Kay Ryan, “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It”

We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It (from Poetry Magazine, June 2006)
Kay Ryan

The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
happen. It’s awkward
to have to do one’s
planning in extremis
in the early years –
so hard to hide later:
sleekening the hull,
making things
more gracious.


Aristotle talks about the impossibility of planning properly for normalcy when one only considers extremes. Given how often we use extremes as a template for anything (“if he can lead in war, he can lead in peace”), maybe the soul (“ship”) is an extreme itself. The “first shape” of a raft might not be fixable. “Unflattening” “that” is ambiguous. We know the raft needs to be unflattened. But is the first fear itself flat? And is the raft even built yet (“that didn’t happen”)?

“Planning” and “early years” indicate that maybe more time is available than we thought. “So hard to hide later” again introduces ambiguity, but hearkens back to the title. Things are moving whether one likes it or not, whether one has planned or executed anything. Where does grace come from? “Sleekening the hull / making things / more gracious.” The plan for the ship itself may be separate from what we’re actually doing. “Making things more gracious” can stand alone. “Sleekening the hull” may mean we’re simply moving faster, moving through fear faster because of fear. It is a ground of sorts, after all. It has to be when one is building a craft while moving in it.


  1. If you’re worried about drowning, you’re in a desperate state. Whatever stops you from drowning is the right thing to do; elegance is optional. No solution is right if it drowns you and pays off later, because there will be no one to be paid off.

    The dead hand of history weighs on this sleekening raft: they are forced into a local optimum, forced by the constraint of ‘not drowning immediately’. There may be more elegant designs, but history does not permit you to get to them, any more than horses can jump to having wheels rather than legs.

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