Kay Ryan, why have I not heard of her? She has turned out to be a most interesting poet for me. Ryan was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008 – 2010 and won the Pulitzer in 2011 for The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. I am not really a fan of reading selected poems collections but in this case, it has been a marvelous introduction to her work.
One of the first things I noticed about Ryan’s poems is that they often rhyme. But the rhyme doesn’t always come at the end of a line where we might expect it, instead it might be placed in the middle of a line or even slightly “off center” in a line. And, frequently, the whole poem will not rhyme. Sometimes it is several lines and sometimes it is only a pair of lines and sometimes the rhymes have a line or two in between. Ryan’s lines also tend to be short. The combination is extraordinary. Here, for instance, is “Age”
As some people age
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;
I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it,
like letting in heaven.
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.
First, I love that she makes up a word, “kinden.” But it is such a perfect word. Here we have rhyme and near rhyme, the repetition of the “en” sound. I also love what she does with weaken/weak/strengthen.
Ryan’s poems also use an often dark humor and unexpected images. She is a master at turning a cliche on its head. See what she does with the cliche “waiting for the other shoe to drop”
The Other Shoe
Oh if it were
only the other
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the midair
collusion of the
unpaired above us
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.
Can you just imagine all those undropped shoes hovering around in space? And I love “midair collusion” since we might expect “midair collision” instead. When all those shoes drop, if they drop at once, we will be in trouble.
The natural world and animals make frequent appearances in her poems and sometimes get whole poems. But they aren’t Mary Oliver nature poems. Ryan uses them to make a bigger point that often comes from a sudden quirk or leap of logic like in the poem “Paired Things”
Who, who had only seen wings,
could extrapolate the
skinny sticks of things
birds use for land,
the backward way they bend,
the silly way they stand?
And who, only studying
bird tracks in the sand,
could think those little forks
had decamped on the wind?
So many paired things seem odd.
Who ever would have dreamed
the broad winged raven of despair
would quit the air and go
bandy-legged upon the ground,
a common crow?
I’ve never read anyone like Kay Ryan. Her poems are short and appear so simple on the page but within them is a depth and complexity that can be ever so subtle but on occasion slaps you in the face. I found myself saying “ah” a lot after reading a poem and then reading it again for another “ah” and one more time because the “ah” goes deeper with each reading.
I borrowed The Best of It from the library but will be purchasing my own copy because this is a book I will be returning to again and again. I also plan to acquire all of her individual books as well.
I just found a Paris Review interview with Ryan from 2008. I haven’t read it all through yet, just skimmed, but this bit caught my eye:
Many critics compare you to Dickinson. Do you think you’re like Dickinson?
That question is like asking, Do you think you’re much like God? That’s not interesting to me. It might be interesting for others, but I feel like it makes me do the work that other people ought to do. Besides, how would you like to be compared to God?
Yup, I’ll definitely be reading more of Ryan.