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Named the sixteenth Poet Laureate of the United States in 2008, Kay Ryan spent most of her adulthood teaching basic writing courses at a public community college, far from the mainstream poetry world. Her poetry reflects her outsider history by intertwining two main strands of modern American poetry to create her own distinctive style, which is characterized by short-lined free verse with playful use of internal and end-rhyme. Over the past few years, critics have taken note of Ryan’s masterful ability to blend observation with meditation, as well as lightness and profundity.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Desolate Upbringing Fosters a Rich Imagination
Ryan was born on September 21, 1945, in San Jose, California. Her father was an oil driller, and her mother raised Kay and her older brother in small towns of the Mojave Desert and the San Joaquin Valley. Despite the fact that southern California was becoming a thriving center for the film industry, as well as a rich site for real estate development, there were many places in the interior valley of the state that were still desolate and unpopulated, with struggling economies. Ryan’s desert childhood in such a bleak and unforgiving environment had a profound impact on her distinctive vision, enabling her to craft a world of robust contemplation combined with poetic minimalism.
In 1963, after she graduated from Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, California, Ryan enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles. She received both her B.A. (1967) and M.A. (1968) in English literature from UCLA, but she did not take any creative writing classes. She then pursued her Ph.D. in literary criticism at the University of California at Irvine but did not complete the degree. Despite her studies in literary criticism, Ryan did not seek out a career in academia. Instead, she began teaching basic writing and remedial English at the College of Marin, a public community college, a position she maintained for over thirty years. Ryan also completed a brief teaching stint at San Quentin Prison.
A Poetic Calling
Ryan began writing poetry as a young adult in the wake of her father’s death, but she was reluctant to take up writing as a profession because of the way it made her feel exposed. She did not fully accept her vocation as poet until she was thirty. Then, on a four-thousand-mile bicycle trip across the United States with friends, Ryan had a transformational experience with language and contemplation. Ryan says she became a poet at the moment when she answered her own unvoiced question about poetry—Do you like it?—in the affirmative.
Ryan wrote the poems of her first collection, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends (1983), in relative isolation. The book was self-published, financed through a subscription by friends. The poems in this volume are varied in type, with some displaying the earmarks of Ryan’s later style. In the best poems of this book, including “Didactic,” hidden internal rhymes provide a loose structural scaffolding for short, free-verse lines that play against the syntax.
Ryan’s next book, Strangely Marked Metal: Poems, was published by a small press in 1985, and produced hardly a ripple upon publication. Despite her relative obscurity, Ryan began to quietly build a presence in the literary world over the next ten years. The appearance of her next book, Flamingo Watching: Poems (1994), was preceded by the publication of her poems in some of the leading American literary journals: American Poetry Review, The Atlantic, The American Scholar, The New Republic, and The Paris Review. As a result, Flamingo Watching: Poems was Ryan’s first book to garner critical review.
By the time Ryan published Flamingo Watching: Poems, she had fully assimilated her influences and fashioned her signature style. Although she developed her poetic voice during a time when American poetry was characterized by experimentation and the impulse to break free from conventional structures, Ryan used traditional structure as part of her style. As a result, Ryan’s verse attracts both admirers of formal and free verse. In achieving such a fusion, Ryan has made her work thoroughly modern without employing any specific Modernist or postmodernist strategies. Instead of fragmentation, obscure allusions, and sterile verbal tricks, her poems surprise readers with their playfully shifting patterns and densely concentrated meanings. Ryan’s poetry seems to embody a determination to follow Emily Dickinson’s injunction to tell the truth, but tell it “slant.”
Rising to Prominence
Many of the poems of Ryan’s Elephant Rocks (1996) appeared in prestigious magazines and journals prior to their publication in book form. When the book appeared, it received far more critical attention than her previous works. In Elephant Rocks, Ryan continued to develop many of her themes and refine her ability to illuminate experience through poetry. She continued to fine-tune her poetic voice throughout her next volumes, Say Uncle: Poems (2000) and The Niagara River (2006).
