Kay Ryan is a stealthy wit. It took me a few years to be able to read her work because the extreme shortness of the lines had the curious effect of overwhelming me: too much effort, it felt, demanded by too little work, which might in turn not repay the effort of reading. (This was, of course, a silly and shallow way to judge any book’s worth.) Hearing her read on several occasions finally drove me to buy her books and to catch up on her work. In a way, I’m glad I waited, as hers is a poetry not merely of light humor but of mature self-assurance: poetry written for poetry’s sake, not written to satisfy poetic fashion, careerist scrambling, nor narcissistic navel-gazing.
s me to Ryan’s poetry are its compression, its meatiness, its intelligence, its humor. Hers is a poetry that forces the reader to consider each word in an age that values the prolix polemic (or open-mic “rant”). Elsewhere, Ryan has written that the poet’s job is to remediate clichés. Take a look at “Felix Crow” (5):
is basic and
short as a rule–
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students (ll. 1-6).
This gives you an idea of the sort of humor we’re dealing with here. Yet she’s not merely after the laugh. She wants you to look at the mundane in new ways, to take a moment and turn over the shiny bits for the fun of it, the way a crow might:
Then each lives out
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet (ll. 7-20).
You might say that Ryan anthropomorphizes the crow’s behavior to create a metaphor for human nature. Or, if you are prone to address the various creatures that you cross paths with, you might say, “Hey! She looks at crows like that, too!” While the vocabulary is likely accessible to any smart second-grader, the ideas it expresses—human arrogance, vita brevis, and the ability to laugh appreciatively at such weaknesses rather than to get sanctimonious about them—are not simplistic ones.
Ryan’s fascination with the extravagant glory of rhyme is illustrated on the facing page in “Shark’s Teeth.” Notice how the rhymes are prominent to the ear, yet buried within the very short lines themselves; this is characteristic of her style:
how Ryan gives herself wiggle room:
Everything contains some
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
of rest angled
in it. An hour
of city holds maybe
a minute of these
remnants of a time
when silence reigned,
compact and dangerous
as a shark. Sometimes
a bit of a tail
or fin can still
be sensed in parks (6).
Consider the rhyme types in this poem—remembering that rhymes are based on identical vowel sounds between two words. Ryan packs the poem’s four sentences with
in strict rhyme (gets-zest-rest, sharks-parks), assonance (bit-fin, reigned-dangerous), alliteration (some-silence, shark’s-shaped, in-it), consonance (shaped-rest, tail-still), and other sonic devices within a very small space. This sonic density within a very small space is typical of her work. yet she Ryan avoids the dreaded “sing-song” effect by not forcing the linebreaks to coincide with rhyming pairs. The poem is made up of four sentences. This is what workshop instructors call “hiding the scaffolding,” or masking the overtly formal aspects of craft within a conversational-sounding voice.
Ryan has taught remedial writing for better than 30 years now
, which means that ; perhaps not coincidentally, she knows grammar intimately. It also means that She also understands the power of simplicity. The first sentence (or line-and-a-half) is, indeed, a simple sentence:
(transition?) What’s even more interesting in some ways is the facility with which she generalizes from the particular.
She does have Ryan has a sharp eye for detail , and she has an equally sharp wit. However, it is rare to find a poet whose work exhibits such density of language, such well-drawn imagery, such apt metaphor, careful attention to both rhythmic and sonic devices, and such successful rhetorical casebuilding for one’s own observations all in one poet at once. This Such mastery is the difference between merely putting high sentiment into pretty words and linebreaks and writing poetry of consequence.
Ryan is able to handle abstractions that would ensnare other poets
would snarl —take a look at “Added Significance” (16). Words like horrible, significance (twice!), and burdensome, not to mention events and added used as an adjective, would elsewhere be condemned to die quickly in slashing in a bloodbath of red ink condemnation elsewhere. Shall we comb the poem for clichés? In the wake of, horrible events, added significance, it can’t do any good, and the construction as if…weren’t…enough all each (much less taken as a group) ought to make your flesh crawl in a poem this tiny. And yet.
How does she get away with it?
If you look at Consider the poem’s sentence structure. you’ll see that The first two sentences are a parade of items sentence errors–redundancy, fragment, ambiguous pronoun reference, flaccid modifiers–that, in isolation, we would unequivocally call examples of horrifically bad writing. Here they are as prose lines:
In the wake of horrible events each act or word is fortified with added
significance, unabsorbable as nutrients added to the outside of food: it
can’t do any good. As if significance weren’t burdensome enough (16).
third sentence fragment, with its implied (missing) be verb, is serves the poem as both shift and closure: “Now the wave-slapped beach rocks [are] not just made to talk but made to teach.” (explain why) It’s not that one single excellent sentence can redeem two grammatically and stylistically bad ones; it’s how Ryan deliberately and knowledgeably plays with dissipated clichés that makes turns those flawed sentences into viable ideas , much less and dense poetry.
