I love the poetry of Kay Ryan. I believe I have all her books. She was just named poet laureate. Wow!!
Kay Ryan, Outsider With Sly Style, Named Poet Laureate
When Kay Ryan was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, the poetry club rejected her application; she was perhaps too much of a loner, she recalls. Now Ms. Ryan is being inducted into one of the most elite poetry clubs around. She is to be named the country’s poet laureate on Thursday.
Known for her sly, compact poems that revel in wordplay and internal rhymes, Ms. Ryan has won a carriage full of poetry prizes for her funny and philosophical work, including awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1994, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, worth $100,000.
Still, she has remained something of an outsider.
“I so didn’t want to be a poet,” Ms. Ryan, 62, said in a phone interview from her home in Fairfax, Calif. “I came from sort of a self-contained people who didn’t believe in public exposure, and public investigation of the heart was rather repugnant to me.”
But in the end “I couldn’t resist,” she said. “It was in a strange way taking over my mind. My mind was on its own finding things and rhyming things. I was getting diseased.”
Dana Gioia, a poet and the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was an early supporter of Ms. Ryan’s work, describing her as the “thoughtful, bemused, affectionate, deeply skeptical outsider.”
“She would certainly be part of the world if she could manage it,” he said. “She has certain reservations. That is what makes her like Dickinson in some ways.”
Poets, editors, critics and academics around the country offered advice to James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, about whom to choose to succeed Charles Simic as the nation’s 16th poet laureate, who was appointed 2007. Ms. Ryan’s work has “this quality of simplicity; it’s highly accessible poetry,” Dr. Billington said. “She takes you through little images to see a very ordinary thing or ordinary sentiment in a more subtle and deeper way.”
Ms. Ryan likes to take familiar images and clichés and reincarnate them in a wholly original form. “The Other Shoe” reads:
Oh if it were
only the other
in space before
joining its mate.
Her poems are spare. “An almost empty suitcase, that’s what I want my poems to be, few things,” Ms. Ryan said. “The reader starts taking them out, but they keep multiplying.”
Ms. Ryan grew up in small towns throughout the San Joaquin Valley and Mojave Desert. Her mother taught elementary school. A nervous person, her mother craved quiet, so there was virtually no television or radio playing in the home, Ms. Ryan said. In “Shark’s Teeth” she writes, “Everything contains some silence.” The poem continues:
of city holds maybe
a minute of these
remnants of a time
when silence reigned,
compact and dangerous
as a shark.
Her father was a dreamer. She once said he could “fail at anything,” having tried selling Christmas trees, drilling oil wells and working in a chromium mine.
It was after his death, when she was 19, that she started writing poems. But Ms. Ryan said she always had mixed feelings about it. “I wanted to do it, but I didn’t want to expose myself,” she said.
After briefly attending Antelope Valley College, she transferred to U.C.L.A., where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English.
She moved to Marin County in 1971 and lives there now, with her partner, Carol Adair.
In 1976 she finally realized that she could not escape the poet inside her. She had decided to ride a bicycle from California to Virginia in 80 days. Riding along the Hoosier Pass in the Colorado Rockies, she said, she felt an incredible opening up, “an absence of boundaries, an absence of edges, as if my brain could do anything.”
“Finally I can ask the question: Can I be a writer?” The answer came back as a question, she said. “Do you like it?”
“So it was quite simple for me. I went home and began to work.”
Public recognition came slowly. It took 20 years for her to receive acclaim for her work. “All of us want instant success,” she said. “I’m glad I was on a sort of slow drip.”
Ms. Ryan has carved out a life conducive to poetry writing. She has taught the same remedial English course at the College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif., for more than 30 years. When asked if she thought her new position would make it harder to write, she replied, “No, uh-uh. I think it will make it impossible.”
She has published six books of poetry and her work regularly appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Review of Books.
One of her first duties as poet laureate is an appearance at the National Book Festival on Sept. 27 on the National Mall in Washington. More formally she will kick off the Library of Congress’s annual literary series on Oct. 16 by reading her own work. The library doesn’t require much of its laureates, although in recent years many have undertaken projects to broaden poetry’s reach to children and adults. Ms. Ryan has no definite plans, but said she might like to “celebrate the Library of Congress,” adding “maybe I’ll issue library cards to everyone.”
For a woman who once shrank from exposing herself, this new position will put her in the public eye more than ever. But at this point Ms. Ryan is philosophical: “I realized that whatever we do or don’t do, we’re utterly exposed.”