Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Tag: kay ryan (page 1 of 3)

Kay Ryan, “Thin”

Thin (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

How anything
is known
is so thin —
a skin of ice
over a pond
only birds might
confidently walk
upon. A bird’s
worth of weight
or one bird-weight
of Wordsworth.


Control breath, focus. Only time to get more oxygen, avoid a blow, respond with training when possible. A professional fighter knows he knows when he can act properly. Indeed, for one educated so, it might be said that he can act at all is entirely a matter of knowledge. The method taught, the body molded, the assumed scenarios: maybe sports are so unintellectual at times because the thinking has already been done.

“How anything is known is so thin” – when discussing this with S., she talked about the unfathomable. Her initial read of the poem: birds which walk upon the ice also reach into a sky we can never truly know. Ice covers a watery depth also not home for us. Knowing, in a way, always stands beyond us. If you know how you know, you are incredibly wise. If you know how you know how you know, you’re insane or nearly god.

S.’s is a brilliant and correct thought. I do think the poem leans another direction. To know is to engage a thinness like “a skin of ice over a pond only birds might confidently walk upon.” The image isn’t exactly clear. Maybe those birds look fearless, or at least nonchalant. I tend to think of birds upon the ground as having abbreviated, mechanical motions. That if people moved like they did, they would look nervous. In any case, there is no confidence shown by us humans upon the ice. The problem is that our knowledge does not directly inform our experience. We doubt our knowing, we doubt ourselves; we’re in the way of our confidently, prudently acting.

There are attempts to deny the problem. If you really knew, you would do it and do it well. Sorry, but you can know how to dismantle a nuclear bomb and someone can shoot you in the face while you’re trying to do it. A failure of result does not indicate a failure to know. Self-actualization involves a denial of the self; the self is the obstacle to true knowledge. This misunderstands priority. How we come to know is a subject worthy of discussion. Genuine communication is not a pseudoscience.

The last sentence of the poem indicates acceptance of the problem. “A bird’s worth of weight or one bird-weight of Wordsworth.” You could say the birds do fine on the ice because they tread so lightly. If we use knowledge in the most refined, elegant ways, maybe we will avoid undermining ourselves. Ryan’s speaker refuses to go this direction, as she does not posit a know-how in order to properly use each thing known. “A bird’s worth of weight” is an impossibility for us. We carry more, much more. What we need is “one bird-weight of Wordsworth.” The best words are light and carried with us. They enable us to grasp images better, but perhaps not reality. Not know-how, but why exactly we wanted to know in the first place.

Kay Ryan, “Backward Miracle”

Backward Miracle (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Every once in a while
we need a
backward miracle
that will strip language,
make it hold for
a minute: just the
vessel with the
wine in it –
a sacramental
refusal to multiply,
reclaiming the
single loaf
and the single
fish thereby.


Once, after a particularly bad day, this poem made perfect sense. Put down on account of few or no wrongs, saw no escape from present miseries, thought how things could get worse, as is always possible. No reason to complain, every right to do so.

What I needed was a “backward miracle.” This sort of miracle strips language, taking something away so language itself can “hold for a minute.” That means “just the vessel with the wine in it,” which on a lighter note might be thought a glass of Sauvignon Blanc after work.

Ryan does not quite justify our going that direction, though. The vessel with the wine in it occurs because of “a sacramental refusal to multiply.” I am not going to multiply my pains, but I am also not going to ask for the world to be remade. The vessel and the wine refuse transformation, and I stand apart from both with my sacramental refusal.

Not transformed, there is instead the choice to ingest the wine. Moreover, the reality of what is in front asserts itself: a “single loaf” and a “single fish” have been reclaimed. What prevented us from seeing what actually is, well, is our hope for miracles. We load reality with our expectations. Our ambitions and our sense of justice, our very dignity, depend on our expectations. Many times, we could use events that are in effect miracles to meet them. Some of us are more fortunate than others and can take these events for granted. Others are thankful for a parking space near their job’s entrance so they don’t have to dash out of the car.

