From Antelope Valley Community College to the poet laureate’s chair from 2008 to 2010—the story behind Kay Ryan’s late fame (she was born in 1945) is a transfixingly unusual one in the arts. The daughter of an oil-well driller, Ryan was raised on the Mojave Desert in a household she described on the PBS Newshour as a quieted one: “My mother was quite a nervous person and couldn’t stand too much stimulation or excitement. We didn’t have the radio on, certainly didn’t have television on. We lived quietly.” After two years at Antelope Valley, Ryan transferred to UCLA, graduating with a BA and MA in English. For thirty years, she taught basic English courses at the College of Marin, a community college near San Francisco, where her partner Carol Adair, who died recently, also taught. Ryan’s new collection, The Best of It, is inscribed, “For Carol/who knew it.”
In 1983, just short of forty, Ryan self-published a first book of poems, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends; in 1985, her second book, Strangely Marked Metal, came out from Copper Beech Press in Rhode Island. There are, in her New and Selected Poems, no poems from these two early volumes, so one might think of this book more accurately as New and Middle Selected Poems, beginning as it does with pieces from her third book, the 1994 Flamingo Watching, published when she was almost fifty. Subsequent poems were collected into Elephant Rocks (1996), Say Uncle (2000), and The Niagara River (2005). As Ryan became better known, significant recognition came her way (a Guggenheim, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize); and then she was appointed, in 2008, to the laureateship (a position housed at the Library of Congress). Each laureate is asked to promote some project: Ryan has called her cause “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy,” by which she hopes to direct attention to community colleges and to draw community colleges to poetry.
And what sort of poetry has issued from this unusual personal trajectory? Although it is a poetry of brevity, Ryan must be tired of being placed, as she often is, in a putative female line-of-the-brief that goes from Emily Dickinson to Marianne Moore to Amy Clampitt. Brevity has always attracted one species of poet, from the classical epigrammatists onward, and Ryan’s better critics, while naturally mentioning other women poets, have also seen affinities with such male poets as A.R. Ammons, whose volumes Briefings and The Really Short Poems certainly put him among the aphorists of verse. But Ryan does not have a body of long poems, as Ammons did, and she finds the short poem as congenial as it was to Dickinson. Dickinson regarded her poems as the ashes left after a conflagration; their original substance could be deduced from the “carbonates” of their chemical residue. The reader is expected to do the work of tracking the ash-poem back to its full-bodied origin in the mind and heart:
Ashes denote that Fire was—
Fire exists the first in light
And then consolidates
Only the Chemist can disclose
Into what Carbonates—
The poetic experience is first illumination, then ignition; but (as Shelley said) “the mind in creation is as a fading coal,” and ignition leaves only its ash-trace on the page. The reader of Ryan, like the reader of Dickinson, must relate the abstraction of the poem to the implied life-situation that it might issue from or clarify. This decoding work is made lively by Ryan’s oblique humor, which runs from grim to whimsical, from delighted to sardonic: the reader has to “live along the line” (Pope) and gauge the tone.
“Flamingo Watching,” the title poem of the first volume appearing in The Best of It, is described in Ryan’s charming comment (at this year’s Key West Literary Seminar) as a piece expressing her disaffection from the aggressive down-to-earth “naturalness” of the Sixties, “when it seemed like only chunky peanut butter was real peanut butter; everything had to be raw, raw linen, and raw this and burlap-colored that.” The poet rebels against the puritanical aesthetic “rules” of that generation, and pointedly closes her praise of the flexibility and ornamentality of flamingoes with a picture of the sort of willfully unlovely but “natural” aesthetic object the Sixties might admire. The flamingo, she says, like all art, is “unnatural by nature.” Here are the flamingos (and how does a flamin-go walk? It goes):
Wherever the flamingo goes,
she brings a city’s worth
of furbelows. She seems
unnatural by nature—
too vivid and peculiar
a structure to be pretty,
and flexible to the point
Speaking of the offended advocates of “naturalness,” Ryan reproduces their opinion:
The natural elect,
they think, would be less pink,
less able to relax their necks,
less flamboyant in general.
