Kay Ryan, “Why We Must Struggle”

Why We Must Struggle (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

If we have not struggled
as hard as we can
at our strongest
how will we sense
the shape of our losses
or know what sustains
us longest or name
what change costs us
saying how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble
how loss activates
a latent double how
we can feed
as upon nectar
upon need?

Comment:

Why must we struggle? Why put forth the effort, struggle “as hard as we can at our strongest?” Plenty of good reasons for quitting while ahead – heck, plenty for not even trying in the first place. On that note, I heartily recommend Sheila Heti’s “Why Go Out?”, which begins with this outstanding passage:

I wonder why I am up here on this stage when I’d rather be at home, when being at home would be so much more comforting. And I wonder why all of you are sitting there in the audience, when so many of you would also be happier at home.

At home, you can wear your pyjamas. No one is going to snub you or disappoint you. At Trampoline Hall, you could be snubbed, or disappointed. The scotch is not cheap. It is less depressing to think the same thoughts you thought yesterday, than to have the same conversation you had last week. Few of us will get laid. Why did we go out? My father never goes out. His emotional life is absolutely even keel. He is a deeply rational person. He doesn’t see the advantages.

I will not blame you for abandoning this post and reading Sheila’s whole lecture. Still, I gotta finish up here. Without struggle, we cannot “sense the shape of our losses,” “know what sustains us longest,” or “name what change costs us.” Sense (losses), know (stamina), name (cost): it looks like we struggle to become ourselves.

From losses sensed, one might move to knowing sustenance. But therein lies a trap. Life isn’t just a pile of good, an unstoppable progress for us. Life does want to kill us. To that end, we choose struggles, “name what change costs us.” One good is lost for another good; some suffering, some loss, is had for merely identifying what change we might prefer.

“Name what change costs us,” then, embraces struggle as an attempt to embrace what is good for us. Which presents a problem, as it feels like the title has merely been repeated. The inner necessity of struggle has not fully emerged yet.

The musing must continue:

how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble

Trouble brings forth previously unknown sectors of the self. “Sector of the self” is a bit misleading. Yes, a sector is a part of us, but each sector stems from the implication that there is an entirely different person inside us, one capable of saving us or remaking us entirely. This is well beyond sensing losses, knowing sustenance, or naming the cost of change. Unknown selves within us become actual and we realize, about our own self, what is possible.

That actual self which steps in, a “latent double,” arises from need and in a way is the true substance of need. It is not something directly good for us, but something that promises a good:

how loss activates
a latent double how
we can feed
as upon nectar
upon need?

The promise of a good constitutes a sort of substance. Need and loss push the self to reproduce and fragment itself. The result is our becoming twins, each one of us, and perhaps one can even say we’re cannibals. Different iterations of the self come and go, stemming from loss. It’s like something has been created, and when struggle ceases, maybe something actually has.