- Kay Ryan and Poetic Play
Kay Ryan, United States Poet Laureate for two terms (2008–10), recipient of numerous awards, including a MacArthur fellowship, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010), and author of more than half a dozen books of poetry, most recently Erratic Facts (2015), has received much critical acclaim in the form of brief essays, interviews, and book reviews, but little critical attention. This is perhaps partly due to Ryan's unexpected trajectory. Ryan's first book was self-published, she has never taught nor taken a creative writing class, and she spent her 30+ year teaching career as a remedial writing community college instructor. As Frances Leviston pointed out, "Ryan has mostly rejected the professionalised life of the contemporary writer." The 71-year-old Ryan describes herself as having come from "clean scrubbed people who would [have been] embarrassed by" the "image of the poet" and as having donned the title of poet only after a great deal of contemplation and inner struggle (qtd. in Halstead). One might add that Ryan would also be an unlikely candidate on the conference circuit, as her essay "I Go to the AWP: A Lifetime of Preferring Not To" humorously details. In it, she writes that she has "an aversion to cooperative endeavors of all sorts" and that she "love[s] the solitary, the hermetic, the cranky self-taught." Before closing said essay, ruminating on whether conferences have a place for poetry, Ryan asks the reader, "Aren't the persuasions of poetry private? To my mind, the right sized room to hear poetry is my head, the words speaking from the page," and it is precisely this sort of intimacy Ryan creates between her speakers and her readers. The speakers in Ryan's poems climb about in our own minds, attentively and often surprisingly both opening and closing doors to rooms we aren't even always sure are there; Ryan often leaves doors ajar in the minds of her startled readers, their mouths agape.
Dana Gioia, the first to publish an essay on Ryan in 1998, describes Ryan's style as "zestfully contemporary" but considers "there [to be] something almost eighteenth century about her sensibility." It's as if Ryan's brief poems have made a great leap across time from the modern period to the 21st century. In its introspective and literally slight way, her verse resists the current of contemporary American society's compulsion to probe and expose. What makes Ryan's work contemporary may be her extremely compressed "flash" style, yet it's the interiority of her subject matter—and her interiority of process, as she also has an aversion to the [End Page 267] concept of "workshopping" a poem that is in vogue in creative writing programs—that has caused her to be characterized as having affinities with moderns Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. Ryan's poems return poetry to a universal concern with states of mind and signals what is essentially a new form, one as concise and accessible as an Imagist poet's, but one that carries the full weight of its gestures to a sonnet-like close. Hers is a lean poetry we might call "minute," as in tiny, and "minute" as in how little time it takes to read it. But, readers should not let the apparent diminutive stature of the poems (or the poet) fool them. While Ryan's poetry does not gesture towards itself in the manner of current confessional and personal trends, it calls ample attention to itself. Ryan's poetry creates a heightened intimacy that encroaches stealthily on what is perhaps the most private: not our own experiences but our own thoughts. Ryan's poetry is not confessional—unless one believes that what she has to confess is what we all have to confess: that we frequently find ourselves in rooms where the door has been locked, sometimes by us, and sometimes against our wills.
Ryan's poems tend to fit on a single page, her lines no longer than three, four, or five words. While poetry's own trajectory has moved from verse written...