To strip language of our expectations is to rediscover the power of the everyday. We don’t have much, but what we do have can sustain, and we might even do something more. In terms of really bad days, note well: everyone is loading us with their ridiculous expectations. Why do we have to play along, when we simply know better?

Kay Ryan, “In Case of Complete Reversal”

In Case of Complete Reversal (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Born into each seed
is a small anti-seed
useful in case of some
complete reversal:
a tiny but powerful
kit for adapting it
to the unimaginable.
If we could crack the
fineness of the shell
we’d see the
bundled minuses
stacked as in a safe,
ready for use
if things don’t
go well.


Each seed has an anti-seed within it, ready for a reversal. The anti-seed is “useful,” it enables a seed to adapt to the “unimaginable.” If we could break the beautiful, smooth, protective exterior, we’d see a stack that could be in a safe, one apparently not in use at the moment.

Often, I think about pride as a defense mechanism. So many times over the years I’ve had to get arrogant, had to pick fights, had to keep away from people because to let certain statements, behaviors, or structures stand was to invite becoming the one doormat to rule them all. Nowadays, I try hard to keep my judgments about people in rough circumstances clear. They can’t be expected to be perfectly humble. They have to have cynicism and breaking points, as well as be respected for their limits, because they’re in positions where they can be taken advantage of easily. While it’s true behaving the way most of us think is right can make life easier for them, they are in situations where trust is hard to come by. To insist, as many of us do, that it is simple for them to change or that it would be completely beneficial if they took all our advice and live exactly the way we do, is to miss how the world is structured for them. Oftentimes, we’ll insist they give up their rights – their claims to justice – so they can get something we see as clearly good for them. I don’t think I need to spell out how fundamentally evil this is. I will add that I think it’s where the “tyranny of the majority” is worst nowadays.

When Ryan brought forth in her last sentence the idea of “minuses stacked as in a safe,” I don’t know I saw pride. I might have, as all of us keep a highlight reel of those times we’ve failed and been failed. It’s a combination of guilt and righteous anger that sometimes whips our spirit up. We’re ready to be better and do better for ourselves.

So what is there exactly, in that safe? We’re talking about an “anti-seed” born into a “seed.” It’s a relentlessly natural image that almost lets one forget that there is nothing natural about an anti-seed. A “complete reversal” threatens the natural with the unnatural, if one thinks of nature as having a certain direction.

That small anti-seed is “useful,” “a tiny but powerful kit for adapting it to the unimaginable.” Not natural, but mechanical. What couldn’t be conceived is countered by a set of tools, a potential change of direction.

How strange to talk about a thing that isn’t, a direction that could be! The fact of the seed, not even its proper growth, leads to both. We can conclude from this something even more preposterous: the anti-seed is the seed. The seed does not actually grow because of any positives. There are no necessary positives, no substance or direction that a seed must go. Everything is ruined from its inception.

I don’t know that I’m looking at pride, in the end. I’m looking at something prior, a sheer willfulness, something that makes matter out of all the slights and obstacles thrown at it. “In Case of Complete Reversal:” even Jesus talks about the plants that choke other plants.

Kay Ryan, “All Your Horses”

All Your Horses (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Say when rain
cannot make
you more wet
or a certain
thought can’t
deepen and yet
you think it again:
you have lost
count. A larger
amount is
no longer a
larger amount.
There has been
a collapse; perhaps
in the night.
Like a rupture
in water (which
can’t rupture
of course). All
your horses
broken out with
all your horses.


Always a certain thought can’t deepen, yet we think it. Most thoughts we have nag at us, pushing us to do the same unto others. Our lives are soaked with this idiocy, which is a major reason why you are here at this site, reading this commentary. You’re hoping something different might emerge. Anything different.

In creation, though, the same problem resides. A major reason you haven’t gotten blog entries for months is that I’ve felt miserable. When I’m miserable, the same thing hammers away in my brain, and yeah, I’d like to get rid of it. The issue is that to write something meaningful for you involves writing something meaningful for myself. You may not see that as a problem, and certainly lots of writers, including some minds we respect greatly, could care less about what things mean for them. They have talent and craft; all that’s left is attention.

