Knowledge Criticism
by Kim Addonizio

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Sheri Metzger Karmiol

(Poetry for Students)

Metzger Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses Addonizio's poem as a conduit to understanding the common sentiment of fear and the emotional toll exacted when the illusion of safety no longer exists.

One of the ways in which poetry speaks to its reader is through its ability to reach deep inside that reader and stir memories, and sometimes fears, of an event or time already past. Film does this, of course. Sitting in a darkened theater also gives filmgoers the opportunity to immerse themselves in a world they might otherwise never experience. For the film audience, however, the experience will be the same, or at least similar, for each person viewing the film. That is, unless a film is extremely abstract, most viewers will respond with similar emotions. Most people will react to the villain and identify with the heroic lead in the same manner, or perhaps the plot will be familiar in some universal way and thus instantly recognizable to the audience. Regardless of the content, a connection, a common experience, is fostered among the members of the audience. Poetry creates a connection between art and audience as well, yet a difference exists with respect to the commonality of experience. With poetry, each reader's experience will be unique, as a poem can suggest various images or realities, depending entirely on each reader's individual experiences.

Addonizio's poem "Knowledge" is a prime example of a poem that can mean different things to different people. Is the poem about terrorism as mass murder, or could it be about the particularly cruel murder of just one innocent victim? It might also be about the random murder of office workers by a deranged individual. Regardless of the specific intent of the poem, which only Addonizio can address, the knowledge that a new danger has emerged in the world, even when that world is strictly a personal one, will have an impact on every person who reads the poem.

For some people, "Knowledge" may bring forth images of the many genocides of the past fifty years—the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia—all of which left legacies of hate and horror in the late twentieth century. For others, the poem will suggest a more immediate, personal tragedy, such as the death of a child or spouse as a result of the actions of another person. Interviews with Addonizio suggest that the poem was possibly inspired by terrorism. For those who have lived under the threat of terrorism since 2001, Addonizio's poem recalls the devastating destruction of the World Trade Center complex on September 11 of that year. Her opening line, "Even when you know what people are capable of," may leave readers recalling the shock they felt as they watched and then rewatched the collapse of the twin towers on that sunny morning. That tragedy was clearly not an accident but the deliberate murder of thousands of innocent people. The resulting shock was profound in large part because of the absolute evil of the event.

Indeed, evil speaks to Addonizio. In a November 2000 interview for the literary newspaper Poetry Flash, she explained to Leza Lowitz that evil is "one of the things I obsess about. Evil and suffering and power—all of that." She further noted that the "whole question of good and evil" is a theme she pursued ever since she became aware that, eventually, innocence "is going to be crushed, somehow." According to Addonizio, people have to come to an understanding of the cruelty of the world "in order to survive." This is an important theme in "Knowledge," which ends with the suggestion that everyone will soon know that innocence has no place in this world. Although this interview predated the terrorism of 2001, Addonizio's words suggest the kind of response that she might have had to that attack.

Throughout "Knowledge," Addonizio sustains a dialogue that explores feelings of disbelief in the face of events so horrific that...

(The entire section is 5,159 words.)