Relineated to emphasize endrhyme, the poem might have looked something like this:
In the wake of horrible events a
each act or word b
is fortified with added significance, a
unabsorbable as nutrients a
added to the outside of food: b
it can’t do any good. b
As if significance a
weren’t burdensome enough. c
Now the wave-slapped beach d
rocks not just made to talk but made to teach. d
Notice that the pacing of Ryan’s short, primarily dimeter lines is completely destroyed
in by this example. The rhyming pair rocks-talk is subsumed to the stronger end-rhyme of beach-teach. Notice that the pacing of Ryan’s short, primarily dimeter lines is completely destroyed in this example. Conventional wisdom dictates that shorter lines create speed and urgency within a poem. In Ryan’s work, they tend to have the opposite effect: they slow down the reader down with, their lub-dub heartbeat , only punctuated occasionally by a third beat for variety’s sake. The This pacing effect is works in poetry the way that somewhat like the lingering cinematic “beauty shot” or slow pan across the field of vision works in cinematography. Ryan’s linebreaks and pacing invite the reader to slow down, to see what she sees, to think about what she is saying. In this, the poems invite meditative reading in the strictest sense of the word.
(transition?) In this linguistic milieu, Ryan wears her learning lightly. She is college-educated, but not a product of any workshop; she also came to Po-Biz late in life. This blessed isolation appears to have saved her from the McPoem that so many of us workshop veterans are trying to wipe from our soles.
She Ryan makes the observations and asks the questions that really matter outside the world of literary-theorist name-dropping or the perpetually-twitchy Postmodernist snarkfest. Language is not something that she twists in your face like a grapefruit in the puss; instead, it’s a means to understanding a really interesting particular rock or bird that she wants you to stop and contemplate for a while, and an invitation to make associations with and draw larger inferences from the object of her focus. Consider “Caps” (29) or “Post-Construction” (51) or “Nothing Getting Past” (53). (details?) She frames her questions without self-consciousness. Some of these are of the gee-whiz variety, but—gee whiz!–they aren’t the same kinds of uncritically worshipful nature observations that, say, Mary Oliver gives us. They are more like Emily Dickinson’s. I say this not because Ryan is a female American poet (and thus inescapably chained to the Belle of Amherst), but because her observations of the particular are linked to the larger epistemological realm (the fly, the snake) in a philosophical, not mystical, way. Oliver’s language too often resembles a battery losing its charge: sometimes illuminating, yes, but not blindingly so; Ryan’s language and metaphor and argument conduct forked lightning , where Oliver’s language too often resembles a battery losing its charge: sometimes illuminating, yes, but not blindingly so:
Imagine a sea
as soft as moons.
tunes of drifting things.
This is the deep machine
that powers the lamps
of dreams and accounts
for their bluish tint.
How can something
so grand and serene
vanish again and again
without a hint? (67)
(transition?) Writing in World Literature Review, Fred Dings complains that Ryan relies on the “pedantic” aphorism as closure device:
Ryan’s poems are also often pedantic, which is not a fault, especially when they teach something worthy and delightful, as they often do. Nevertheless, too many, for my taste, seem to depend on some final observation or trope to save what is otherwise a pretty mundane poem, as in the poem “Chinese Foot Chart”. . . . This tendency to hinge a poem’s success on some final aphoristic click is common in Ryan’s work, and while it is often exhilarating the first time through, the poems seldom invite me back (73).
I find Ryan’s work to be didactic, but never pedantic in the pejorative sense of that word. In terms of closure, Ryan’s tight gems may have more in common with Shakespeare’s sonnet (or even Pope’s rhymed couplet), which hardly seems an indictable offense; the closures seem neither overly neat nor contrived. (explain why)
Ryan claims a deep personal distaste for creative writing as an academic specialty, although she has taught the occasional summer workshop at the West Chester Formal and Narrative Poetry Conference. In her essay commissioned for Poetry, “I Go to AWP,” she writes:
Wanting to be connected, wanting to be great in some great tradition, these are sweet ideas. But how can I reconcile them with my own preference for isolation from the other toilers? I explain it to myself this way: I don’t want to be connected to poetry in an easy, fellowshipping way, but I do want to be connected in a way that will earn me the respect of the dead (xx).(check cite!)
One of the great advantages of eschewing “po-biz” gatherings and aesthetic fads is that it leaves the poet time and psychic space to converse with the masters. Poetry that exists on the page, whether
it is specifically written “for” the page or transcribed from the shadowy realm of oral transmission, has the great advantage of transcending future time and place, of being serving as its own example (of what?), and of providing its own lessons. Ryan sets a high bar for her own work by hoping to “earn [herself] the respect of the dead.” When one places one’s own work in the context of the great masters’, an act at once both stunningly arrogant and phenomenally humble, one does not need to waste time building MySpace pages, self-publishing CDs, and clawing one’s way onto various literary boards. In an age when poets spend more time marketing themselves than writing and revising poems, Ryan’s example is worth following.
Dings, Fred. “The Niagara River.” World Literature Today. 80:6 (Nov/Dec 2006): 73.
Ryan, Kay. The Niagara River. New York: Grove P, 2005.
__________. “I Go to AWP.” In Poetry, 186:4 (July 2005): ___ . http://www.poetrymagazine.org/magazine/0705/comment_171211_print.html . Accessed 3 November 2007.
((add the CD, maybe?))