7/19/10 - kay ryan

In today's excerpt - Kay Ryan, poet laureate of the United States:

"Kay Ryan has become a famous poet in much the same way Ernest Hemingway described a man going broke: 'gradually and then suddenly.' She was nearing forty when her first, self-published book appeared, in 1983, but neither that debut nor the two books that followed got much response from readers or critics. ...

"Today, Ryan is entering her second term as poet laureate of the United States, and has received most of the awards American poetry has to give.  The appearance of The Best of It: New and Selected Poems confirms her stature: only the most eminent poets command this kind of publication, which represents for a poet what a career retrospective at a major museum means for a painter. ...

"To a poet like Ryan, nothing could be more of an anathema than bigness. Open The Best of It to any page, and you will find a narrow column of verse, held aloft by taut rhythms and irregular rhymes, her poems are seldom longer than a page and never longer than two. There have been great poets devoted to glut, but Ryan belongs to the other—and usually more trustworthy—camp, the one ruled by what she calls


Action creats
a taste
for itself
Meaning: once
You've swept
the shelves
of spoons
and plates
you kept
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to
divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you've begun.

"In American poetry, the contest between glut and starvation is inevitably epitomized by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Between these two tutelary spirits, Ryan would of course choose Dickinson, and the resemblances between them have been made much of by critics. This is natural enough—after all, Ryan, too, writes brief, compressed lyrics, and has been a kind of outsider to the literary world. ...

"Ryan is no killer, of course, though when she writes about nature she does tend to sympathize more with the predator than with the prey: 'Rabbits are one of the things /coyotes are for,' one poem observes. But Lawrence's other adjectives are a faithful enough description. 'It takes a courageous/ person to leave spaces/ empty,' Ryan writes in Leaving Spaces, [a poem that] condemns the medieval mapmakers who filled up their blanks with monsters or pretty designs: 'Of course they were cowards /and patronized by cowards.' She uses the same metaphor in protesting creative-writing classes: 'One must truly HOLD A SPACE for oneself. All things conspire to close up this space.' If this were simply a complaint about the poetry world, it could be dismissed as mere crankiness; as an expression of Ryan's sensibility, or even her philosophy of life, it goes much deeper. Thoreau would have understood it perfectly."


Adam Kirsch


"Think Small: America's quiet poet laureate"


The New Yorker


April 12, 2010


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