On becoming Poet Laureate in 2008, Kay Ryan was asked what put her in the mood to write. “Anything that smacks of usefulness is off-limits,” she replied. “Essentially, I read literary essays.” Her own essays on literature are so deliriously good, so in excess of usefulness, that they’re often on their way to poetry. “Prose obeys different laws,” the poet and editor Christian Wiman writes in his introduction to Ryan’s recently published Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose, before adding that many passages in this book will make you wonder whether there’s really a firm distinction between poetry and prose. He’s right. Whether Ryan is expressing enthusiasm (Annie Dillard “could get high C out of a potato”) or skepticism (a conference panel on The Creative Writer as Teacher “looks like the Last Supper but just with water glasses”), her essays frequently draw on her quizzical-lyrical gifts. The seemingly lightweight keeps turning lightly weighty.
The first piece in the book, “A Consideration of Poetry,” foregrounds a vital element of Ryan’s aesthetic. She believes, perhaps counterintuitively, that “feelings, attached feelings that is, are also dead weight in a poem.” Nowadays, many poets and their readers prize the attached, the feelingful, the personal, but when Ryan attends a debate about “transgression” in contemporary poetry at the largest literary conference in North America, she demurs: “How about, transgression against obsessive self-regard? That would be a good one: ‘Hello. I’m Jen and I keep having impersonal thoughts.’”
This championing of impersonality recalls certain aspects of the modernist tradition, and Ryan is certainly an admirer of poetry that she describes as both “abstract and sensorially immediate, with none of the great, warm middle range of the personal.” What she’s really after is not warm but cool. She cherishes those poets who have put their emotions through “the chillifier” or through “cooling coils,” those whose feeling for form has detached or distanced them from the particularity of their own feelings. I think what Ryan most requires from poetry is room. Not room for improvement but for adjustment (“a roomier frustration,” even, as she writes in “Notes on the Danger of Notebooks”). Marianne Moore is accorded more space than any other writer in Synthesizing Gravity not least because she is “cool”—and, being cool, “she is the opposite of sticky.” Poetry must be “ungummifying,” Ryan claims elsewhere. “If a poem sticks you to it, it has failed.”
Ryan’s own quest for success—and for space—began relatively late. She was born in California and her family settled in Rosamond, a small town in the Mojave Desert. In 1976, at the age of thirty, she took a four-thousand-mile trip by bicycle across the US in order to decide whether “to say yes or no to poetry.” She said yes, and her first volume was privately published in 1983. Ryan’s essays, like her poems, seem to flirt with obliquity or confusion, but then the question of whether poetry can ever be wholly intelligible is one of her most persistent subjects. Dazzled by a poem by Moore, she says: “I feel like applauding, but I am not sure why. I have spent some time trying to put the pieces of this poem together. I feel sure that it is a triumph, but it’s like trying to pack a suitcase in dreams. If I get one piece, I lose another.” The feeling of things not quite adding up or staying still, the sense of not being able to hold onto meaning, is characteristic of Ryan, and the analogy she makes here harks back to one of her early poems:
Trying to Get to America
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
And there the poem ends. Ryan does not provide dream interpretation any more than she seeks to decode Moore’s poetry. To have the meaning could be to falsify the experience; and, as she notes elsewhere, whatever else it means, “A poem means you’re in too deep.” She draws attention not simply to a lack of understanding, but a lack in understanding; “Isn’t it odd,” she asks, “to think that in order to listen we must be a little bit relieved of the intention to understand?” Oddly consoling—and oddly exciting. Having pored over many of Moore’s poems, Ryan confesses: “I have come to surprising, not quite mental, but not exclusively muscular, sensation… (I see a note to myself, on a page about a third of the way into the book, that says, ‘I am starting to understand much more—as I give up.’)” By coming to sensations rather than conclusions, the poet-critic offers something rarer than “readings”: the moment-by-moment feeling of reading—and with it, a feel for what poetry is.
