I spend all day on the internet, but many of its mandates are alien to me, and none feel quite as strange as this central, self-contradictory, two-part injunction: first, that you should talk all the time — weigh in on things, as if that was our duty — and, impossibly, always believe that you are right.

That pressure is becoming increasingly powerful among the people 
who shape public rhetoric. Print media is mirroring online media; online media is mirroring social media. Some days everything feels like a maelstrom, a series of fights over identity, in which everyone is constantly misrepresenting their own stakes. The danger of writing on the internet is that you can place too much trust in your own quick opinions, and thereby screw the precious pooch of your own mind. A passing thought needs time in private; there is nothing more suspect than a person in uncomplicated love with what he thinks.

I have taught poetry workshops to two very different groups who prepared me well for the reflexive talkativity and self-righteousness that now dominates the internet: college freshman and children between the ages of seven and nine. The first group was at the University of Michigan, the second in a public elementary school in the Fourth Ward of Houston. The syllabi weren’t the same, of course, but the kids understood Richard Siken (“Driving, dogs barking, how you get used to it, how you make / the new streets yours”) and Anne Sexton (“Here, / in the room of my life / the objects keep changing”). They could write poems after Charles Simic’s shoes and Nikki Giovanni’s ego-tripping and Richard Brautigan’s catfish friend. And with about three exceptions, my favorite poems — the ones that work self-evidently, that compel me to understand a craft I still have no idea how to step inside of, that have penetrated my thick skull with the use of this art form over and over — those I could teach in both classrooms, to both adult and child.

One of these poems was Louise Glück’s “The Red Poppy,” which opens with three lines that have become something of an operating principle in my life. The poppy says:

The great thing
is not having
a mind.

As the poem continues, I quibble: the invocation of deep instinct through the conceit of anthropomorphization is one of the few things I feel does not gain clarity through being written down — i.e., whenever I have been a wild goose like Mary Oliver and let the soft animal of my body love what it loves and all that, the “it” in question isn’t always pretty. But what an opening! I try to live by it. I want instincts over positions, humility over certainty. The great thing is not having a mind.

Not that I talk to anyone about poetry, ever. My relationship to it is sidelong and almost entirely private. I can’t write it; I read it irregularly. In the practice of teaching it, I could only locate myself as a student, with no authority, no important opinions, no sense that I was ever correct. And that, in the end, is what made me free.

When I write, still, I often feel like one of my third graders, saying the word “beautiful” and then miming a fishing line cast out into the middle of the classroom because we needed to keep going until we found “hallowed” or “conspicuous,” a brighter and fresher fish. When I read, closely, I feel like I’m one of my freshmen, counting out the anapests in a rap verse, spending an hour on a single Kendrick Lamar couplet. “This black on black is a blessing / Black on black crime 
on my weapon,” he spits in this one throwaway Jeezy cut, and the way these two lines invert each other’s meaning and meter have taught me again and again to be in love with the basic project of writing. Forget opinions, and certainly forget being right; it’s enough to have the task of trying to write words that retain their meaning — to learn to distrust whatever comes too easily, and then to reconceive equilibrium, over and over, within a small space.

Poetry taught me how to write everything but poetry. Poetry teaches me that I basically know nothing, and that acknowledging this position is a beginning and never an end. The great thing is not having a mind. From a point of nothingness, the world starts to sparkle. It becomes declarable. It brings you those fleeting sensations that are worth sitting on, punching around, forming into ideas that may not be correct, necessarily, but will have some gravity, maybe even feel new.

Originally Published: December 29th, 2016

Jia Tolentino is a contributing online writer at the New Yorker.

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