Materialism and Nihilism’s Consequential Union: Notes on Kay Ryan’s "Nothing Ventured"

for Ario Farin

Nothing Ventured (from
Kay Ryan

Nothing exists as a block
and cannot be parceled up.
So if nothing’s ventured
it’s not just talk;
it’s the big wager.
Don’t you wonder
how people think
the banks of space
and time don’t matter?
How they’ll drain
the big tanks down to
slime and salamanders
and want thanks?


1. Nihilism has both a metaphysical and a moral meaning. Metaphysically, it means that nothing is, i.e., not that there is absolutely nothing, which would be absurd, but that there is no unchanging ground, no eternal God or Being such as the Western tradition since Plato has imagined to underlie the flux of experience. Thus, the innumerable things that according to our experience so evidently “are,” in fact only seem to be and are actually constantly changing, constantly becoming something other than what they are in a chaotic and utterly unpredictable way. Without some unchanging ground or foundation to this flux, however, it is difficult to see how truth, justice, and morality are possible.

– Michael Gillespie, from “Martin Heidegger” in the History of Political Philosophy 3rd ed. pg. 888-889

2. Our new poet laureate is sharp stuff. I think this poem is actually an expansion on Gillespie’s thought.

We begin with “Nothing exists as a block” – what? But in two senses, this can be true. Einstein’s basic way of explaining gravity, where objects warp space and force it to curve, demonstrates the metaphor aptly. “Something” displaces “nothing,” strictly speaking. And any displacement of “nothing,” therefore, results in the dissolution of “nothing.”

But in another sense, “no-thing” – in other words, “not something actual” – can exist as a block. Anything can be parceled up, in theory.

These two considerations make us realize that “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is a comment on the totality of human existence. Some people want to say “nothing ventured” alone is a perfectly acceptable alternative. Those people run the gamut from contemplative religious to people who think quantum theory proves there is no god. All is determined, there is no freedom, the universe is one unchanging object to which our consciousness, which only perceives change, is entirely subordinate.

Our poet’s narrator seems to be taking Nietzsche’s line in Twilight of the Idols here – religions like Buddhism reduce to materialism and embrace a soft nihilism. Thought means less than purity, but once that has been effected, any debate about the nature of purity annihilates the religion. You end up with a worship of “discovery” that is unable to explain why discovery is worth anything, why anything may have value.

3. I realize I’m getting ahead of myself – I’m explaining how the poem ends with “slime and salamanders” from an abstract wager.

The “banks” of space and time are the narrator’s initial playful response to the “big wager.” “Banks” contain things, things that aren’t just “matter” but do “matter.”

The true banks of space and time are history. History is ultimately about wondering how people have thought, how people think.

You’re wondering where “history” is coming from in my reading. It has to do with the implication that no one else has ventured anything. This is monumentally insulting to everyone who has worked to make our world a better place to live. While “ventured” is a participle, I can’t help but notice that in the poem it is the only word in the past tense – it is a past participle, the faintest reminder possible of the past.

4. “Banks, tanks, thanks” all link, as do “big wager” and “big tanks.” The narrator is relentless in asserting what matters, and in bringing us to share in her enterprise – “wonder” and “think” are linked in the middle of the poem, and we are directly invited to do the former to respond to the latter.

The most interesting word here is “salamanders” – it just doesn’t fit no matter how many times I say this poem aloud. It took me a little while to figure out that it was the implicit contrast with the “drain.” The drain reduces things to “slime” and “salamanders.” But sitting in the midst of “salamanders” is an “and” itself.

You might say that the “and” links two ungrammatical pieces – “salam” would need to be changed a bit to acquire the meaning our troops are aware of nowadays, and “ers” means absolutely nothing. I think that’s why this word was chosen, though – what matters isn’t the atoms, but what the atoms make.

5. Someone told me the other day they didn’t want to read any of the entries on this site that were poetry related. That’s really sad that people are allowed to call themselves educated and pull that crap.

Try it in my classroom and you’re gonna see your share of slime and salamanders. If Athens didn’t know Homer, Socrates would have been an impossibility. Without a literary heritage, there is nothing to preserve; progress is baseless, conservatism is an impossibility, civilization unrecognizable from a wolfpack.


  1. Our hearts and minds both tie us to the pack, and keep us separate. It is the intersection of our lives and loves that keep us connected.

    Here’s the Auden I promised:
    Song IX (April 1936)
    Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
    Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
    Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
    Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

    Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
    Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
    Put crepe bows around the white necks of the public doves,
    Let the traffic policeman wear black cotton gloves.

    He was my North, my South, my East and West,
    My working week and my Sunday rest,
    My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
    I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

    The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
    Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
    Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
    For nothing now can ever come to any good.

  2. If Athens didn’t know Homer, Socrates would have been an impossibility. Without a literary heritage, there is nothing to preserve; progress is baseless, conservatism is an impossibility, civilization unrecognizable from a wolfpack.

    Kinda like being up to your butt in Alligators and you forgot that you are just here to clean the tank??;=))

  3. Another good article.
    You are right in saying that culture is important and seperates us from the lower animals. Nihilism is a ridiculous concept.
    I tend to enjoy art and poetry for their quality rather than meaning.
    Clearly there is a need for things to have a message as well as being simply pretty. As a political artist, I am submerged in meaning most of the time and need a little pretty in my life. That doesn’t mean I can’t have both at the same time.
    Thanks for exposing me to work I wouldn’t seek on my own. I hope to see more in the future.

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