The poem starts with being pointlessly oversoaked, then tells us we’ve lost count. What we’ve been attempting is depth of a sort. Depth is not just a risk, but a series of risks. For myself, I don’t mind being soaked. But losing count? Counting is everything – to lose this is not to be able to function practically. It is the highest theoretical failure, not because human reason applied to human problems has mathematical certainty, but because overlooking the obvious will destroy any attempted union of cleverness and profundity.

As reasonable creatures, we count and organize. That’s it.  So to fail to see “A larger amount is no longer a larger amount” might indicate we have to start over, hit the reset button on the construction of our minds. Obviously, that’s not an option, but again, we got into this situation hoping for depth. We visited this on ourselves, hoping that more attempts to probe for depth would yield more, not narrow us.

Ryan gives us three images with which to grapple in understanding this strange chaos of water and numbers. First, it is like a house falling apart, or the startle we get at night when we think the roof is caving: “There has been a collapse; perhaps in the night.” Not only do we not know magnitude, we don’t know proximity. Heck, the biggest problem we face is that we don’t know if our problem affects us.

That sounds too clever to say. Of course a thought hammering in our head is our own problem! But wait: how many times have you seen someone else act better or worse, and change yourself accordingly? How many times has that happened even with regard to your deeper woes? The funny thing about the artists who look to talent, craft, and attention is that they have something right about the need for dispassion. There’s a weirdness in insisting everything be heartfelt and generating nothing at all. Communication is not just me to you. It is my constructing an image, convincing to me and hopefully to you, that speaks to you. In turn, you construct images and continue a cycle.

Images have limits. This brings us to Ryan’s second one. The collapse in the night is like “Like a rupture in water (which can’t rupture of course).” We see ourselves as soaked or ready to be shattered, but is this correct? Wanting depth, we lost count, but we were plumbing ourselves. If we are water, we are more malleable and perhaps stronger than we thought ourselves.

Finally, a return to spirit. “All your horses broken out with all your horses.” You could say the water floods, the horses are loose, everything is ruined. And maybe that’s true. But it’s also true that my mind hasn’t stopped repeating itself and yet I’m finding something genuinely different to say.  Creation comes from the same point of origin as failure. It’s a scary thought, but it seems to be Ryan’s comment on Yeats’ “The Fascination of What’s Difficult.” To be free is to embrace the risk, the possibility of overcoming it, the possibility of simply seeing what happens.

Issac Rosenberg, “August 1914″

With thanks to Benjamin Roman

August 1914 (from Poetry)
Issac Rosenberg

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.


Kay Ryan had this to say in a charming little meditation entitled “Sweet Talk:”

Too little is made of the agreeability of patently, triumphantly, idle conversation. Much presses us toward substance — wars, prizes going to the wrong people. We feel obliged to refer to these topical evils, but it is only aggravating, usually; no real depth and no real lightness.

I haven’t really had time to think about “the agreeability of patently, triumphantly, idle conversation,” because I’ve been focused on another sort of idleness. In the Oeconomicus, much is made of a sailor who talks about how everything on his ship is clearly and distinctly arranged. The utility of the arrangement of things is always present, but most helpful in an emergency (VIII: 11-18). Having a supremely well-ordered life, being ready for anything, sounds amazing until you realize you’re at war all the damn time. In a store, for example, you’re competing against other stores. Against your fellow employees. In a way, against your customers and your managers, because you don’t just need their praise, you need them to concede to you in some way. Stores are a great example of the sailor’s logic – everything ordered to the end of selling, most attractive items in front and plentiful, the back stocked and ready for more sales if need be – as no one would regard living in a store the way human beings ought to live.

It’s a thought conceived in idleness that human life is only the conquest of necessity. We deal with what is necessary. To let such things define us is to lose something unique to us. But then comes the problem Ryan poses. Don’t the larger issues, like freedom, dignity, and justice, demand to be spoken about? How can we be natural or authentic, not forcing ourselves to see the bigger problems when we’re not really concerned with them?

