Kay Ryan, “New Rooms”

What I would like to learn as I write more: how to be a better student.

If, confronted with words of an almost alien language, how would I find what’s relevant? What’s worth sharing?

Can meaning be found consistently? If I stumble upon a truth, shouldn’t it stay with me forever?

New Rooms (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms—just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes 
aren’t where 
the windows
went.

The title “New Rooms” is promising, given how “rooms” is used in the poem. “Rooms” concern perspective, a space for knowledge. Such a space depends, strangely enough, on comfort. “The mind must / set itself up / wherever it goes / and it would be / most convenient / to impose its old rooms.” The mind must set itself up, so it reaches as far as convenience. The old rooms, an imperfect space for knowledge—maybe far more than imperfect, an igloo in the desert?—constitute some sort of attempt.

I say “some sort of attempt” while remembering the hours spent reading things I barely understood. I don’t mean the times I tried to tackle the “Critique of Pure Reason.” I’m thinking back to American Literature, sophomore year of high school. I have no idea what I was supposed to do with Anne Bradstreet or “Romeo and Juliet” (Shakespeare was taught once a year). Maybe I was supposed to know that Puritans did more than witch-burnings or there are iconic love stories? In the case of American Lit, my mind camped out at a desk and didn’t see very far. It sat still in a room of its choosing, unaware of new environs.

So. Did this sophomore tack up old rooms “like an interior tent?” I guess? I mean, I didn’t even realize I was anywhere different. Mind, one might say, is an interior, always seeing how it wants to see, unless. That formulation expresses the problem, but it doesn’t quite do justice to how lost I was. There’s seeing as you want to see, having blind spots. And then there’s not knowing whether you’re floating in space or not. The latter was my condition.

Ryan concludes her poem with a lament which could speak to extreme cases, though. “Oh but / the new holes / aren’t where / the windows / went.” On the one hand, if I don’t know what continent I’m on, this seems pretty useless. On the other, matching holes to windows is an endeavor entirely one’s own. It isn’t about a particular perception, but the recognition of perception. Matching the holes to the windows is simply understanding there’s at least one interior at play.

You might argue. “That sounds uplifting, but self-knowledge is usually harder to achieve than knowledge in general. Also, how does any of this help a clueless sophomore?” I have a relatively firm answer to the first objection and can speculate about the second. There are bits of actual knowledge which aid the achievement of self-knowledge. Noting that one can’t see anything at all, that one can’t even use a window, is noting a fact that can hit like a truck. The latter is trickier. I barely listen to anyone nowadays, and I was so much worse at 15. What might have helped was if someone had really pushed me to imagine Bradstreet’s life. Moving, across an ocean, from cities and country built over hundreds of years to a land with nothing comparable. Struggling through harsh winters, raids by angry natives, and political and familial infighting. From the Poetry Foundation’s biography, accessed 12/26/2020: “The Bradstreets and Dudleys shared a house in Salem for many months and lived in spartan style; Thomas Dudley complained that there was not even a table on which to eat or work. In the winter the two families were confined to the one room in which there was a fireplace.”

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