"Intention" by Kay Ryan

The poem I'm reading today comes from one of my favorite poetry collections, Kay Ryan's The Best of It. It's called "Intention", and it grabbed my attention recently because it reminded me of the novel I've been reading, George Eliot's Silas Marner.

"Intention" is part of the millenia old tradition of carpe diem poetry, poems that remind us to make the most of the present moment. They remind us of our mortality in order to jolt us into mindfulness. And since the whole point is to get you to put your book down and go live, they tend to be short and sweet.

So here's "Intention":

Intention doesn't sweeten.
It should be picked young
and eaten. Sometimes only hours
separate the cotyledon
from the wooden plant.
Then if you want to eat it,
you can't.

"Cotyledon", of course, leaps to our attention. Ryan is a master of finding a strikingly unusual word or name and fitting it into an otherwise easy-to-read setting. It's the first leafy growth to appear from a seed. It's a beautiful Greek word, mellifluous and fun to roll around your mouth, the contrasts nicely with the clunky phrase "wooden plant".

The first two and a half lines are a perfect proverb. If we wanted to add an extra chapter to Proverbs I'd nominate this fine rhyming couplet. The poem could end right there at "eaten". Why does it continue? Because it wants to say it another way. The first bit of the poem is English—almost Neoclassical like Alexander Pope—and the second part is contemporary American in its use of technical terms, lack of rhyme, and snub-nosed arhythmic ending. It's a bit of a chimaera, but it works excellently.

(Actually, looking at it again, I can't believe I didn't see that the second half does rhyme "plant" with "can't". That actually makes the whole thing feel a bit more like an Ogden Nash poem, playing with extraordinarily long lines to get the desired rhymes. Imagine this poem as four lines, one per sentence, rather than its current seven.)

Silas Marner is a novel about the prejudices and fears that hold us back from love. Most readers probably best remember the novel as the story of Silas and his adopted daughter Effie, but what I found most compelling was the contrast between low-class Silas and his wealthy neighbor (and Effie's biological father) Godfrey Cass.

Silas is a man spurned by fate. Accused of a crime he didn't commit, exiled from the only community he'd ever known, alone at the edge of a community that feared and suspected him: he is a man infrequently visited by good fortune. Godfrey, on the other hand, has nothing but opportunity. All his desires are at arm's reach. He wants a wife—and already has one, and a daughter besides, in another town!

But when real happiness—the infant Effie—comes unexpectedly into both men's lives, it's Silas who has the courage to welcome her into his life. Courage: the courage to do what you've never done before, the courage to have meaning in someone else's life, the courage to trust in your feelings of affection, the courage not to fear the vulnerability of affection. Courage: the courage to love, the courage to be loved. Cass doesn't have this courage. Cass wants to be in control, and (perhaps even more so) to appear to be in control. He could never abandon himself to the unexpected turns of love, and he's the poorer for it.

Ah, I've found the place I marked. Cass has come to assert his rights as Effie's father. Silas, he says, should let Effie live the life of privilege she deserves. In his and Effie's defense, Silas gives the perfect summary of the book's theme:

When a man turns a blessing from his door, it falls to them as take it in.

Seize the day, friends. When a blessing comes to your door, don't turn it away. Pluck the flower before it wilts (or paint it, or write a poem about it). Just don't let it go. Don't give yourself the excuse of good intentions. I'll end with Matthew 13:12, a passage that disturbed me as a child but that I've come to love and find great strength in: "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath."