“I don’t know this but I do know that”

from Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction

“It turns out you don’t have to be that smart to be a writer.

What you do need, however, is a tone of assertion.

I sometimes think you can make the reader accept almost anything if you back it up with strong-enough conviction. Take these lines by Pablo Neruda, from his poem “There Is No Forgetfulness”:

If you ask me where I have been
I have to say, “It so happens…,”
I have to talk about the earth turned dark with stones,
and the river which ruins itself by keeping alive;
I only know about objects that birds lose,
the sea far behind us, or my sister crying.

Or this passage from Neruda’s poem “Nothing But Death”:

I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green…
Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses.

Neruda is always saying, in effect, I don’t know this but I do know that, and I have seen with my own eyes x and y and z. So what if many of the facts he purports to swear by are fantastic? He has learned to season his surreal images with the plausible verbal formulae of someone bearing witness; it is these rhetorical assertions of the limits of his knowledge that make his metaphoric visions easier to accept. Neruda comes straight out of Whitman, who boldly asserted, “I was the man… I suffered… I was there.” ”


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