Knowing Nothing

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately: not knowing; having a blank slate; feeling uninformed and therefore not able to put forward a considered opinion; having hardly any of the answers; not being sure what I am writing about. It’s not fashionable these days to say you don’t know, or that you haven’t made up your mind, or, worst of all, that you have changed your mind. It’s not the done thing to say, ‘I’ve haven’t the baldiest!’ I’m trying to write a particular piece right now and, I’m going to own up, I haven’t a clue what I am doing. I’m all over the place and keep changing my mind. And I think one of the mistakes I am making is telling people about it, as then they have opinions – which I have solicited – and, well placed as these opinions are, they serve to confuse me further. What is becoming clear is that I ought to keep my head down, wade through the darkness of knowing nothing until something emerges, and be prepared to accept what emerges, even if it is to rip it up and start again.

Derek Mahon, a poet from Belfast whose work I love, died this week. I had been reading some poems and essays of his over the last month anyway, but last night I sat down with him, a wake of one, to give him my full attention and he has been a great help in telling me not to worry. No, not that poem, not the one everyone knows where he tells us that “everything is going to be all right”, for, useful as that line is to hold onto, I found others more pertinent to me right now. Sometimes we need to be taken beyond the ‘now’ to a better place (as in, “everything is going to be all right”), but sometimes we need to be able to rest in the ‘now’ uncomfortably and get on with not knowing what we are doing. And that is the message that emerged from his anthologies last night. There seemed to be lots of references, confessionals even, as to Mahon feeling his way in the dark, not knowing. For a short while he lived on the north coast of Northern Ireland, where I come from, to fulfil his position as Writer in Residence at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. Some of the poems from that era (late seventies) have a bleak feel. Take ‘The Sea in Winter’ (the footnote of which tells us it was written in Portstewart-Portrush 1977-1988) where the wind howls, the sea is up, and he sits in a draughty garret room waiting for inspiration. Mahon is cold: “Up here where the air is thinner, / In a draughty bungalow in Portstewart.” Mahon is melancholy: “A strange poetry of decay / Charms the senile hotels by day,” Mahon is melancholy: “And will the year two thousand find / Me still at a window, pen in hand, / Watching long breakers curl on sand?” And finally, in the last two lines of this poem, Mahon is humble: “I who know nothing go to teach / While a new day crawls up the beach.”

So as I crawl to my desk, yet again, and wonder what on earth I am doing, how I am going to start, if I am going to get to the middle, never mind the end, I can now think of Mahon, sitting up on the north coast in a similar stew. If mine ever comes to the boil and tastes half as good as his, I’ll be happy.

The Attic, Derek Mahon

Under the night window

A dockyard fluorescence,

Muse-light on the city–

A world of heightened sense.

At work in your attic

Up here under your roof

Listen, can you hear me

Turning over a new leaf?

Silent by ticking lamplight

I stare at the blank spaces,

Reflecting the composure

Of patient surfaces–

I who know nothing

Scribbling on the off chance,

Darkening the white page,

Cultivating my ignorance.

2 thoughts on “Knowing Nothing

  1. Didn’t Socrates say “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Though right enough, he was so annoying they had to poison him just to get him to shut up.

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