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In an interview for On Being, Elizabeth Alexander read from her poem “Ars Poetica 100: I Believe,” a poem that ends with the question, “Are we not of interest to each other?” The question speaks both to the space that poetry can create for asking questions of one another and the world, and also of the language of intimacy that poetry can be. It is an intimacy created by the precision that poetry undertakes. She speaks of the way that she “asks questions fairly often in poems because I don’t know the answer.” I think that it is in the questioning and precision that we grow to understand more about each other.
I am reminded, in the questioning space built by poetry, of William Wordsworth’s “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convents Narrow Room.” Particularly the lines “Pleased is some Souls (for such there needs must be)/ Who have felt the weight of too much liberty/ Should find brief solace there as I have found.” I think that it is the idea of the solace found within this poem may be at once at odds and in cohesion with Elizabeth Alexander’s thinking. A line of “I Believe” asserts “Poetry, here I hear myself loudest.” Wordsworth is speaking of the way that comfort may be found and Alexander speaks of hearing herself in poetry. Both are taking a kind of solace in the lines of poetry: One to hear, and one to be restrained. However, she also speaks of the way that she asks questions in poems because she does not know the answer. And I think it is here that a tension between hearing and understanding is rooted. “Nun’s Fret Not Their Convents Narrow Room” talks about the comfort found within the restraints of the poem but I think there is something to be said for discomfort as a tool of poetry. Alexander seem to see poetry as a place where it is okay not to understand, to question and leave questions unanswered. I think there is something deeply uncomfortable and really vast about unanswered questions. The vastness comes from the fact that leaving questions unanswered leaves space to look for response to the question, even if it can’t be answered in it’s entirety.
The question “Are we not of interest to each other?” blossoms in this space of the unanswered, blossoms in the search of answers that we must use the precision of the language of poetry to find. Alexander speaks of the “undergirding truth” of poetry and the fact that as intimately as we know a person, we can never know their mind, but in the search for answer, we must look at each other and speak of each other with truth. It is here that I think the ideals of Wordsworth and Alexander converge. The comfort found in the sonnet by Wordsworth, is perhaps a comfort of having a space in which to find truth. Perhaps it is truth about oneself and others that is the solace given in the poem. Perhaps the two poets are not at odds because there is a difference between answers and truth. It is through poetry that we look for truth when simple answers will not suffice. Perhaps the truth is that the complexity of people, of knowing people, is far too vast for answers. But if I have learned anything about poetry, it is that it is completely okay not to understand. Perhaps the truth lies in not in understanding, but simply in looking.