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Kay Ryan and "This Laureate Thing"

CIMG1100RyanSigns.jpgWhat excites the Dresser about Kay Ryan, the new United States poet laureate? After the Dresser heard Ryan during her inaugural reading at the Library of Congress on October 16, 2008, she bought two of her books--Say Uncle and Elephants Rocks--and she arranged to trade books with a friend who bought The Niagara River. What Ryan manages to stuff into a few spare lines--rhyme, metaphor, allusion, philosophy, wit, and cliché--surprised and delighted the Dresser.


If we could love
the blunt
and not
the point

we would
almost constantly
have what we want.

What is the
blunt of this
I would ask you

our conversation
weeding up
like the Sargasso.


Like Gertrude Stein, Kay Ryan seems to be intent on recovering words that have lost their meaning, except Ryan bravely tackles platitudes and clichés. In fact, she said during this reading that she "loves bromides." What "Blunt" says to the Dresser might be understood by substituting some words: if we could love what is dull and not sharp, as in unlearned versus intelligent, we would not be disappointed but what and who mostly populate the world. Wryly, the poet suggests that a person could arrive at what is not spectacularly interesting--something akin to the tangle of seaweed in that strange part of the Atlantic Ocean (the Sargasso Sea)--and still maintain that mysterious human connection through interactive talking.

Here, the Dresser would drop back stubbornly and ask what is the point of this poem that seems to conjure up in the last word, Sargasso, a world beyond ordinary commerce. What world? In our world, the dangerous Bermuda Triangle, which is part of the Sargasso Sea, a sea defined by four ocean currents and not by the shores of any land. In the world of imagination, Sargasso alludes to Jean Rhys' 1966 novel The Wide Sargasso Sea, a story about a white Creole woman who seems to be the mad first wife of Jane Eyre's husband Edward Rochester. (Charlotte Bronte created Rochester and his wives in her 1847 novel entitled Jane Eyre.) To the Dresser's mind, Ryan delights in taking contrarian turns that remind the audience to stay alert.


Reported to be reclusive and fond of silence, Ryan completely defies that profile. The Dresser was amazed about how chatty and spontaneously witty Ryan was behind the Library of Congress mic. Ryan maintains that "you can say something so ridiculous and still have some truth in it." She says this after reading her poem "Lime Light."


One can't work
by lime light.

A bowlful
right at
one's elbow

produces no
more than
a baleful
glow against
the kitchen table.

The fruit purveyor's
whole unstable

doesn't equal
what daylight did.

The truth of this poem for Ryan is that a poet like herself is not comfortable working in the glow or limelight of the public eye. She prefers the literary kitchen where something as ordinary as a piece of citrus fruit can break through an abused idea or word like limelight to produce something initially silly such as the idea that a lime can produce light but later turns into a meditation on what produces the light that a writer--or anyone with a creative idea--needs in order to work.


The Dresser finds again that Ryan, in choosing ordinary objects and scenarios, has much in common with Gertrude Stein. Unlike Stein, who intended that anyone could read her carefully chosen, easy-to-understand, mostly Anglo Saxon words, Ryan usually slips in a word that is not so easily grasped. In "Blunt," she tosses out Sargasso and in "Lime Light," she inserts purveyor. A purveyor is someone who provides provisions, especially food. In the kitchen where the narrator of this poem sits thinking about the light that is not shining from a whole pyramid of green-skinned fruit, the supplier or purveyor seems intrusive. What's more, the poet says this pyramid is unstable as well as not up to a comparison with the natural light of day.