It took a long time for Ryan to get noticed in America. She’d been writing poems for thirty-five years before the first substantial review of her work appeared in 1999, and some honors arrived only recently (in 2011 she was awarded both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship). So when she cites one of Robert Frost’s early notes, in which he says he’s been “accused of talking as if to an audience when I have none,” or when she tells of Wallace Stevens’s “immense and stubborn endeavour… this ferocious desire not to be untrue to himself,” Ryan is quietly but firmly paying tribute to her own self-reliance, too. Elsewhere, she notes that “There is nothing so freeing as someone pleasing herself,” as she turns to another source of inspiration:
A poem of Stevie Smith’s does not become another thing which it is our responsibility to profit from. It is not “good” in that burdensome way whose secret subtext is that there is room for improvement in you. You are not required to improve each shining hour and you are not permitted to be empathetic.
At several points in Synthesizing Gravity, Ryan’s most esteemed poets—and Ryan herself—reminded me a little of her English teacher in college, the woman she credits with sending her toward poetry. “Miss Foley had a private life of the mind that she protected, and to which she was eager to return,” she recalls. “She wasn’t entirely there for us. This absence was maddeningly attractive.” Privacy bespeaks potency, and the word “private” in these essays is always used in a positive sense, as a marker of hidden resources. “Aren’t the persuasions of poetry private?,” Ryan asks. By not spelling out an answer, she takes a leaf out of Miss Foley’s book.
Ryan was herself a teacher for more than thirty years at a community college in Marin County. Her qualms about “usefulness” notwithstanding, both her essays and her poems are energized by the question of what is teachable—and of what, if anything, we can learn from experience. (One poem ends by turning to “the whole/curious seamlessness/of how we’re each surrounded/and what it doesn’t teach.”) You might say that her poetry educates by teasing—and by teasing out lessons that won’t stay taught:
Green Behind the Ears
I was still slightly
fuzzy in shady spots
and the tenderest lime.
It was lovely, as I
look back, but not
at the time. For it is
hard to be green and
take your turn as flesh.
So much freshness
It’s pleasingly hard to define the tone and the perspective here: heady yet level-headed, a little bereaved but also decided. This voice is characteristic of Ryan, and it’s also reminiscent of Larkin’s, about whom she writes beautifully. Responding to his poem “Reference Back,” she says:
Things were never as they once were; I mean, even when they were, they weren’t. But that doesn’t take a thing away from the fact that these terrible nostalgic gusts (to which we are constantly susceptible) feel true. They are made up by us; they are abetted by the lyric temperament; we visit them and suffer phantom perfection.
Ryan’s openness to beguiling half-truth, to the ways in which aphorism and aperçu can say so much but only so much, is what makes her such a spry, wry reader and shaper of lyric utterance. For even though poems diagnose our emotional predicaments, they also re-immerse us in them. And for as long as the benefits of hindsight keep becoming subject to yet more hindsight, we’ll always remain a little green behind the ears.
One of the most thrilling things about Synthesizing Gravity is Ryan’s love of how, as Frost once put it, “all poetry has always said something and implied the rest.” Great poems often gainsay in the very act of saying. She has felt the truth of Stevens’s claim that “Poets are never lonely even when they pretend to be,” which leads her to intuit lightness in the dark sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Somehow he created an atomic broth (cooked over despair) that twisted these unlikely word partners together into a supremely powerful and economical description of supreme powerlessness and waste. He is, in the moment of calling himself “time’s eunuch,” released from being “time’s eunuch.”
Although the poet is beside himself with suffering, his poem puts him beside himself in another sense (he has gained some detachment through the act of composition). Ryan ventures the suggestion that Hopkins laughed when he wrote the phrase. “I don’t think it would be a rueful laugh, either,” she adds, “it would be joy.”