Ryan’s poetry began to draw a large audience in the late 1990s, when it began to appear with some frequency in The New Yorker and other leading journals. Since then, Ryan has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Maurice English Poetry Prize in 2001; the Union League Poetry Prize in 2000; a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from The Poetry Foundation in 2004; and the Gold Medal for Poetry from the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in 2005. Ryan has also won four Pushcart Prizes and has been included in four volumes of the Best American Poetry. One of Ryan’s poems has been permanently installed in a playground in Central Park in New York City. In 2008, Ryan was named the American Poet Laureate, one of poetry’s most distinguished honors, sealing her reputation as one the most profound and engaging poets of the modern age.
Works in Literary Context
Ryan’s poems are short, loaded with images, and frequently make use of humor. Ryan rarely writes in first person. Her poems often take the shape of a single observation that becomes an intense contemplation. Her poems tease the imagination with wordplay and sudden reversals, yielding richer implications with each reading. New tangents often hinge on a single word, as in the title poem of Flamingo Watching: Poems, in which the Ryan pokes fun at overly serious viewers who fail to appreciate the flamboyance of the flamingo.
A Fusion of Formalism and Free Verse
Because of her distinctive style, Ryan belongs to no single historical or modern literary tradition. Less “free” than the mainstream free verse of her contemporaries, Ryan’s poems combine the English lyrical poetic tradition of the trimeter and tetrameter—in which each line contains, respectively, three and four “feet,” or pairs of syllables—
with the more syncopated free-verse line of modern schools of poetry. Combining occasional end-rhyme and regular meter with free verse, Ryan balances the irregularity of her language with frequent internal rhymes and thick assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds in different words. In a similar way, her poetry balances small observations or limited subject matter with depth of consideration. Instead of better-known poetry contemporaries, the best comparisons to Ryan’s poetry come from a diversity of historical poets, including Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Works in Critical Context
Because of her sudden rise to prominence, the body of literary criticism on Ryan is rather small. Nevertheless, she is widely praised as a creator of short, engaging poetry that is both rhythmically light and densely philosophical at the same time. As critic Andrew Fisardi observed, despite their heavy use of wordplay and rich imagery, Ryan’s poems often drive towards ”something useful and important.”
In ”Doubt,” Ryan opens a contemplation of the significance and experience of doubt with the simple image of a chick breaking out of its egg. By asking if the chicken can ”afford” doubt, she reiterates the importance of action and hope. Critic Charlotte Muse praises Ryan’s ”many small deft touches” as the poet builds to a conclusion that resonates with the craft of writing, noting, ”This one suggests the disorientation that arises at the beginning a work; the not knowing where the vision or idea we’ve begun to spin comes from.”
”Paired Things” is a key poem in Flamingo Watching: Poems that questions the nature of pairings. In this densely layered short poem, Ryan uses hidden rhymes and meter to bring her observation of life. Critics praised this work as an example of the poetic fusion that Ryan is able to achieve. As critic Dana Gioia comments, ”image and abstraction dance so consummate a pas de deux that one wonders why modern poetics ever considered the two imaginative impulses at odds.”
- Hewitt, Alison. ”Kay Ryan, Outsider with Sly Style, Named Poet Laureate.” The New York Times (July 17, 2008).
- Frisardi, Andrew. “Elephant Rocks, by Kay Ryan.” Poetry 170 (1977): 101.
- Gioia, Dana. ”Discovering Kay Ryan.” Dark Horse 7 (Winter 1998-1999): 6-9.
- Haven, Cynthia L. ”Let There Be Lightness: Poet Kay Ryan knows what the world needs now.” San Francisco Magazine (October 2004).
- Muse, Charlotte. ”Elephant Rocks, by Kay Ryan.” Able Muse (1999).
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