"There is a / distance where / magnets pull," says Kay Ryan, and I can't help but feel the pull of the words "Bait Goat." I mean, I never imagined I would think of those words in my life, let alone utter them. But here I am now, reflecting at length on "Bait Goat." As one in our philosophy reading group suggested, the title might draw inspiration from a scene in Jurassic Park. Are we all dinosaurs for reading this poem? Are we traversing distance because we smell blood and the prey is easy? In this scenario, the inquiry expands naturally and quickly: if, as Ryan says in the poem, "words attract" over a distance like magnets, then what attracts us to the words? Do we want meaning because we want power? Is intelligence nothing but a superior form of violence? Arma virumque cano.
I want to thank our philosophy reading group for their willingness to talk through this poem: Dan Abella, Josh Cook, K.R., A.R., A.G., and J.W. A huge thanks to the Odessa College LRC for putting up with my loud blathering during the discussion. An enormous and especial thanks to Dan Abella, who introduced me to this poem--I've read lots of Kay Ryan and somehow missed this one!--and who asked a number of questions about words, how they're held, and how they get away which I hope to answer at length later. For now, I want to limit my remarks to the problem of words and violence. There are an awful lot of people who want to speak better in order to hurt better. How do we begin to answer innumerable versions of Why so serious?
Bait Goat (from Poetry) Kay Ryan There is a distance where magnets pull, we feel, having held them back. Likewise there is a distance where words attract. Set one out like a bait goat and wait and seven others will approach. But watch out: roving packs can pull your word away. You find your stake yanked and some rough bunch to thank.
Ryan starts with a subtle meditation on power. Specifically, the power of magnets. "There is a / distance where / magnets pull / we feel, having / held them / back." You could put magnets too close and they would ruin each other. What's fascinating to us is the magic of magnets. We'll hold one at a distance from another and feel the strength of that pull, a pull we know would cause them to fly and collide. The classical term for this sort of relation is erotic–for example, the once spherical humans from Aristophanes' Symposium speech. There's no bait goat or invitation to a hunt yet. There's no hint of violence here.
However, "[l]ikewise / there is a / distance where / words attract." We could use words like magnets, letting them produce a tension unlike any other. But words aren't magnets. "Set one out / like a bait goat / and wait and / seven others / will approach." Why would seven approach your "bait goat?" –Well, count the number of words after Ryan uses "goat."– Also, words are peculiar. Sure, the word you set out attracts others. It is magnetic, but in a different way than a metal. You said the thing that needed to be said, had the mic drop, asserted that if we did X we'd be less human or that so-and-so had the greatest album of all time. Your word, maybe just one word, spoke a universe into existence. It called forth reactions; more things exist because of it. It is creative, simply by being.
Still, the very words "bait goat" conjure a different set of images in our minds. Dinosaurs tearing apart farm animals in one bite, for example. Ryan engages a Nietzschean theme: are creative acts inherently violent? It isn't immediately clear that the bait goat is devoured. Maybe other goats went up and said hi; maybe a plant-eating dinosaur gently offered a branch. In general, though, creating more–having anything more than nothing or one thing only–opens the possibility of discord. Many equate nothingness or static being with peace.
These questions loom: violence against what? Discord as opposed to what? What exactly is threatened? Not so much the goat, which was bait after all. What's at stake: you wanted a word at a certain location. You wanted everyone to gather around a particular place. This, strangely enough, is meaning. What is the meaning of meaning? That we're all here, I guess. So when "roving packs can / pull your word / away" there's a problem. The word attracts other words and all of a sudden meaning isn't clear. The album you said was the greatest is debated; what you asserted was immoral now becomes a possibility. Your meaning, your intent, now is part of a discourse. Some might doubt you even meant what you said.
Yet, "you / find your stake / yanked and some / rough bunch / to thank." Meaning shifts because what you created takes on a life of its own. Words beget words. It is all rather friendly; your goat gets exercise. A primal unity becomes a source of infinite diversity. The concluding lines recall the end of Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility:"
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
Dickinson goes the angelic direction. Her dwelling, "Possibility," has the most beautiful visitors. She learns from them through a simple gesture. "The spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise." A bit of openness, a bit of possibility, makes all the difference. Ryan ends with "some / rough bunch / to thank." We don't want to admit that our meaning needs to flourish beyond us. It's hard to believe the rediscovery of what we thought truth can matter more than the first posit. But if the world is full of goats and dinosaurs, it seems far from the worst thing that things shift around a bit.