Kay Ryan, “Lime Light”

“Lime Light” (from Persimmon Tree)
Kay Ryan

One can’t work by
lime light.

A bowlful
right at
one’s elbow

produces no
more than
a baleful
glow against
the kitchen table.

The fruit purveyor’s
whole unstable

doesn’t equal
what daylight did.


For now, I want to use this poem as an introduction to a theme I consider more radical. I’m not sure, but I think fame in Dickinson is closely connected to the problem of self-knowledge. Again, not sure. One might consider fame destructive of self-knowledge, but at the same time to speak our own name is to hope someone else can understand or appreciate it.

“One can’t work by lime light:” fame and related aspirations are not conducive to our everyday work. That seems intuitive enough, though there is a trap. Some people do seem to work in the lime light, by lime light, for the lime light. We can’t really say their efforts are nothing but vanity. Such a thing would probably be akin to saying that saying one’s own name is vanity, or that speaking at all is vanity. That gets absurd in the extreme.

So the speaker talks about what seems to be her own experience with limelight. She had a “bowlful” right at her elbow at the kitchen table. The bowlful produced nothing but the baleful. The joke is that this is a light literally made of limes; this is as far away from anything recognizable or honorable. It is nonsense, except for this thought: we construct fame from the everyday. Our speaker sees smallness and weirdness. Nothing good comes from it.

This is counterintuitive to me, to a degree. I read Xenophon. I play with the idea that once upon a time, there were men who wanted to lead. If they could prove themselves leaders, they would be rulers, others would be ruled. And if something in their nature meant that they were better at ruling, it might mean they were a higher class of being, not simply human being. Perhaps they would have credible claims to divinity.

So it is strange for me to have to think that fame is like a weird, slightly ominous glow coming from a bowl of fruit in the kitchen. I tend to think that whatever fame generally is, it is related to the problem of men competing with each other for a status they think immortal.

Ryan’s speaker seems to understand my concern, as she introduces another figure into the poem: a fruit purveyor. That weird, ominous everyday glow which is nearly useless came from someone – anyone – who arranged a bowl of fruit. Dickinson makes a similar point in her work, that fame is contingent on whatever some yahoo or combination thereof thinks. To want fame is to subject your good graces to their judgment, to build from that. The classical problem in a way speaks past both Dickinson and Ryan. It ties fame to rule; the highest sort comes from rule. All other sorts of fame don’t matter as much as those where leadership is involved.

Whereas for the artist or artisan simply trying to make the most of the everyday, fame is actually unnecessary. The light we see with every day is fine. The important thing, it seems, is the broadness of perspective “daylight” implies as opposed to “lime light.” That much does speak to a point which comes up in the classics. It is amazing how narrow minded, how purposeful, leaders have to be at times. Like as if they have to deny themselves real knowledge of others, maybe even self-knowledge, in order to act.


  1. Pyramids are a standard poetic synecdoche for fame (of the ruling kind). Milton uses it to dismantle the classical kind of ambition you’re talking about. His “On Shakespeare” might be an early announcement of the rise of the artist as hero. Today, even our leaders wish they were artists. A memorable speech seems more important than making the right calls on foreign policy.

    The fruit purveyor’s
    whole unstable

    seems to me refers to another spurious fame that has grown up around the ascendancy of the artist. Fruit is more obviously perishable than stone. It’s like immortality isn’t even a concern anymore. The goal is to be up on top right this moment. I don’t think it’s unfair to say you don’t accomplish that through any kind of honest, responsible development of your self. You generally do it by mixing tokens of authenticity with self-destructive excess.

  2. @Amos: Love your points. Did a lot in this commentary to avoid talking about what exactly fame is nowadays. I’m tempted to think you’re right about fame being some kind “be on top this very moment” thing.

    Thinking a lot about “spurious fame” atm.

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