They privately expect that it’s some
poorly jointed bland grey animal
with mitts for hands
whom God protects.
Ryan decides for furbelows, and especially for rhymes. She inserts these with abandon, even to excess, and sometimes manages them awkwardly. She likes creating internal rhymes along with external ones, as in “Spring” (from Flamingo Watching), which creates a chain of inner and outer rhymes:
Winter, like a set opinion,
is routed. What gets it out?
The imposition of some external season
or some internal doubt?
I see the yellow maculations spread
across bleak hills of what I said
I’d always think; a stippling of white
upon the grey; a pink the shade
of what I said I’d never say.
This is, in its theme, a touching poem, as the poet finds herself, when winter is routed, saying what she always said she would never say. That utterance is a blossoming, is yellow, is white, is pink, is (perhaps) “I love you.” But the arbitrariness of the rhymes is sometimes offputting: Does something palpable link “winter” and “internal”? Are the “think” and “pink” in the middle of adjoining lines consonant with the earlier management of the poem (an end-rhyming quatrain and an end-rhyming couplet); and is the “grey” in mid-line rhyming with the “say” at the end convincing? I think Ryan would answer that the first, more regular, part (quatrain plus couplet) is about the routing of the “set opinion” of the past, and that it is important that the new self (expressing itself in the last three lines) should exhibit a different formality from the first part. But such inventions, aside from being defensible, should by their sound please or alert or warn the ear, and these, to my mind, don’t always succeed in doing so.
Rhyme, as Ryan has said, is important to her: as one word calls out to another, a forthcoming rhyme can send the imagination heading off into a new dimension. Rhyme did not play so large a part in her early, more confessional poems in Strangely Marked Metal, some of which, such as “Prologue,” tell a moving story of a young person moving away from her family’s Catholicism, feeling herself to be, in her arid desert of boulders, no Joan of Arc inspired by heavenly voices:
I have no people.
I have no faith.
I do not hear voices that can
tell me what to do if I am
fearless. The boulders are
faceless, anonymous, everything
She has decided to be a poet, but the way to that vocation is obscure: in the remarkably candid “Trying to Get to America,” her voyage is not only obstructed by her very preparation for it, but impeded as well by other lurking callings making their own demands:
As in a dream where I can
never finish packing
I feel the tug of my land
waiting. As though it expects
me to tell it something I know,
something I already
know—and it is so slow, this
packing, this insistence on socks
matching and the intrusion of
To leave home seemed desertion, and yet at a given point, “it did not make sense not to/bite the hand that fed you./In fact it was the only/sensible thing to do.” In “L’Abandon ou les Deux Amies” the young speaker discovers love with another woman, in “an easy voluptuousness, a soft wash/of light on garments./Their limbs/may intertwine.” It is a pity that some of these poems from Strangely Marked Metal do not appear in The Best of It: they don’t deserve to be banished until the day when a Collected Poems will appear.
A single poem from 1965 is, however, allowed to occupy a page of this new selection: written when Ryan was twenty, it is an elegy for her father. The poem is called, defiantly, “After Zeno” because it draws on Zeno’s paradox of the arrow to attest to her father’s continuing presence through the infinite divisibility of time:
When he was
But I still am
and he is still.
Where is is
when is is was?
I have an is
but where is his?
such a little
There’s no sense
in past tense.
In this stark elegy, the essential elements of Ryan’s art already govern the page: the play with minute bits of language (as “now here” becomes “no where”—has anyone previously seen this transformation?), the pun (“I still am/he is still”), the internal rhyme (“little/fatal”), the reduction of a grand subject to its bare bones (“Where is is/when is is was?”), and the closing aphorism (which here perhaps falls too briskly).
Over the past fifteen years, Ryan’s poems, resolutely impersonal versions of the personal, have varied in quality. Her comedy can be winning or merely coy; her language can be arresting or merely distorted; her grimness can have the true metal of accuracy or the mere love of the violent. There are poems among the new offerings that test a reader’s response: do you like it or not? I don’t like “The Hinge of Spring,” in which Ryan takes the anguished Keatsian perception of “the hawk at pounce, the gentle robin/Ravening the worm” (“To John Hamilton Reynolds”) into a desert where coyotes kill jackrabbits in a flash. However, the poet adds, with the jackrabbit no longer grazing the ground, compensatory “clumps” of flowers “shoot up”:
The jackrabbit is a mild herbivore
grazing the desert floor,
quietly abridging spring,
eating the color off everything
rampant-height or lower.
