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: