What has 15 lines, 39 words and the dense elegance of polished teak? The new poem in The New Yorker, “A Fool’s Errand,” by Kay Ryan:
this is the
rule of dogs
for whom there
are no fool’s
loop out and
come back is
good all alone.
It’s gravy to
carry a ball
or a bone.”
One of Ryan’s casual gifts is to remind us of the rich density of common English words. What can be “delivered”? Babies, newspapers, the mail, a right jab, pizza, punchlines, artillery rounds, Hebrews (Exodus 18:8) – poems, perhaps? Ryan describes the joy of doing for its own sake. On the immediate level, her poem confirms what we already know about dogs – their charming idiocy and eagerness to please. But Ryan is interested in more than canine psychology.
For a poet, for any writer who cares, there are no fool’s errands. Ryan often starts with the grit of such a cliché and builds a pearl around it. Every beginning, every first word (“A”), is a step into a dark room – hardwood floor or elevator shaft? “To / loop out and / come back is / good all alone.” (The coming back part is important.) “The journey is the destination”: a New Age bromide Ryan has probably used already. If the poet returns with a poem, even one good line or word, that’s gravy – the richer and more savory, the better. Ryan rhymes “alone” with “bone.”
I admire Ryan’s poems for their wit and pungency. Like another pungent wit, J.V. Cunningham, she writes short but leaves the impression of tons of marble left on the studio floor. Much life and learning is distilled by craft into a perfect miniature. Louise Bogan – troubled sister to Ryan and Cunningham – writes in her journal in 1937:
“Put me down as one to whom delicate apercus, Swift’s sentence structure, and Mozart’s music, meant as much as the starry firmament and the moral law, and stood for proof of life’s inner cleanliness, tenderness, and order.”