Poet's Choice: 'The Edges of Time' by Kay Ryan

By Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate of the United States
Sunday, September 20, 2009

If a poem is going to be any good, I have to write it before I feel I should, when I am still quite ignorant of its subject.

I undertook "The Edges of Time" with no more than a tiny vision of time as a physical substance, flattening out at the edges. But then things began to happen. Metaphors cropped up; rhymes wanted in. A kind knowledge bred itself.

This is a very lucky thing. A poem can know more than we can know. It must. I suppose I should admit a secret about "The Edges of Time." It had the most banal origin. What got me thinking about the subject of time was my habit, long noted by my partner, Carol, of suddenly having to do all kinds of things just when it was time for us to walk out the door to go someplace. Carol would stand there, keys in hand; why did I have to put away the dishes now? Couldn't I have done it earlier? No! I was stirred to action by not having time, by time's diminishment or thinning. It makes me laugh to think that a poem that I can now easily read as a meditation on the approach of death -- and which moves me because Carol did become ill and did die, and both of us did feel the "racket of claims" mentioned in the poem -- was written to explain why I couldn't get out the front door. If I tried to write the poem now, it would be too grave; I would know too much; I could not.


It is at the edges

that time thins.

Time which had been

dense and viscous

as amber suspending

intentions like bees

unseizes them. A

humming begins,

apparently coming

from stacks of

put-off things or

just in back. A

racket of claims now,

as time flattens. A

glittering fan of things

competing to happen,

brilliant and urgent

as fish when seas


"The Edges of Time" was first published in the New Yorker and is forthcoming in "The Best of It, New and Selected Poems." Kay Ryan will be a featured presenter at the Poetry and Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival.

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