Choosing poems like "Lime Light" and "Blunt" for her inaugural reading in the most esteemed position of poetry in the United States says a lot about who Ryan is. Among her easily tossed off comments were such statements as "I'm used to coming into a half empty hall to give a reading. This laureate thing does it to you. I'll have to tell others about this." --she was reading to a packed hall with people standing along the walls and to an unseen group in another room watching her on a closed circuit monitor. Or this comment when she decided to start a poem over again, "I'm laureate, I can do this."CIMG1098RyanSmiles.jpg

Having already had this conversation with a number of friends, the Dresser knows there will be many who will dismiss Ryan's work as incomplete and colorless, and they will say that the comparisons to Emily Dickinson will not hold under scrutiny. The Dresser believes Ryan, published in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review and winner of such awards as the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from The Poetry Foundation in 2004, a Guggenheim fellowship the same year, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship as well as the Maurice English Poetry Award in 2001, will bring a whole new audience to poetry. The Dresser cheers the new laureate for that, and also intends to hear her again. Happily, the Dresser lets Ryan have the last words.


Every day
you say,
Just one
more try
Then another
day slips by.
You will
say ankle,
you will
say knuckle;
why won't
you why
won't you
say uncle?

Poems quoted in this essay are drawn from Say Uncle published in the Grove Press Poetry Series, 1991.

Copyright © 1991 by Kay Ryan


Comments (7)

Oh this Kay Ryan piece is elegant and truthful.Thank you

Jay Rogoff:

Liked your entry on Ryan. Everyone compares her to Dickinson, but for my money, she's closer to Stevie Smith, with touches of Bishop thrown in. I find her less solid than Bishop, less witty than Smith, but she *is* both solid & witty, & I'm pleased she's PL.

The Dresser:

I know Stevie Smith by name only so it's time to start reading some of her work. OK so here's a poem that smacks a bit of what Ryan does:


My heart goes out to my Creator in love
Who gave me Death, as end and remedy.
All living creatures come to quiet Death
For him to eat up their activity
And give them nothing, which is what they want although
When they are living they do not think so.

Stevie Smith

Jay Rogoff:

Ryan also has a kind of contemporary cousin--an exact contemporary--in Wendy Cope, though Cope's work is more traditionally formal.

The Dresser:

Well, Cope writes light formal verse like what's below and has some things in common with Ryan but what Ryan does is still more like Stein than Cope. But it's really good to see who Ryan compares with.


In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyants distress me,
Commuters depress me--
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.

She sat on a mighty fine chair,
Sparks flew as she tidied her hair;
She asks many questions,
I make few suggestions--
Bad as Albert and Lil--what a pair!

The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
Tiresias fancies a peep--
A typist is laid,
A record is played--
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.

A Phoenician called Phlebas forgot
About birds and his business--the lot.
Which is no surprise,
Since he met his demise
And was left in the ocean to rot.

No water. Dry rocks and dry throats.
Then thunder, a shower of quotes!
From The Sanskrit to Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.
I hope you'll make sense of the notes.

Wendy Cope

Jay Rogoff:

Here's a Wendy Cope poem that might remind you more of Ryan--and Stein?  and of course the title also suggests "Some 'More Light' Verse":


You have to try. You see a shrink.
You learn a lot. You read. You think.
You struggle to improve your looks.
You meet some men. You write some books.
You eat good food. You give up junk.
You do not smoke. You don't get drunk.
You take up yoga, walk, and swim.
You don't know what to do. You cry.
You're running out of things to try.

You blow your nose. You see the shrink.
You walk. You give up food and drink.
You fall in love. You make a plan.
You struggle to improve your man.
And nothing works. The outlook's grim.
You go to yoga, cry, and swim.
You eat and drink. You give up looks.
You struggle to improve your books.
You cannot see the point. You sigh.
You do not smoke. You have to try.

Edward Mycue:

Reading Kat Ryan is to remember Rosalie Moore(who taught with her). Moore's book THE GRASSHOPPER'S MAN (Yale Younger Poets 1949 introduced by W. AUDEN)begins w/ "The Mind's Disguise" that includes
Learn early, unletter
Your alphabet decision,
Coming down to
Accident's corner of fence:
Enigma, protector of mighty.
In his introduction, Auden declares
It is a good thing that we should be reminded that, in poetry, only what you really feel and care about, is of any importance, and that, whether or not it is true that the connotative element in language is the only poetic one, it is undoubtedly true that the commenest and greatest obstacles to honest feeling and expression are preconceived general nothions which express themselves in denotative terms."

Edward Mycue

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