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…
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