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Knowing Kay Ryan

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There are still days in this job, even after two years, when I have to pinch myself. One such moment has come during the past few weeks with the opportunity to get to know Kay Ryan, appointed by the Librarian of Congress as the new Poet Laureate (official title: Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry).

I haven’t yet met her, but after several phone calls, emails, and a recorded podcast–to say nothing of all of her poetry I’ve now read–I’ve developed a fondness for her in several ways.

Ryan is fascinating to me, and often a study in contradictions. At the same time, while she lives a somewhat solitary, or what some have described as a hermit-like, existence, by dint of her voluminous published works and readings, she is to that extent a very public person. Her poetry is rarely personal, yet when it connects with the reader, can often elicit a very personal response. Despite her status as an author, she genuinely seems interested in avoiding great adulation or attention. She has been amenable to media interviews, to the extent that they fit her now-upended life, and she comes across as exceptionally genuine–telling the listener what she feels, not what she feels they want her to say. And, as has been widely commented upon, she has carved her unique place in the world while at the same time teaching remedial English for more than 30 years.

Suffice it to say that I am now probably one of her biggest fans.

Her poems are dense, thoughtful, witty and usually playful gems–so dense that a full appreciation almost always requires additional readings. Each is itself something of a modern proverb, using a philosophical economy that impels the reader to rethink the significance of things once taken for granted or thought of as commonly understood.

As a person, she is a complete delight: utterly modest, self-effacing, funny. She claims that she really only “turns on her brain” when she is writing, but anyone who gets to interact her would tell you that it’s completely untrue. In conversations and interviews, including the podcast above, it seems that the perfect metaphor is always in her grasp. (She described her reaction to being named Poet Laureate as like a frog that was boiled too quickly, noting that a frog in water doesn’t notice it is being boiled to death if the heat is turned up slowly.)

In all the conversations I’ve had with her and interviews I’ve read, I don’t really recall seeing the same metaphor or profundity repeated twice, a testament to her creative agility. Speaking as someone who lives in the realm of “talking points” and “staying on message,” I find that a refreshing and admirable trait.

But my real subject of this post is to encourage people to get to know our new Poet Laureate. Read her books, or at least whet your appetite with what can be found online. A few examples (aside from the podcast above, in which she read a couple of poems) can be found in this excellent online-resource page on our Web site. The page includes links to three Ryan poems from the Poetry 180 project and a streaming audio file of a 2001 reading she gave at the Library.

There is also an expansive list of articles, reviews and other tastes of her work a little farther down that page, here, and links on her book agent’s page here.

Her fans will also get a chance to hear and see her in person at the National Book Festival on Sept. 27 and at the Library’s event opening the literary season on Oct. 16. You can bet I will be there!

Comments (4)

  1. Yes, Ryan is fascinating!

  2. Her poems are compact, exhilarating, strange affairs, like Erik Satie miniatures or Joseph Cornell boxes. She is an anomaly in today’s literary culture: as intense and elliptical as Dickinson, as buoyant and rueful as Frost.”

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