The Inspiration of “I Don’t Know”

by | Feb 20, 2012 | Uncategorized

For the past couple of weeks the poetic world has been mourning the death of Wisława Szymborska, the Polish poet and Nobel Laureate in Literature. She passed away at the age of 88.

Though an accomplished poet, it is a work of her prose that has embedded itself in my brain, especially her 1996 Nobel Lecture, “The Poet and the World.”

In my personal Nobel laureate daydream, the lecture is the ultimate bully pulpit – a chance to tell the world (at last!) what I think about what I think about. Szymborska instead extolled the simple, humble admission “I don’t know,” and its motivational power for ongoing inquiry:

If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curienever never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

She also imagines a hypothetical (and moving) klatch with the Biblical author of the Book of Ecclesiastes:

I would bow very deeply before him, because he is, after all, one of the greatest poets, for me at least. That done, I would grab his hand. ” ‘There’s nothing new under the sun’: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem.”

The full text has been well worth my time.  I recommend it to you as well.


Timothy O'Brien, SJ   /   @tob_sj   /   All posts by Timothy