Kay Ryan, "All You Did"

"All you did," says Kay Ryan, "was / walk into a room." Just from that, you unknowingly scaled a sheer vertical face.

Kay Ryan, "All You Did"

"All you did," says Kay Ryan, "was / walk into a room." Just from that, you unknowingly scaled a sheer vertical face. Also, "[n]or can / you go back." Oh well, looks like there are multiple problems to consider.

What exactly is Ryan describing? When did I walk into a room and have no idea I was climbing? How did I miss the difference between horizontal and vertical? I mean, if I were only walking, at some point my entire self must have been a line parallel to the ground. This does not feel like something easy to miss.

Ryan's philosophical poem poses a curious sort of riddle. It isn't a riddle with a one word answer. It does ask for identification, but that of the form of various situations. I believe I must start from what I remember, because the poem can lend itself to thoughts so abstract they're planar. When did I get stuck climbing a mountain, when a "higher pin" could not be set? Probably graduate school, when sunk costs meant I had to leave with some sort of credential. I had done too much to reverse course or jump away, but it wasn't clear what the next step up was. As Ryan puts it, "[t]here doesn't seem / to be a crack."

All You Did (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

There doesn’t seem
to be a crack. A
higher pin cannot
be set. Nor can
you go back. You
hadn’t even known
the face was vertical.
All you did was
walk into a room.
The tipping up
from flat was
gradual, you
must assume.

But was graduate school nothing but walking into a room? Did my choice lead to me consistently doubling-down and not knowing it? How did I fail to notice that I was not swimming, but drowning?

"The tipping up / from flat was / gradual." I think about the hours I spent in the library. It featured dull wood paneling, artless gray tables, and relentless fluorescent light. It was joylessly utilitarian, a place for undergraduates to study organic chemistry for a few hours with their books or their partners. For me, there were moments of real excitement. One of the first essays I encountered there was Seth Benardete's "Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus." Benardete asks you to imagine Oedipus if his feet were a bit too swollen. If that is the case, he would have to use a cane. His story would be that of the baby and the old man of the Sphinx's riddle, but the human being who stands upright and sees clearly would be a mystery to Oedipus himself. Oedipus could answer the Sphinx based on personal experience, but that alone does not constitute self-knowledge.

You can tell why I geeked out over that essay. Why the library was, for a moment, transcendent. I left undergrad feeling like I knew nothing. I was exposed to things like Aristotle's Politics and Machiavelli, but I couldn't tell you how the history of thought worked. I desperately wanted to know if there were ideas we were neglecting. I still want to know how people from another time or age would consider our world. Whether they could even conceive of what we've built or how we're failing.

I guess I did step through a door and the "tipping up / from flat was / gradual." For my part, the failure to notice what was happening came from moments of near-revelation mixed with disastrous neglect. I didn't have many friends; the area was vicious and I had to obtain credibility; I failed to embrace how writing was power. I knew I needed to meet more people, but I didn't understand what I needed to do. I thought if I was immediately useful to others, people would find me worthwhile. That's true if you're not being ignored. If you are being ignored, the most necessary thing to do is speak, and speak clearly and often. I looked for opportunities and wrote a bunch, but I never properly understood why what I was doing was good. I'd volunteer and not follow-up with those who I had helped. I'd ramble when I wrote (quiet please) and think more about search engines than building an audience one person at a time.

Ryan's poem does not initially seem to be about communication, but my reading is that it is about communicating with oneself. Effective communication with oneself is a matter of degree. Failing to inform yourself is like scaling a sheer wall while thinking you're simply walking. But as my story demonstrates, half-realizations are just as problematic, if not moreso. It is clear what to do if you're doing the exact wrong thing. What about when you're doing the right thing the wrong way? "All You Did" depends on what you say to yourself, and that alone determines where the next pin goes.