The Lighter Side: Kay Ryan

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by Jeff Lennon

For thirty years, Kay Ryan has published some of the best verse in the English language. She has done so from a quiet base in Northern California, miles away from the poetic scene, eons away from a modern temperament of shouting and noise, rapidity and clutter. Ryan claims she has never wanted to be a public figure(“I’m the kind of person who’s a real non-joiner”). Yet, as the winner of a Pulitzer, a MacArthur, and a Guggenheim Fellowship—and having served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States (from 2008-2010, sandwiched between Charles Simic and WS Merwin, not a bad triumvirate of contemporary American verse)—she has become something of a living legend. Having grown up in the Central Valley and Mojave Desert—a “lifetime Californian” her new book’s jacket reads—she spent her early career quietly writing poems for her friends’ benefit, at the same time falling into the job she would keep for the rest of her life, as a teacher of remedial English at the College of Marin, a community college in Northern California.

Erratic FactsRyan’s new book of verse, Erratic Facts (Grove Press, 2015), is of a piece with the rest of her work: yet another bag of gifts, of rhythmic tricks, that showcase her prodigious poetic talents and general perspicacity. Ryan’s poems are like little capsules that explode in the mouth, or in the brain. The verse is short. Succinct. Brief. Terse. Tight. Wound up into a twist. Then slowly released. Her poems wrap, turn upon themselves, frequently reveal a different viewpoint from the one with which you thought they had begun. They sit like stairs on the page, or like cliffs, whether climbing up or down to an end only she could make sound inevitable. Here’s “On The Nature of Understanding,” from the new book:

Say you hoped to

tame something

wild and stayed

calm and inched up

day by day. Or even

not tame it but

meet it half way.

Things went along.

You made progress,

understanding

it would be a

lengthy process,

sensing changes

in your hair and

nails. So it’s

strange when it

attacks: you thought

you had a deal.

For the reader, this technique translates to joy, awe, laughter, wonder, and thought. At times it seems Ryan’s entire output is there to make us think—not to speak at us or tell us anything, not to sing like Whitman or spin like Yeats, preach like Eliot or shock like Thomas or pound down like Jeffers. More like Stevens and especially like Frost, Ryan wants to include us in the thought process, make us more aware of ourselves and our surroundings. As Dana Gioia, an early champion of Ryan, once put it: “Ryan’s poems characteristically take the shape of an observation or idea in the process of clarifying itself.” She is a genius at sussing out, patting down, pairing away, to find the pure root in the middle, which turns out not to be a root but some infinitely lighter thing. She turns, she flips, she shakes, inflates to get a better look, upside down or inside out. She stares, and then she stares again.

“I don’t know if I’m interested in combating an idea or just loosening it up,” she told Sarah Fay in 2008. “You have to make some room for your mind. You have to open something up. And you can’t just slam it from the other side. You can’t say, That’s not right. This is right. You start fluffing it. You open up the picture, so you can know two things at once.”

In the 80s and 90s, when confessional poetry ruled the day, Ryan could not garner any success. She has talked about her early years as prolific with bad poetry, her early poems as being too wound up with rhyme, as if out of frustration at her lack of success, like a Gaudi going overboard with ornament.

“Especially at an early stage. I just didn’t know how badly I was doing. That was a blessing. I don’t know how I would have survived if I hadn’t thought that everybody was stupid not to think that it was as good as I thought it was.”

Eventually her lifelong partner and personal editor, Carol Adair, put together a book of verse for their friends, and Ryan’s career was underway. Except it wasn’t, really, until a full decade later, when Flamingo Watching (1994) was released and finally got some notice from the literary press. “Turtle,” from that collection, unfolds thusly:

Who would be a turtle who could help it?

A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,

she can ill afford the chances she must take

in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.

Her track is graceless, like dragging

a packing case places, and almost any slope

defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,

she’s often stuck up to the axle on her way

to something edible. With everything optimal,

she skirts the ditch which would convert

her shell into a serving dish. She lives

below luck-level, never imagining some lottery

will change her load of pottery to wings.

Her only levity is patience,

the sport of truly chastened things.

The poem contains nearly all of Ryan’s most important themes and techniques. It is also a somewhat autobiographical fable, and humorously echoes Ryan’s by now well-known origin story: of a helmeted climb up a mountain in Colorado on her bicycle, and a question of whether or not to devote her life to poetry. She did, thankfully for us, though she had to wait a long while until we learned to show our collective gratitude.