Rabbits are one of the things
coyotes are for. One quick scream,
a few quick thumps,
and a whole little area
shoots up blue and orange clumps.
In Ryan’s Key West reading, this ending produces jolly laughter from the audience. Well, yes, “thumps” and “clumps” is a comic rhyme. And it’s true that Ryan doesn’t obscure the cost—“One quick scream.” But she gets over the scream rather too quickly; and are the flowers worth the scream? Yeats, at the end of “The Man and the Echo,” was shaken out of meditation by a comparable scream:
Up there some hawk or owl has struck
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out,
And its cry distracts my thought.
Maybe Ryan’s mix of the grim and the genial is precisely her gift. But I can’t find “The Hinge of Spring” when I take it to be not a literal anecdote of the coyote and his prey but an allegorical story of some puritanical killjoy zapped out of power by an aggressive flower-lover.
What I like better is Ryan’s invigorating defense-with-criticism of her native West, savaging a passage (quoted as epigraph) in which T.S. Eliot loftily claims that Blake’s ideas exhibit “a certain meanness of culture. They illustrate the crankiness, the eccentricity, which frequently affects writers outside of the Latin tradition.” This daughter of the desert replies ironically (in “A Certain Meanness of Culture”):
What else can we do,
born on deserts
by borax traders
aspiring to a
if they’re real lucky?
Someone has to get here
before the mythology,
to be happy in the
first tailings of industry,
and of course lonely….
You start to value culture
like you would water.
I’d say this one’s about
pretty stringy and impatient
with the fat smoke off
old cities. You get cranky
and admire just what stands up
to the stars’ cold and the
sun’s fire. You like winches
and pulleys, picks and khakis….
Ryan thinks of her poems as winches and pulleys, as expressions by which a heavy feeling—serious or sad or angry—is lifted up to lightness. Like Dickinson (in “A Spider sewed at Night”) and Whitman (in “A Noiseless Patient Spider”), she turns to the spider as a symbolic sibling, but where Dickinson’s web is delicate (“Ruff…of Dame/Or Shroud of Gnome”), and Whitman’s is gossamer-thin (“filament, filament, filament”), Ryan’s, in “Spiderweb,” is a weighty one difficult to lift:
not from the
lines to the
Although “Spiderweb” appears, for most of its length, to be about the difficulty of constructing even brief webs of poetry (exemplified here in the tiny lines consisting of a word or two), the aphorism with which it ends pitches the import onto another plane entirely. Life itself is a coarse hauling and hitching, painfully struggling at each moment against the attrition of relationship. It will not do to sentimentalize such things: “It/isn’t ever/delicate/to live.” Such a poem vivifies the parallel between the remedying of life and the remedying of language, and argues for the strength of the apparently frail fibers of relation in both.
I have been quoting Ryan’s poems whole, for the most part, because they are comprehensible only as wholes, so neatly are they finished (“Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!” said Marianne Moore in “An Octopus”). Imagine trying to give an impression of Ryan’s “Spiderweb” by quoting only a few lines; the point of the whole is its stringency of means throughout its entire length. Reading “Spiderweb,” one realizes that it is unusual for Ryan to end so decisively in sadness, or, as in the case of an opportunity lost, in the self-vindictiveness one sees in “Intention.” Here is its unhappy ending:
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,
“Sweeten…eaten”; “plant…can’t.” These are meaningful Ryan-rhymes, and snap the poem into minatory shape. The best poems have mixed feelings rather than single ones.
Ryan’s work might be considered outside the mainstream, and she (as someone who began outside the realm of privilege) feels she ought to stand up, as a matter of principle, for “outsider art.” But like any aesthete, she is repelled by incompetent creation; and for all her well-wishing she draws back. “Outsider Art” was chosen by Harold Bloom for inclusion in The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988–1997:
Most of it’s too dreary
or too cherry red.
