Kay Ryan, “The Elephant in the Room”

This short protest poem has been making the rounds on Twitter and Pinterest — see here, for example — and I wondered if I should write about it. I sometimes worry about writing about “obvious” poems, poems which could be easily understood. Leave them alone, let people make them their own words without hesitation, I tell myself. The “obviousness” of this poem, though, is more peculiar. I believe it only feels known for many. The precise nature of the denial it discusses merits fuller examination:

The Elephant in the Room (from “Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now”)
Kay Ryan

The room is
almost all
elephant.
Almost none
of it isn’t.
Pretty much
solid elephant.
So there’s no
room to talk
about it.

Comment:

“The room is almost all elephant.” Squeezed against a wall, I’m reminded of being ignored at a party. I’m just trying to get as flat as possible here, not trying to bother you, ho-hum. There’s a problem and it’s gotten out of hand. Either I’m being ignored by everyone and trying to find some space distinctly mine, or I’m trying to avoid confronting a serious problem growing in scope and size. There’s an elephant in this room because I’m in deep, deep denial.

How do I know I’m in denial? Because I’m still looking for room in a room jammed with an elephant: “almost none of it isn’t [elephant].” Heck, I’m probing around, trying to see if the elephant is really there. No luck, it’s all “pretty much solid elephant.”

This all leads to a funny, strange conclusion. Since everything is elephant, “there’s no room to talk about it.” What does that mean? In the Age of Trump, it looks like the elephant in the room is spoken of all the time. Not only are the President and his activities and associates scrutinized, but his voters are continually asked about why they made their decision. The media is excessive, but it is full of self-criticism and differing attempts to grasp why the free world is in its present situation. There are incredibly thoughtful critiques on this score: the ones to which I’m most partial talk about how cable news, talk radio, and the Internet involve creating content to radicalize subject populations. It’s been this way for decades now. That content is about filling air time with anger and fear more imagined than real, and that content is cheap to produce and nearly impossible to fact-check. I’m not saying a media which makes money perpetually agitating us is the only problem, but that would be a contender for “elephant in the room,” no?

Ryan’s not interested in my particular conclusion, though. She’s concerned with the shape of denial, and even my opinion is a bit too glib on that front. “There’s no room to talk about it” cuts right to the heart of a demagogic President who manipulates media in his sleep (literally – that’s, for me, the significance of “covfefe”). There’s something about our discussion, right here and right now, that exhibits a more fundamental denial. My mistake is thinking a discussion is even happening. I need to find the proper criteria for truth, for openness, for speaking my mind. There’s lots of noise, and the temptation is to think adding to the noise is self-expression.

On that note, this poem does contain a positive teaching. Find people who are willing to admit they’ve been in denial, or could be in denial. What’s missing from any potential solution nowadays is good faith. If I’m going to find faith, I have to demonstrate it. If I’m going to be trusted, I need to show myself trustworthy. There are no easy solutions to problems which have mutated, which have become much more than the sum of their parts. To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle involves changing how it conceives the bottle entirely, so it can remember that and how it entered. “There’s no room to talk about it” is a call to action. From small steps, like rebuilding trust, we see differently, we speak differently, and we can start moving that elephant back to the zoo.

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