At first I tried imagining what idle conversation that is a joy to have sounds like. Being a pretentious gasbag, I ended up reading about ISIS and trying to imagine what sound American policy in Iraq would be like, playing the role of “expert” by reading a few news stories. That serious things frequently are treated trivially by us, without us even knowing what we’re doing – I get that. But it doesn’t even begin to help us conceive what truly pleasant, idle chatter is like.

Maybe Rosenberg’s poem offers a solution. Written during the Great War, it pulls no punches. It reminds me of Blake, who with the deftest, darkest touch could make evil come to life and force us to realize just how awful the idols we create are:

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

“What in our lives is burnt / In the fire of this?”war is a forge, destroying, purifying, molding. It is desire, it is life, it is death. Yeah, this means my little thought above concerning the inhumanity of trying to prepare for an emergency all the time needs to be qualified, for now. Rosenberg’s question is very specific: something in our lives is burnt in a fire. The answer is lot less clear. “What” is burnt could be the same as “the fire of this.” “The heart’s dear granary” implies that much, as a granary is meant to be consumed. “The much we shall miss” is not just our experiences or loves, but our capacities and potential.

Something essential to us wants war.  Rosenberg has to grapple with what seems most fluid, any consideration of essence. He does this by embracing the fluidity, letting human nature depict itself:

Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.

The golden color of honey disappears as the honey becomes iron-like. Iron is fundamental; gold was beautiful and most temporal. The ordering of the second line in this second stanza is nothing short of brilliant. Rosenberg has given us a false end in “gold,” letting the misery of the images we chase sting. Yet the central element, “honey,” stands out. There are sweet things, and iron preserves a memory of them, weirdly enough.

He works in the third stanza to undermine any sweetness tempting us. Iron is molten, flowing like honey, breeding the ravages of war:

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Iron does not just cut down youth on the battlefield. It’s their desire, what they were born into. The everyday necessities that could involve a fire on farmland, the decay that is aging, and the violence we do to each other are all one. There’s no real logic to this; it’s the way it is, and it confronts us. There was more logic in the second stanza, which suggested that something sweeter could be had.

Maybe that’s the answer I’m looking for. We use our reason to chase images, and that’s not always the worst thing. If one can chatter away about small things and find it involving and pleasant, that’s not delusional or a waste of time. It is, in a strange way, authentically pious. You’re using what might be a higher power to appreciate something small. It’s easy to see how such a life would be blessed or divine without any New Age notions of self-actualization. There’s a kind of governance involved which some thinkers, once upon a time, thought could translate into leadership. The truly great comes from the small. Only a few know what is worth sacrificing for.

Kay Ryan, “Wooden”

Wooden (h/t Tessa Hulls)
Kay Ryan

In the presence of supple
goodness, some people
grow less flexible,
experiencing a woodenness
they wouldn’t have thought possible.
It is as strange and paradoxical
as the combined suffering
of Pinocchio and Geppetto
if Pinocchio had turned and said,
I can’t be human after all.


This poem is what I can’t say. I can say generally that I feel taken for granted. It’s true but generic and doesn’t indict anyone.

The poem, on the other hand, explores a boast and a related pain. “Supple goodness” is no less than showing gracefulness. To say it characterizes you, or that you help make it present, seems like insane bragging. But at some point, you know you’ve exhibited it. You know you’ve worked to put others at ease, you know you’ve achieved it at moments, you’ve seen them happier and heard their gratefulness and have good reasons you weren’t lied to.

And then it’s all over. Your “supple goodness” produces nothing for anyone. They’ve moved on, whether back to families, or to other friends, or to relationships or careers. And the kind of grace you manifested seems a colossal waste. What you were doing was not a lie, contrary to every thought in your head screaming otherwise.

Just as virtue depends on the existence of vice, our better traits encourage behaviors which in turn take them for granted. This is more than a cynical consequence. When you act one way well, you allow others to act differently, even as they seem to participate in your action. Complicating things infinitely: woodenness may not be a vice. It’s a kind of cementing in the way one way is, a kind of self-knowledge that willfully withdraws. It creates the conditions for certain graces to emerge, but it is what grace allows.

