Tuesday, September 11, 2007

`Order is Always Starting Over'

A poem by Kay Ryan, “Odd Blocks,” appears in the Fall 2007 edition of The Threepenny Review:

“Every Swiss-village
calendar instructs
as to how stone
gather the landscape
around it, how
monuments to
randomness become
fixed points in
finding home.
Order is always
starting over.
And why not
also in the self,
the odd blocks,
all lost and left,
become first facts
toward which later
a little town
looks back?”

Ryan’s formal rigor frees her to navigate serpentine sentences while encouraging the impression they wander like “monuments/to randomness.” Recall Ezra Pound’s dictum to Harriet Monroe in a January 1915 letter: “Poetry must be as well written as prose” – a witty observation rarely heeded except by poets of Ryan’s scrupulosity. We long not for order but for orderly order – reliable, convenient and available on demand, like dialing 911. But Ryan reminds us, “Order is always/starting over.” Understanding is tentative and incomplete. Her thought and choice of imagery in “Odd Blocks” recall William James in A Pluralistic Universe:

“We carve out order by leaving the disorderly parts out; and the world is conceived thus after the analogy of a forest or a block of marble from which parks or statues may be produced by eliminating irrelevant trees or chips of stone.”

In her recent review in Poetry of The Notebooks of Robert Frost, Ryan writes approvingly that Frost “really likes the sensation of drawing a grid over life. And it makes sense: if you're going to be losing your way—which is half of the definition of being a poet—isn't it good to have some cardinal points to come back to?” Only by being scrupulous can we, and a poet like Ryan, look back and find our way. Embracing the chaos, though romantically enticing, is beside the point. Odd blocks – of stone, of type – become useful truths. In A Stroll with William James, Jacques Barzun writes:

“While others cry `Be realistic!’ the pragmatist knows that reality is elusive. In the abstract, reality is a legitimate standard to appeal to; it is the general goal that all truths aim at; but concretely, the real is not there ready to shake hands with the adventurer. He must expect disappointment and bad surprises.”

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