Levity and patience are two central concepts in Ryan’s poetry, the latter, of course, evident in her personal life as well as her verse. Ryan, who has spoken of her desire for a life lived less intensely—“I think extravagance in your life takes the energy from possible extravagances in your mind”—has talked of the importance of silence, both for readers and writers. She has explained her preference for reading poetry on the page as opposed to hearing it spoken by a third party, whether the poet herself or someone else, calling poetry readings “this out-loud business.” “I write for the page,” she says. “I write for your brain in a quiet room.”

Force

Nothing forced works.

The Gordian knot just worsens

if it’s jerked at by a person.

One of the main stations

of the cross is patience.

Another, of course, is impatience.

There is such a thing as

too much tolerance

for unpleasant situations,

a time when the gentle

teasing out of threads

ceases to be pleasing

to a woman born for conquest.

Instead she must assault

the knot or alp or everest

with something sharp

and take upon herself

the moral warp of sudden progress.

Of a piece with “Turtle”—those mountains, that patience—this poem again hints of the autobiographical. Confronted with her own sudden leap in popularity, Ryan remained true to her ideal of the quiet life. “I’m shockingly passive,” she has said. Even when serving as Poet Laureate she was somewhat modest and shy, not to say begrudging, of the public role. Her daily writing routine is calm, relaxed, laid-back. You can sense this patience in the poems on the page: lots of white space, words carefully chosen and placed just so for our quiet consumption.

For such an old-school anomaly—the serious, thoughtful poet, few and far between these days—Ryan is incredibly funny. Her poems are bathed in bathos. They are funny both as bona fide jokes, and also in the way the language writhes upon itself, in the surprise of the knowledge gained, the embarrassment of the idea assayed, the conundrum stretched out upon a page.

Train-Track Figure

Imagine a

train-track figure

made of sliver

over sliver of

between-car

vision, each

slice too brief

to add detail

or deepen: that

could be a hat

if it’s a person

if it’s a person

if it’s a person.

Just the same

scant information

timed to supplant

the same scant

information.

She is perhaps, along with James Richardson, the most surprising of contemporary poets. Her poems often end up where they did not intend to go. They can express themselves as sighs of relief, huffs of laughter, shakes of the head. Many take the form of playful aphorisms, or half-sage advice, which Ryan then breaks down to show finally either in truth or falsity, to differing degrees of delight. In these poems you can feel the smile of someone who likes how messy the earth and everything on it is, how inconclusive human consciousness. Many could start with the phrase, ‘Isn’t it funny how…’ and proceed to explain how it’s not, or how it is, but in a totally different way than you would have thought. In “New Rooms,” the opening poem of the new collection, Ryan demonstrates this dual ability.

The mind must

set itself up

wherever it goes

and it would be

most convenient

to impose its

old rooms—just

tack them up

like an interior

tent. Oh but

the new holes

aren’t where

the windows

went.

It’s telling how such a poem about loss (Adair passed away in 2009, and this is Ryan’s first full collection without her collaboration) and the attempt to reorganize one’s life can be so funny. As with a hidden ticklish spot, Ryan knows just where to apply pressure to make us smile. There is a connection, too, between Ryan’s poetic patience and the use of the long pause in standup comedy. The structure of many of her poems (including this one) are like standup: an opening truism or oddity, the probing build-up, the punchline at the end, usually punctuated by a final rhyme.

The poems in Erratic Facts are a little looser than in previous volumes, a little less taut, less focused on the wound spring of rhyme holding them upright. Many are also shadowed by personal loss. But the majority see Ryan again tackling her favorite subjects and questions: the ways of the mind, the shocking strangeness of everyday objects and circumstances, the insidiousness of language and the ways in which we use it—Ryan’s concept of the ‘rehabilitation of the cliché’ is again put to startling use—along with ruminations on anything and everything else. She has said she uses poetry “to try to make a world I could stand to live in.” No matter how dark anything gets, she remains constantly in awe of what life elucidates for us, especially when we take the time to look, and look long.

Levity, or lightness, is the most important theme and condition of Ryan’s verse. She has often proclaimed her love of Calvino and Kundera, two practitioners of that particular art, who themselves wrote much on the use of lightness and brevity as a means to get at profundity. “It’s something so ineffable,” Ryan has said, “or something so unnamed, that I have to blow it up, to cartoonify it, or create some kind of puppets to act it out—I have to say it too hard and too loudly and too clearly and with colors too primary in order to give it any body at all. I’m trying to make something exist that didn’t exist.”

