Kay Ryan, “Shoot the Moon”

A few of you have written me, telling me you’re surprised and grateful for the recent poems I’ve shared and commentary provided.

I’m happy to hear from you. I’m a year late in getting back to regular blogging, and I wonder what the heck happened.

I guess I know? I told myself last June (yeah, over a year ago) that I would write more, publish higher quality posts, and build an audience. So for 3 months I wrote about 17 entries a month and saw the audience increase substantially. (No comment on writing quality, except this: I learned the hard way that posts where you list and summarize what you previously wrote are actually pretty tough.)

Then came September, and I just stopped being here. I finished my dissertation while taking 3 classes in another field. I graduated fall semester, and I taught spring semester.

And I was out of excuses this summer. I published next to nothing though I filled journal after journal.

I guess I don’t know why I stopped. I can’t say that this blog was going to win any prizes or reach an audience in the millions. But the potential for an audience of hundreds, if not thousands, was there last September. I take what I do pretty seriously: I almost can’t do you wrong putting up poems. They can help break the hold which a most exploitative culture has on us. (I will only add this caveat, “everything in moderation.”) Yet some part of me, I suspect, didn’t want to be successful. Or, at least, not enough.

So I’m looking now at Kay Ryan’s “Shoot the Moon” in that light. Something about success should make us fearful, for To do it at all / we must do it / too soon:

Shoot the Moon
Kay Ryan

To do it at all
we must do it
too soon: shoot
before the moon
to shoot the moon,
we learn, having
shot it dead,
bagged now and
heavy as a head.

People speak of never being able to be ready for relationships or having children, but what about success? I know people who have been broken by it. People suddenly promoted who’ve only known bullying bosses can lose all sense of decency; people with way too much money typically know the value of nothing, if they’re not completely governed by their own fear.

“To do it at all / we must do it / too soon”—I keep reading this as “to do it all,” but it isn’t even a specific success that Ryan’s worried about. It’s the very possibility of doing something that propels us forward, makes us overeager but unknowing hunters. We’ve got to shoot / before the moon / to shoot the moon in order to have a chance at getting anything.

The funny thing is the blend of the intentional with the unintentional. In order to do something and achieve, we’re in what seems to be a perpetual state of unknowing. How do we know we’ll be successful? How do we even know what we want—do we know what success looks like? Eric McHenry’s short rumination on this poem in The New York Times leads me to think that not only are we confused about what we’re doing, we’re even confused about whether we’re succeeding or failing:

Through five and a half lines, the poem looks like a straightforward meditation on failure: We will learn, by shooting and missing, that we needed to lead our target. But then comes that devastating shift to the present perfect: “having / shot it dead.” Suddenly, we’ve murdered the moon, something we can no longer remember wanting to do.

Self-knowledge may depend on being able to visualize and address a past self. As a matter of course that past self must be mistaken, to say the least. We learn looms ominous, revealing itself to be heart of the poem. We learn, having / shot it dead, / bagged now and / heavy as a head. What exactly did we learn? It isn’t clear we can ever avoid rushing into things for which we’re not prepared. Moderation most properly resides in reflection. We can apply that reflection and not be as rash or panicked that something will not be done “at all,” but we note that there are situations where we have to worry about the possibility of something being entirely lost.

Meghan O’Rourke contends in Slate that Ryan is an extremely practical poet, perhaps refusing to meditate on difficult issues we want treated at length:

Internal rhyme and assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds) are crucial to the success of Ryan’s poems, in part because her epistemological investigations of the human condition can hardly be called completist or definitive; rhyme adds a crucial layer of complexity. She practices dipstick philosophy, taking a quick reading of the oil in the motor and slamming the hood. She moves away from her themes as rapidly as she engages them, which may be why some critics have compared her to Emily Dickinson, even though her dramatic imagination is far more detached—less blasphemous and exalted—than her predecessor’s.

I don’t think this critique is quite right. Not all of Ryan’s poems are of the same quality, but let’s look at what we’re dealing with now. Is there a way out of the problem that we will “shoot the moon” too soon? On the one hand, no. To achieve means to devote one’s resources to success, and it is impossible to know what life will look like afterward, because knowledge of the future is impossible. On the other hand, something about us and our approach can remain consistent.

Perhaps it is not the trivial consistency of murdering moons, but turning our autopilot habit of acquisition off. (A habit against habit, so to speak.) “Shoot the moon” implies strongly that one has to try for it all to do it at all. The consistent employment of the language of hunting shows that we lock ourselves into one way of doing things. Maybe “hunting” is the most optimal way of getting a certain outcome; maybe we learn only to employ that knowledge and get. When I put it that way, something about the way we feel we must operate in the world is incomplete. At this juncture, I’ll say two things. First, I think Ryan does not practice “dipstick philosophy” as much as she sees emotional puzzles which could require decades to come to terms with. The heart of “Shoot the Moon” is learning that labor and foreknowledge(!), markers of confidence and ability, can actually serve the worst sort of insecurity and ignorance. It makes sense to not elaborate on this, but let it linger.

Second, I’ve got a lot of work to do. I not only have to shoot before the moon, but get ready for what comes afterward, for the ironic consequences I did not foresee.

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