Before becoming a poet, Ryan harbored ambitions of being a stand-up comedian (she once admitted in an interview that she didn’t really have the iron nerves required for the role, before adding: “But I do love to hear laughter at a reading. Laughter creates a kind of contact. I hate that atmosphere at a poetry reading where everybody sits there being subtle and sensitive”). In these essays combinations of self-surprise and self-delight bring poetry close to comedy. “We bounce off a truly original mind like rubber balls,” Ryan writes of reading Marianne Moore. “Hers is a genius so perfectly self-tuned that we find ourselves laughing, one of the body’s natural responses to shock.” Indeed, whenever Ryan encounters someone being helplessly, incorrigibly themselves, she smells poetry. She reads the simple aptitude for being yourself as a form of creativity. At one point in these essays, she likens her younger self to an early evolutionary form of the anglerfish, which had to undergo “five hundred separate modifications” in order to develop the lure it now dangles before its mouth. (Before reaching this stage, the apprentice poet spends a long time feeling “silly,” “ill-formed, but with glimmers of something yet to be articulated.”) Here Ryan is repeating—or renewing—a metaphor she first employed in her poetry. In “To the Young Anglerfish,” published in Elephant Rocks (1996), having noted that the creature has some way to go during “the next 400-plus generations,” she ends:
Meanwhile, the problems of life enhance:
an awkwardness attends the mating dance
and an inexplicable thoughtfulness
at the wrong moments.
That part of you that is pledged to the future
abstracts you in some way from nature
with the small n. You feel a
comical, budding power, and then
you don’t again.
This is the kind of animal that Ryan takes the poet to be—at once abashed and determined, courting both absurdity and necessity. The lovely awkwardness of some of the rhymes—many appearing at “wrong moments,” mid-line—is Ryan’s way of pledging herself to adaptive possibilities. (In interviews she has noted that “rhyme makes connections all on its own… like recombinant genetics.”)
Poetry is not just made; it’s makeshift. And if, as Ryan says in another lyric, “Words have loyalties/to so much/we don’t control,” then submission to the sounded matter of words can offer solace; they serve as acoustic connections that lure the mind away from any single mood or outlook (elsewhere, she rhymes “pressure” with “pleasure,” and “drama” with “calmer”). At the end of “To the Young Anglerfish,” the rhymes choreograph an exquisite play of thought: “small n”… “and then”… (drumroll)… “you don’t again.” For a moment—the moment it takes to pause at the end of the penultimate line—we are tempted to think that Something Big is coming, before we are left to wonder a little at the Something we are given. Although the final line might be a sort of let-down, it gains unexpected power from the way the triple rhyme brings things together with a pop. What was apparently cause for puzzlement could be taken as a matter-of-fact relief: it would be agonizing to feel yourself beholden to a comical, budding power all of the time.
The power of Ryan’s writing is founded on her mobility. She’s always looking for ways to place personal experience in a larger prospect or context, always looking to evade the sensation of being stuck. Which brings me back her resistance to “attached feelings,” her support of Jen who keeps having “impersonal thoughts,” and her love of poets who are “the opposite of sticky.” You could say of Ryan’s essays what she says of her poems: they are “giddy with thinking/where thinking can’t stick.” This giddiness is a gift, for Ryan’s commitment to adventures in apperception—to “How a Thought Thinks”—allows sufferings to be “entertained”: “We can examine them as if they were toys although they are not.”
As if. This modest yet intrepid little phrase (along with its cousin, “as though”) lies at the center of Ryan’s poetics. It plays a quietly crucial part in nearly every Larkin poem she praises in Synthesizing Gravity, and one of her best collections, The Niagara River, opens with the phrase “As though.” As-if-ness always leaves breathing space for more thought, and registers a sense of imminence within thought: “The whole thing seems so optimistic,” she says in her essay “The Poet Takes a Walk” when discussing our anticipations of meaning, “as if the mind on its own believes that things are going to fit together.”
This vision of things fitting is what finally connects Ryan’s essays to her poems. Poetry works the way the mind works: “It is deeply compatible with whatever it is we are.” And because we may feel a little incompatible with ourselves, poetry needs metaphors for both body and mind, along with a sound that is at once assured and open-ended:
Carrying a Ladder
We are always
a ladder, but it’s
crashes; easy doors
Or, in the body,
there’s too much
swing or off-
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
We all have our ladders to bear (and, as Ryan notes elsewhere, “we believe in the value of gravity: weight is worth”). But poetry, for her, is also in league with a kind of levity: “We must shake off weight to write good poems.” It is felicitous that Ryan should rhyme “gravity” with “capacity,” for it allows her to reconceive a burden as an escape route. Can such happy hypotheses really provide a way out of damage and apology? Just so. Or just as though.
Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose is published by Grove Atlantic.