The end result is tragic, there’s no doubt about that. And this: grace didn’t replicate, but stayed itself, and that was the problem. The sadness is that things are known, and hard – if not impossible – to accept. Pinocchio deciding not to be human feels wrong to us, but in a way, it is true to his origin and Geppetto’s love for him. We can’t really accept that the perfection of a virtue could be that virtue’s very failure. Don’t virtues create good in the world? Don’t they make us better? Sort of. You can be the best person the world has ever known, and strictly speaking no good for anyone.

Kay Ryan, “Chop”

Chop (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
reached. His
each step makes
a perfect stamp–
smallish, but as
sharp as an
emperor’s chop.
Stride, stride,
goes the emperor
down his wide
mirrored promenade
the sea bows
to repolish.


I was at a sports bar tonight and I couldn’t do a thing there. Everyone came in with their group and no one was particularly prone to saying hi or sharing a conversation with strangers. The bartenders were these gorgeous women with tattoos, and the tattoos were elaborate enough to be conversation starters. Emphasis on “start,” as there wasn’t much of a middle or end.

So let’s talk about our speaker in this poem. She’s watching a bird walk – maybe there’s a bit of a waddle? – down the beach. She gives us three sentences about this. In the first sentence, she mentions “bird” and “beach,” but elaborates that the last wave created a “glazed edge” upon which the bird walks along. In the second sentence, she talks about the footprints this bird makes as he steps. They are perfect stamps, “sharp as an emperor’s chop.” You can read about chops here; they are official stamps that were as good as a signature of the emperor. In the third sentence, she talks as if the bird was the emperor, striding down a “wide mirrored promenade” belonging to him, repolished by an obedient sea.

Okay then! This is already a step up from my bar conversation – the speaker is a crazy person with big ideas. As is always the case with Kay Ryan, her speaker’s imagery is “as sharp as an emperor’s chop.” A lot rests on “the glazed edge the last wave reached;” this is a mirror, sure, but a mirror created by the sea or ocean. It isn’t hard to stretch the idea of water a bit further and assert that no less than time reflects the bird, giving it back a perfect, even idealized image, maybe of itself. Ryan’s speaker does not say “mirror” initially. “A glazed edge” is literally a reflective line, and maybe even not a line. Where the ocean meets the earth is not clearly drawn or given, just like the present is nothing but what has passed turning into the future.

So what does it mean that Nature gives this little bird back a resplendent image of itself? (This has happened: it is origin of the poem.) That’s a bit tricky, but it’s easy to see that our notions of power start looking pretty pathetic. We create all this conventional machinery, rig up entire systems of belief and virtue, to give an Emperor the power he has. All that power, power over life and death, culminates in his stamp. And we go through even more elaborate lengths to make sure that stamp looks perfect, like the power of God has made itself manifest. And here’s a small bird with small steps making footprints that are just as good, if not better.

But the bird is obviously not waddling along the beach because it is powerful. It probably looks free. To be free is to be mirrored by nothing less than time, which stands outside you. The Emperor ultimately was crafted out of necessities to respond to necessities. His stamp leads to a world of even more conventions and all sorts of pointless pettiness. The bird makes stamps as it walks. It seems to do as it will in a world which exists around it. The bird points to the rest of the world, not just what is man-made with singular purpose. We can learn from the bird, maybe be truly governed by it.

Kay Ryan, “Still Start”

Still Start (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

As if engine
parts could be
wrenched out
at random and
the car would
still start and
sound even,
hearts can go
with chambers
broken open.


I brushed this poem aside several times, thinking there wasn’t much happening except the obvious. But something nagged and pushed me to go back each time. This time, it wasn’t a small voice inside my head, but just rereading my journal to see what I was working on.

A counterfactual is proposed: a car with engine parts wrenched out at random can “still start” and sound. This is the exact same as how broken hearts keep going.

So fine. We’re not machines, because we go on in an even dumber way – that was my first read.

This time, I became fixated on “still start.” It’s a strange expression. It has some very dark implications; I felt it implied “still born” in a way. It isn’t simply equivalent to “yet will start in spite of.” It is the image of “starting” while still, making one wonder if something started so can move at all or is ready to die again.

