Author Bio

Kay Ryan, Poet of the Month

posted: 9.21.09 by archived

by Andrew Flynn

Kay Ryan, the US Poet Laureate, turns 64 today.

Ryan is not a household name—not even a poet’s household name until quite recently—and her journey to the Library of Congress does not follow the course of a typical literary career. “It feels very unlikely,” Ryan told Charlie Rose in an interview last November. “I hadn’t ever expected this to happen to me.”

She grew up the daughter of an oil-well driller in the San Joaquin Valley in the 40s and 50s, in a working-class culture that did not welcome the pretensions of poetry. Her adult life has been spent teaching writing—but not of the MFA variety. Since the 1970s she’s taught remedial English classes at the College of Marin, her local community college. She lives in a house she shingled herself, is an avid runner, and has never taken a creative writing class. Carol Adair, Ryan’s fellow teacher at Marin and longtime partner, died earlier this year. Ryan wrote about their relationship and marriage in Salon.

Ryan’s success came later in life. Her early works attracted little notice. The first published essay on Ryan’s work appeared little more than a decade ago—but its author, poet and critic, Dana Gioia, proclaimed her achievements in no uncertain terms. “Over the past five years,” Gioia begins, “no new poet has so deeply impressed me with her imaginative flair or originality as Kay Ryan.” Gioia, who became Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, also became a champion of Ryan’s poetry. The last ten years have marked a rise to prominence for Ryan, with highlights including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001, the eminent Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2004, and appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States in 2008.

It only takes one poem to show Ryan’s unique style. Her poems are short, sometimes funny, almost always accessible, yet rich and complex. Analyzing the internal wordplay of “Paired Things,” Dana Gioia picked out the hallmarks of a Ryan poem: “dense figurative language, varied diction, internal rhyme, the interrogative mode, and playful, which elusively alternates between iambic and unmetered lines.”

Paired Things

So many paired things seem odd.
Who ever would have dreamed
the broad winged raven of despair
would quit the air and go
bandylegged upon the ground, a common crow?

“[C]lown suitcase” is her own description of her poetry. “[T]he clown flips open the suitcase and pulls out a ton of stuff,” she said in her Paris Review interview. “A poem is an empty suitcase that you can never quit emptying.” She’s balked at Gioia’s Dickinson comparison—“[H]ow would you like to be compared to God?”

Adam Kirsch wrote in praise of Ryan’s appointment as Poet Laureate, commending her “diffidence and self-sufficiency” and her “dark vision and metaphysical scope,” offering an incisive reading of Ryan’s poem “Chop”:

Here are the short lines, plain diction, and buried assonances—”sharp/chop,” “step/stamp”—that define Ms. Ryan’s verse. But once you ponder the miniature allegory of “Chop,” that homely music starts to look desperately ironic. For Ms. Ryan’s bird is an emblem of man in his arrogant mortality.

Something similar could be said about much of Ryan’s work.

The Library of Congress has aggregated the wealth of resources about Ryan available on the Internet, including essays, interviews, and recordings of readings. If you’ve never read Kay Ryan before, she’s worth discovering. If you don’t read much poetry, she’s still discoverable.

Kay Ryan is noted for her frequent use of recombinant, or internal, rhyme. (See, for instance, “four-oared” and “afford” in “Turtle.”) How is the effect of internal rhymes different than traditional, end-of-the-line rhymes? Why does Ryan seem to use internal rhyme in “Turtle”? For example, how does internal rhyme add emphasis to certain images or change meaning?


Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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