Sunday, November 7, 2010

313) i don't want to feel like an ignoramus

the literary life 11/7/10

Let me toot my own horn for just a second: I feel like an accomplished person. I have a B.A., and two M.A. degrees in the humanities. I have a teaching credential. I'm starting my fifth year of full-time teaching. I've won a few poetry writing awards. I've traveled to over twenty countries and studied multiple languages. I read about 30 books per year.

And yet, quite frankly, I often feel like an ignoramus.

The thing is, the more I read and learn and experience, the more I realize that there's so much to read and learn and experience. There's a lot I don't know and will never know. But what troubles me more is the glaring gaps in my basic knowledge. See what happened is that I often napped through high school. I didn't wake up fully until my junior year in college, and by that time I was past most of my formal general education. I was on to reading and studying what I wanted. I was on to specifics. So I know enough, for instance, about the poets I love. About South Asian diasporic writers. About Islamic history and feminism. I know things about Sufism and certain writers I have read and reread, like Jane Austen. I'm versed in Existentialism. But I want to know more about the basics, the stuff I slept through earlier on.

To use a metaphor, I feel that while I am well acquainted with a few cities, I'd like to have a better picture of the map in general. So here's what I've decided to do:

1) I'm going to read some basic history books. I'm starting with Kenneth Davis's Don't Know Much About History, which seems like an apt title. It's a general overview of American history, a book which is not shy about introducing a critical point of view.
2) I'm going to read the literary classics I haven't had a chance to read yet. I read Dostoevsky's The Idiot this summer. Now I'm reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
3) I'm going to look up more words I don't know. I have an above average vocabulary. But I'm typically lazy about looking up unfamiliar words unless it's for a poem I'm writing. I want to change this.
4) I'm going to keep a reading response journal where I reflect, on occasion, about what I'm reading. I need to write to retain what I read.
5) I'm going to exploit what I learn in poetry. In other words, while filling the gaps in my knowledge is the main reason I'm going back to the basics, I can also use what I learn in my poetry. Just this morning, for instance, I discovered that during the early days of American settlement, there were hardly any women in Jamestown, the first U.S. colony. Thus, in 1619 a ship of 90 maidens arrived so the men could "buy" wives, which they did for 120 pounds of tobacco. The tobacco was supposed to pay for the women's journey. This fact totally surprised and amused and engaged me. I want to build a poem around it.
6) Finally, by watching the news more, I want to link what I learn to what's happening now.

A few years ago I asked myself this basic question: which is more important, knowledge or wisdom. My answer was definitely wisdom. I have spent many years working on personal development, reading psychology books and religious texts and reflecting in my journal about the meaning of life. And while I still believe wisdom is more important, I'm coming to see that knowledge can be empowering, instructive, and useful for many practical reasons. I am a woman of ideas, but facts and details bear significance as well. I used to think I became a poet because I love ideas more than facts. But poetry, ironically, has inspired me to get back to the basics, to learn the details. To pay attention to the world in a way I hadn't anticipated. I yearn to know more. I guess it's true what they say about teachers: I am a dedicated life-long learner.

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