Discovering Kay Ryan

Dana Gioia wrote the first published essay on the work of Kay Ryan who was selected as Poet Laureate of the United States in 2009.

Dana Gioia on Kay Ryan
The Dark Horse featuring Dana Gioia on Kay Ryan

Over the past five years no new poet has so deeply impressed me with her imaginative flair or originality as Kay Ryan. I first saw her poems almost by accident. In 1994 a small publisher gave me a review copy of Flamingo Watching along with several other recent books. No critical fanfare accompanied the slender volume, and I had no special reason to think it possessed singular merit. But given the work of an unfamiliar poet, I always read a few poems, and I was immediately struck by the unusual compression and density of Ryan’s work. I particularly enjoyed the evident delight she took in playing extravagant games with small units of language. Genuine wit is rare in contemporary poetry but rarer still combined with brevity. I made no immediate fuss about Ryan, but I could also never quite bring myself to put Flamingo Watching away on the shelf. I kept picking the book up to read or reread a few more poems. Over the next year their depth of perception, joyful invention, and stylistic authority never failed to fascinate and delight me.

She is not obscure but sly, dense, elliptical, and suggestive. She plays with her readers–not maliciously or gratuitously but to rouse them from conventional response and expectation.I realize now that I was gradually learning how to read Ryan and listen to the intricate and ingenious conversations her poems have among themselves. Despite all the fashionable blather about individual voices, most poets use and reuse the common parlance of the age with only a slight personal accent. One can read most new poets quite easily. But a genuinely original poet requires some recalibration of our ear and eye–both inner and outer. Ryan’s work may not seem difficult, but it is. She challenges the reader in unusual ways. She is not obscure but sly, dense, elliptical, and suggestive. She plays with her readers–not maliciously or gratuitously but to rouse them from conventional response and expectation.

I call Ryan a “new” poet, which is a slightly misleading. Her first book appeared fifteen years ago. But the appellation is not altogether inaccurate since her still small public reputation began only with Flamingo Watching in 1994. Even today few readers recognize her name, though her poems have recently begun to appear in The New Yorker. Her work has not yet entered anthologies, and only two substantial reviews (both parts of longer omnibus surveys) have appeared along with a few briefer notices. The reasons for her obscurity will be obvious to any observer of American literary life. She was a West Coast writer who worked outside the reputation-making institutions of literary life. In order to see how good her poetry was, a critic would have had to read her unheralded small press books carefully–an unlikely thing in a country that annually publishes nearly two thousand new collections of poetry.

Ryan has published four volumes of poems, but only one of them was issued by a New York house. Her first, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends (1983), was privately printed in California by a subscription of friends. Not surprisingly, the book passed entirely unnoticed by critics. Uneven but substantial, it already contained many poems that bear Ryan’s signature virtues of complex wordplay, dense but irregular rhyme, elastic lineation, and extreme compression. Her tone was at once oddly learned, amiably witty, and utterly casual–rather like the conversation of an intelligent friend. Strangely Marked Metal followed in 1985 from Copper Beech Press of Rhode island–a small publisher from America’s smallest state with a knack for discovering talent. The second book still reveals Ryan hovering between styles–her own concise and thickly textured poems versus more conventional work. (It, too, garnered no critical attention.) When Flamingo Watching (1994) appeared nearly a decade later, there was no longer any artistic uncertainty. Ryan had done what few poet manage. She had accepted the peculiarities of her own sensibility and developed a style that expressed it perfectly. The publication of Elephant Rocks (1996) from Grove Press two years later required no further changes in style or form–only their brilliant display.

Ryan’s poems characteristically take the shape of an observation or idea in the process of clarifying itself. Although the poems are brightly sensual and imagistic, there is often a strongly didactic sense at work. As Andrew Frisardi observed in Poetry, Ryan’s poems usually say “something useful and important.” But the didactic impulse inevitably takes a surprisingly lyric shape. The language always reflects the shaping hand of a quick and skeptical intelligence often pulling some general notion from the arresting particulars–a process often prefigured in the poem’s title. Here is “Paired Things” from Flamingo Watching in which image and abstraction dance so consummate a pas de deux that one wonders why modern poetics ever considered the two imaginative impulses at odds:

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
birdtracks 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
bandylegged upon the ground,
a common crow?

“Paired Things” displays Ryan’s characteristic style: dense figurative language, varied diction, internal rhyme, the interrogative mode, and playful vers libre, which elusively alternates between iambic and unmetered lines. One of Ryan’s signature devices is the counterpoint of sight and sound in the placement of her poetic language. Her hidden rhymes and metrical passages only became fully apparent when the poem is spoken aloud. “Paired Things” also hovers, as so many Ryan poems do, on the edge of allegory. The central images become emblematic of a larger truth, but they slip away before the interpretation becomes fixed. Ryan’s style is zestfully contemporary, but there is something almost eighteenth century about her sensibility. She is a moraliste in the expansive and exemplary sense of the French philosophes–a theorist of human conduct. In this way, as in several others, Ryan resembles Emily Dickinson, who is surely the presiding genius loci of her poetry. Like Dickinson, Ryan has found a way of exploring ideas without losing either the musical impulse or imaginative intensity necessary to lyric poetry.

Like Dickinson, Ryan has found a way of exploring ideas without losing either the musical impulse or imaginative intensity necessary to lyric poetry.Nowadays a poet so refined, disciplined, and original is almost inevitably self-taught. Ryan is an outsider to the institutionalized world of contemporary American poetry. She did not emerge from a writing program or the New York arts world. She is entirely the product of California but not the glamorous state of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Ryan was raised in the Mojave Desert and the small, dusty, working-class towns of the San Joaquin Valley. The daughter of a well-driller, Ryan grew up in the hot, rural landscapes of interior California–an irrigated desert transformed into farmland. This agricultural landlocked country is utterly different from the state’s famous coastal terrain–either the smooth beaches of the Southland or the redwood rain-forests of the north. (Something of Ryan’s harsh and hard-worked native terrain is reflected in her luxuriant minimalist aesthetic.) Ryan studied literature in college but never took a creative writing course. For over twenty years she has taught remedial English in a public junior college.

It would take a far longer essay to list the many things I admire about Ryan’s work. The sheer intelligence, indeed wisdom, of her work deserves an essay. She never uses her intricate and lapidary style as an end in itself but only as a means to insight. What I admire most about Ryan, however, is her evocative compression. Her average poem is less than twenty lines long–often much less–and her lines are characteristically short, usually about six syllables. Without ever snarling her syntax or lineation, Ryan packs these lines with music and meaning. The total effect is complex but never annoyingly cluttered or overly elaborate. The details seem witty and illuminating rather than willed. She not only never wastes a line but also often leaves important things unsaid. She invites the reader to collaborate with the poem. Ryan reminds us of the suggestive power of poetry–how it elicits and rewards the reader’s intellect, imagination, and emotions. I like to think that Ryan’s magnificently compressed poetry–along with the emergence of other new masters of the short poem like Timothy Murphy and H. L. Hix and the veteran maestri like Ted Kooser and Dick Davis–signals a return to concision and intensity. Given the garrulity of most contemporary poetry that hope may be misplaced. But we do have Ryan’s work as a touchstone, and that is reason for gratitude.

First published in The Dark Horse (No. 7/Winter 1998-99)