmers, or why he’s picked this date to go swimming. We don’t ask him to describe, in mid-crawl, the architecture or acoustics of the place, or to explain a bird trapped under its roof, or to do a better imitation of the progress of some Olympic seal. We don’t ask him to memorize opening hours or screw himself up by whistling from the bench throughout an entire race in butterfly stroke. No. Finally, we don’t ask him, before each dive, to bring up some secret meaning from the very bottom of the pool. No. We let swimmers swim. We let swimmers swim. And the swimming pools fill up.
17. I know that I live and think inside a storehouse of books. Some recent, new, remarkable books, but in the great majority books which are decayed, moldy, have turned to the lightest heaps of dust. Only their metal frames and some fine particles of knowledge remain, unusable. Light from a few windows crosses the storehouse unimpeded.
18. Having found some daguerreotypes on the floor of an attic—portraits eroded by time and light—I know that forgetting is something enormous, that forgetting is our highest destiny.
19. I know that God doesn’t exist. That’s written everywhere in the storehouse—it can be made out through the portholes, too. I know that after death there’s nothing but death.
20. I know that, seen from the border between language and the world, the universe is in increasing entropy. But I no longer know what it is if I climb to the top of a tree (one of these trees on the border between language and the world), from where you can see far into language and far into the world at the same time.
21. Because I have scaled a tree, I know that beyond language is a huge plain, with dark flowers and little mazy footpaths.
As number three says, "Toute pensée, pour prendre corps, doit ménager sa part de flou." Hey, good advice for poets!
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...