If it’s a chair, it’s
covered with things
the Savior said
or should have said—
in nail polish
too small to be read.
If it’s a picture,
the frame is either
burnt matches glued together
or a regular frame painted over
to extend the picture.
Who has not seen such abominations? Ryan quips curtly, “There never/seems to be a surface equal/to the needs of these people.” Nor is their appetite satisfied by additions and extrapolations:
Their purpose wraps
around the backs of things
and under arms;
they gouge and hatch
and glue on charms
till likable materials—
apple crates and canning funnels—
lose their rural ease.
But after all this demolition, Ryan regrets that she must repudiate these abominations; is there no place in America for untutored “art” of the admirable sort she had hoped to find?
We are not
pleased the way we thought
we would be pleased.
Ryan is, despite her desert beginnings, a lover of Satie, a reader of Brodsky and Bishop; she cannot disavow her own talent and taste, her intelligence and achievement.
There was a time, however (as she says in the Key West reading), when she felt hostile to any writer who had begun with privileged status, and she assumed that to be true of Elizabeth Bishop. When she discovered the griefs and displacements of Bishop’s early life, she composed her “Apology,” beginning “I thought you were/born to privilege.” At the end, she identifies the cultural predicament in which any young woman used to find herself: “we are so fastened, we are so dutiful.”
I never thought you knew about exhaustion—
how we have to leap in the morning
as early as high as possible,
we are so fastened, we are so dutiful.
Ryan replicates “exhaustion” in the requirement to leap “as early,” “as high,” “as possible” if the young woman wants to surmount her lack of privilege, and she replicates the double bind of the external family coercion and the internal wish to be a “good girl” in the two clauses that end the poem and almost lock the girl in the house forever.
It is interesting to hear, on the Web, Ryan’s attractive voice—light, dulcet, winning, quick with enthusiasm and humor. The repression of the autobiographical in favor of the impersonal in her poetry of suffering is mitigated by her personal intonations and candid ad hoc comments. “In our home,” she commented on the PBS Newshour, “something like being a poet would be thought of as putting on airs. It would be embarrassingly pretentious, and educated, and snobbish…. I mean, it’s all right to be intelligent and to use every possible aspect of language, but never to be pompous.” Some of this attitude must come from Ryan’s view of the painfully constricted life of her mother, as though it would be a reproach to that almost anonymous parent to depart too far from her as she is remembered in the elegy “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard”:
A life should leave
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place….
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
But of course the marks of such a life vanish almost as they are imprinted. There is no indignation here but there is continued sorrow in an understatement that wrings the heart: “Things shouldn’t/be so hard.” And such poems do not suffer from the absence of ostentatious rhyme. More and more, Ryan has tempered her love for the insistent sound, to the benefit of feeling.
Ryan occupies the uneasy, and frequent, rank of the self-made American writer, growing up with no “background” that could help with the rise to mastery of language, with no money to buy select education from kindergarten on, doing an ill-paid job not offering much public recognition. (But as poet laureate, she has been, this year, the Mohr Visiting Poet at Stanford.) From a life that has not been easy, she has mined nuggets that add to American poetic wealth. Reversing Stevens’s declaration that money is a kind of poetry, she writes, in her didactic vein, “Poetry Is a Kind of Money”:
Poetry is a kind of money
whose value depends upon reserves.
It’s not the paper it’s written on
or its self-announced denomination,
but the bullion, sweated from the earth
and hidden, which preserves its worth.
Such announcements have less to do with the value of Ryan’s own poetry than her more unobtrusive lines, as in “Polish and Balm,” an elegy (one guesses) for her life-partner Carol Adair:
as well as
on top when
the chap of
and balm in
among her things.
We knew she
but not what
With the death of someone loved, one loses the almost invisible “polish and balm”—two unexpected and wholly right words—bestowed almost inconspicuously on life when she was present. Her departure leaves only “the chap of/abandonment.” And if nothing clever, in Ryan’s earlier manner, can be said about that, something better than cleverness takes its place, a “polish and balm” in the simplicity of the poet’s lines.