About Kevin Young’s “Ragtime”

As I was going through things to unpack from the move, an old MTA MetroCard fell out of one of the books I’d pulled out from the prison of a cardboard box. On the back of it was a copy of Kevin Young’s 2003 poem “Ragtime,” available via the Poetry Society of America here. I confess to no small amount of nostalgia when I saw the fare-card, now long-expired but once a fixture of my daily life, the flimsy magnetized cardboard a key to travel among the teeming masses and to marble temples to human knowledge, connections to the wisdom of ages distilled into a few square miles and piled high, and I lingered over the words of a poet my aunt’s age, thinking about what they mean and how they mean it.

MetroCard - Wikipedia
The thing itself…
Image from Wikipedia, used for commentary.

My answer to questions of meaning is not the only one, of course. The ten lines, grouped into irregular unrhymed couplets, say other things to other people than me, I know; I know what I know, but I know it because I know it from where I’m from and who I’m from and when I’m from, and I’m the only one who’s walking the path that’s put me here, now, to do this. But in those lines, I read a strange and possessive idea of love, at least at first. Likening the beloved to food, something to be consumed once and not again, with the implication of what happens after meals, may not be the most flattering of comparisons. Nor yet may be the reference to “days later, after / Thanksgiving / when I want / whatever’s left,” which bespeaks the beloved as warmed-over remains from fellowship and feasting, taken in only because nothing better is around, nothing newer or fresher, and indeed, likely to be soon to spoil. What lover likes to be thought of as nearing decay and sickness-inducing disease, bidding a beloved blow it out both ends?

If you do not know what I mean, be grateful.

But there is another view. It could be that the beloved is likened more to the feelings of comfort and familiarity that associate with such things, the year-long longed-for family dishes made in abundance near November’s end in far more numbers than stomachs can take, kept near to hand as long as they can be and turned to again and again, reminders of histories many find pleasant and hopes for futures that may be made so. Or perhaps it is a final scrambling for connection and affection, the “whatever’s left” of the final line being what remains when the festivities are done and the drudge of darkening days proceeds. Although that makes assumptions about the reader and the reader’s situation that may not be in place–but, again, I know what I know because I am from where I am and who I am and what I am and when I am, and in that last, such bonds as may not be in place anymore had not yet lapsed.

It is too long until that holiday comes around next. It will be longer until I need another MetroCard, though I expect I will again.

Care to support my continuing efforts?


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