Saturday, May 22, 2010

`Idle Rumination, Daydreaming'

Two years ago when Kay Ryan was named U.S. Poet Laureate she told an interviewer:

“I've always taught part time, to a great extent, so that I could have most of my life for wool-gathering. You have to do it about 100 pounds of wool-gathering for an ounce of really good language. So it's very inefficient, and it takes an awful lot of time…”

This week as she prepared to step down from her laureateship Ryan told another interviewer:

“I plan to do a lot more bicycle riding. I got a beautiful new bike and am looking forward to riding it more. I also want to do more woolgathering—idle rumination, daydreaming—which is absolutely essential for poetry, and which I can do on the bicycle.”

Some of my favorite writers are woolgatherers and I’m not surprised Ryan savors the word. “Woolgathering” entered English in the mid-sixteenth century meaning “indulging in wandering fancies and purposeless thinking.” It was a vestige of the pastoral past and literally meant “gathering fragments of wool torn from sheep by bushes.” Such literary woolgatherers as Swift and Lamb (naturally) use it and Sterne and Coleridge embody it. Johnson defines it in his Dictionary as “an old expression coupled with wits, and applied to an inattentive, careless person,” and cites Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy: “Their wits are a wool-gathering.”

To woolgather is diverting and productive. I do it throughout the day, which explains why I’m seldom bored and never feel as though I’ve wasted my time. Woolgathering is what a writer does, except when he's writing. Here’s Ryan’s “A Hundred Bolts of Satin” (from Say Uncle, 2000) a poem about the virtues of woolgathering:

"All you
have to lose
is one
and the mind
all the way back.
It seems
to have been
a train.
There seems
to have been
a track.
The things
that you
from the
abandoned cars
cannot sustain
life: a crate of
tractor axles,
for example,
a dozen dozen
clasp knives,
a hundred
bolts of satin—
perhaps you
more than
you imagined.”

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