She is a master at this. Her poems are like explorations into unoccupied space, stepping into the unknown with tentative yet rhythmic steps, feeling out, ‘making room for your mind’. It’s this knack for the inexpressible thing, and the patience required to coax it out, that makes Ryan’s best poems so powerful.

The Light of Interiors

The light of interiors

is the admixture

of who knows how many

doors ajar, windows

casually curtained,

unblinded or opened,

oculi set into ceilings,

wells, ports, shafts,

loose fits, leaks,

and other breaches

of surface. But, in

any case, the light,

once in, bounces

toward the interior,

glancing off glassy

enamels and polishes,

softened by the scuffed

and often-handled, muffled

in carpet and toweling,

buffeted down hallways,

baffled equally

by scatter and order

to an ideal and now

sourceless texture which,

when mixed with silence,

makes of a simple

table with flowers

an island.

This is a phenomenal poem, from The Niagara River (2005). The pacing and rhythm, the structure (only two sentences!), her short, curt phrases and ping-pong rhyme precisely mirroring the bouncing down a hallway towards understanding—are all exquisite. That ‘sourceless texture’ is what she is after, and only through the poem can she faintly and momentarily grasp it (Ryan herself has spoken of Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” as performing this same trick: that the only glint that doesn’t fade is the poem itself, which has just explained how everything has to). The metaphor of light ‘solidifying’ enough to be able to comprehend is as good a definition of Ryan’s poetry as I’m likely to attempt.

Ryan’s use of rhyme is perhaps what she is best known for. Her old term for it (though she has since professed a mild dislike) is ‘recombinant rhyme’, which refers to the clipping of genetic material in one organism and its insertion in another. Ryan’s favorite example of this (accurate or not) is the affect of the jellyfish gene in glow-in-the-dark bunnies. “I like snipping words or snipping sounds and maybe making the work glow a little bit.” She writes with all types of rhyme, rhyme working on many levels. She likes to re-form, recapitulate, to put things, in other words, in other words. In this, and her love of puns, she is rather Joycean—though decidedly less salacious. “I always loved fooling around with language” (so maybe not). It might also be said that she approaches her art like another Irishman, aesthetic in the way Wilde was: words for words’ sake. Take “Eggs”, from the new collection:

We turn out

as tippy as

eggs. Legs

are an illusion.

We are held

as in a carton

if someone

loves us.

It’s a pity

only loss

proves this.

So many rhymes are happening at once in this poem it’s hard to sort them out. And yet the poem feels neither overwrought nor ‘difficult.’ The idea is as simple as they come, yet rarely this simply put. It’s funny to think about Ryan’s poems as cogent, or clarifying, but in their twisting, approximating, loosening way, they are. The use of rhyme contributes to this sense of understanding—also to their sense of levity and humor.

Ryan has said, on reading a good poem: “One’s atoms are mysteriously distanced from one another. That is to say, one still has all one’s own atoms, but for a moment they are not the trouble they were.” Many of the new poems in Erratic Facts have a grace particularly built toward lifting the burden of Adair’s death. In “Party Ship,” a heartbreaking poem, Ryan writes:

You are a

land I can’t

stand leaving

and can’t not.

My party ship

is pulling out.

We all have

hats. I try to

toot some notes

you’ll understand

but this was not

our instrument

or plan.

In a contemporary culture thrilled with noise and equivocation, popularity contests and advertisements, Ryan sails on the antithetical tack, as she has her entire career. Which isn’t to say she’s anti-modern. Famous for taking poetic subjects from Ripley’s Believe-it-or-not, in the new collection she takes them from Wikipedia and the New York Times Science section—“I like feeling that science and I are making a picture from opposite sides.” Still, preaching patience in a world of anxiety, looking for levity where others would anchor, you might begin to feel as lonely as, say, a turtle.

“I think there’s too much poetry out there,” she said back in 2008. “I don’t need to add to the waste stream.”

Luckily, Ryan has once more done just that. Erratics are rocks left behind as a glacier recedes. Ryan’s poetic thrust—her craft, her humor, her intelligence—doesn’t seem to be receding at all.

***

Jeff Lennon is a displaced Californian living in Brooklyn. He reviews poetry for The Rumpus. You can visit him online at The Coastal Literary.