To extend the metaphor a bit less morbidly: maybe all of us “still start.” Our being contains potential and pain; there are spaces within us distributed randomly. Thing is, our being is realized in time. To put something incomplete out there is to watch it “go” as a cruel joke. It makes a sound and seems to move, but it doesn’t accomplish an end except by chance. The heart/engine isn’t precisely because it is.

This brings us to more extended metaphor. The only way the heart can be is to be whole in time. Time, then, has the burden of making us “go” and making us count. It does the former in a way no matter what; our speaker grudgingly hints it may also do the latter. One might be tempted to write the speaker off as a romantic, seeing love and disappointment as a totality that they aren’t necessarily. That doesn’t quite do justice to the fact that some losses are utterly crushing, that time is a cruel taskmaster of a machine. The darkness of this poem is that in spite of it all, our hearts are crucially dependent on mechanism. Disappointment isn’t our regret we weren’t loved. It’s our thought that we didn’t love well enough.

Kay Ryan, “Salvage”

With thanks to Nadia Nasedo

“Salvage” (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The wreck
is a fact.
The worst
has happened.
The salvage trucks
back in and
the salvage men
begin to sort
and stack,
whistling as
they work.
Thanks be
to god—again—
for extractable elements
which are not
carriers of pain,
for this periodic
table at which
the self-taught
salvagers disassemble
the unthinkable
to the unthought.


What Nadia and I discovered reading this poem is what you discovered. Namely, it is impossible for us not to have strong feelings about how the speaker, someone we assume has suffered something catastrophic, should feel.

It isn’t that we’re wrong in our judgment, necessarily. The last word, “unthought,” implies there might be a point where the wreck might not matter. The speaker seems to want to move there too soon. Only the wreck is a fact. “The worst has happened” is our narrator’s opinion, presented as if it were a fact. Thanks are given to god for parts of the wreck; apparently, those parts don’t carry any pain and the potential for reassembly is implicit. We are all salvagers to a degree; does the speaker identify with that?

The trouble with the above reading is that it is a “first sailing,” to use the term in Benardete’s strict sense. We see an argument and disagree with it: case closed. We have failed to reconstruct the full drama, which in this case includes us. When the drama is accounted for, the argument reveals something quite unexpected.

The second sailing starts with taking the speaker seriously as an observer. Yes, she’s hurt and probably wrong that “the worst has happened.” There are many wrecks in life, to say the least. But she watches the salvage men with keen interest.

They truck “back in” and they “begin to sort and stack.” It feels like they’ve been here before, turning disorder into order. They’re whistling as they do this, again. Why the cosmic imagery, why the need to invoke Creation? Yes, there are “extractable elements” that don’t carry pain; yes, the “self-taught salvagers” break down in order to build again. The speaker can’t possibly be thinking all acts of destruction are also acts of creation, no matter how much one part of the cycle depends on the other. It’s too glib to say such a thing.

But again, I’ve been led into a trap. She’s just bearing witness and expressing an ironic thanks. What she’s witnessing is just how inhuman not just destruction but creation is. How inhuman the self that can get away from her own vulnerability is.

I think I’ll leave this commentary at that, except for one thing which came up with “unthinkable” and “unthought.” Of course the elements of the wreck carry pain, and of course loss subsides because of the mere fact of time. We forget in the sense that we have other things to think about. That’s why “unthought” seems a mistaken word by the speaker, but actually is the truest thing spoken. To wit: when catastrophe occurs, we respond two ways. First, we mourn that reality has been shaken, that something has disrupted a normal flow that would proceed smoothly if everything else just stayed in its place. Second, sometimes we are confronted on a deeper, much more frightening level, with our “reality” being pretty much just our conventions and expectations, that what we possess and love has no necessary being. That our “creation” isn’t truly creation, that destruction wasn’t a happenstance. I obviously am not saying this to be cynical or mean, but to drive home the point that the scariest thing really is to question the value of value. Not because of nihilism, but because of where one must be thrown to do this, shipwrecked if you will.

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.

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