Very few poets can say so much in so little space as Kay Ryan. Seldom more than twenty lines long (and those lines rarely exceeding six syllables), Ryan's witty poems are bright distillations of her precise observations of the world and the vagaries of humankind. Aside from the shardlike fragments of Sappho or the sharpest haiku, it is unusual to find such compression of thought and deftness of touch as are typical in her minimalist art. Whatever she fixes in her sights is viewed with extreme clarity but slightly askew too, the better to discern those aspects largely overlooked or unseen entirely by the casual passerby.
For her wry, idiosyncratic take on life and her use of compact, seemingly simple forms, Ryan is often compared with Emily Dickinson; in her fine craftsmanship and didactic yet subtly subversive tendencies, she is also likened to Marianne Moore. But those forebears are regular chatterboxes compared to Ryan-although noisy pomposity and foolish pretension are things up with which all three will not put. In "Blandeur" (as opposed to Grandeur), for example, she slyly advocates a democratic leveling of Earth's extremities. And in "Blunt," she suggests: "If we could love / the blunt / and not / the point / we would / almost constantly / have what we want." Combining clever rhymes, artful wordplay, and striking images, Ryan's cunning verses are both amusing and wise. In her epigrammatic efficiency, Ryan resembles those unsentimental moralists, the Augustan satirists. She gently prods and provokes from slightly off-kilter angles, then pounces with her dead-on accurate insights.
Ryan was born in 1945 in San Jose, California. Her father was a well-driller, and she grew up in the Mojave Desert and small working-class towns in the San Joaquin Valley. She received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles but never took a poetry-writing course. In fact she was not allowed to join the poetry club at UCLA, she told the Christian Science Monitor, because she was considered "too much of an outsider." (She almost took a Ph.D. in literary criticism but, she said in Salon, "I couldn't bear the idea of being a doctor of something I couldn't fix.") For more than thirty years Ryan has taught remedial English (not creative writing) at College of Marin and says that she deliberately has tried to live "very quietly, so I could be happy."
Ryan's first book, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, was privately printed in 1983 with underwriting from friends. Her second, Strangely Marked Metal, was issued by a small literary press in 1985. Both books were completely ignored. It was almost a decade before she published another collection, Flamingo Watching (1994), followed by Elephant Rocks (1996), and more recently Say Uncle (2002), her first book from a commercial New York publisher. Readers of little magazines had discovered her twenty years earlier, and she had a small but devoted group of fans. But each of the three books won larger attention and identified Ryan as one of the truly distinctive American poets, a writer with a style, a voice unmistakably her own. Besides early recognition in the form of foundation grants, in more recent years she has received major prizes and publication in large journals and has given well-attended readings around the country, including at the 92nd Street Y in New York and the Library of Congress. But most of the time she lives quietly, with her life partner Carol, in the San Francisco Bay area. Her philosophy, like her writing, is straightforward. "Poems should leave you feeling freer and not more burdened," she told the Monitor reporter. "I like to think of all good poetry as providing more oxygen into the atmosphere; it just makes it easier to breathe."
wider than one
natives in their
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
from the genuine
100 Essential Modern Poems
Selected and Introduced
by Joseph Parisi
Ivan R. Dee, Publisher
Copyright © 2005 by Joseph Parisi
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.
Kay Ryan's "Patience" from Say Uncle
Copyright © 2000 by Kay Ryan
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission
of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Poetry Daily / Amazon.com
Selected books available by Joseph Parisi:
100 Essential Modern Poems Hardcover
The Poetry Anthology Paperback
Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters Hardcover
Selected books available by Kay Ryan:
The Niagara River Paperback
Say Uncle Paperback