Kay Ryan’s Craft

Kay Ryan will give a reading and accept the Hall-Kenyon Poetry Prize in Concord, New Hampshire, on October 23. Check for more details at www.nhwritersproject.org.

First, I feel I should apologize to Kay Ryan, who, on being asked by the Paris Review how her work was like Emily Dickinson’s asked in return, “How would you like to be compared to God?”

But because the spring session of the Book Club for Poets discussed the poetry of Dickinson, the affinities between her craft and Ryan’s really leapt out at our last meeting, when we explored Ryan’s The Best of It. Both poets write compressed, witty, and intelligent poems — while exploring human emotions. A wide range of learning, including science, appears in their work. Both poets often start with aphoristic statements before the poems turn to imagery to explore an idea in full. (Think of Dickinson’s “’Tis not that Dying hurts us so — / ’Tis living hurts us more” and “Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed” and compare them with the first lines of Ryan’s “Intention,” “Force,” “This Life.”) Both poets use rhyme in distinctive ways. Ryan has, however, forged her own unique voice.

D. H. Tracy has said, “[Ryan’s] poems are … distinctively typed on something as Dickinson’s are on hymns — what that thing is called, I don’t know, but its characteristics are very short lines, erratic rhyme (often internal), tumbling enjambments, and a ledge or ledges to rest on in the middle, just long enough to realize you’re dizzy.” Ryan herself describes her rhymes as “recombinant,” and I suspect that’s where the sensation of the poems’ being patterned on a “type” comes in. Recombination of chromosomes sometimes results in a trait belonging to a generation earlier than that of the parents becoming evident in offspring. Ryan’s elaborate rhyming probably creates a “Wow, wait, what’s that rhyme scheme — what’s the type?” sensation. But often recombination results in a completely new individual, with some traits not found in either parent, and that’s true of Ryan’s individual rhyme “schemes” as well. Rhymes often appear at the ends of lines but also at the middles of lines and at the beginnings. They don’t necessarily create a tidy rhyme scheme but hold the poem tightly together. Try circling and drawing lines between all the complex rhymes and near-rhymes in, for example, “Virga” and “Flamingo Watching.”

Tracy uses the first stanza of “Theft” as an example of the pleasures of Ryan’s style, and it is indeed a fine example of her music:

The egg-sucking fox
licks his copper chops.
The shell cups
lie scattered from
the orange debauch.

The short o sound in fox recurs in chops and debauch, while cups is a slant rhyme with chops. The c sounds (often linked with s) repeat in sucking, licks, copper, cups, scattered, and even fox. The s sounds repeat in sucking, licks, chops, cups, scattered — and sh in shell and debauch. And these sounds echo within lines, within stanzas, and across the poem: the short o and c sounds of fox recur at the very end of the poem in an image of the mind robbed of memory: “and the locked room / still locked.” At the heart of the poem, as S Stephanie pointed out during our discussion, the single long oo sound of cruel gives that word special emphasis.

Ryan’s poems are noted for their short lines, but she doesn’t limit her work to only one line length. “Drops in the Bucket” and “Stations,” for example, have extremely short lines; “To the Young Anglerfish” and “Full Measure” have much longer ones. In general, as we could hear when listening to recordings of Ryan reading her own work, line breaks often put special emphasis on beginning and ending words. The breaks often invite short pauses after phrases — although line breaks that interrupt a unit of syntax (coming between a or the and a noun or adjective, for example) often signal an enjambment without pause — and also an extra emphasis put on the first word of the next line:

It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been
and viscous . . .

(from “The Edges of Time”)


it’s hot and
perate . . .

(from “A Ball Rolls on a Point”)

In an article in the Marin Independent Journal, Ryan said this about the technique of using very short lines: “I like it because it is the most dangerous shape. If your line is about three words long, nearly every word is on one edge or the other. You can’t hide anything. Any crap is going to show.”

Reading through The Best of It in its entirety more than once has impressed upon me the speaker’s empathy and her bravery in revealing insights into emotions — insights so deep that it’s clear the narrator has more than an intellectual understanding of them. Consider how often the narrator delves into emotions and human experiences that many of us would like to avoid admitting we understand: grief (see “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard,” “Breast Birds,” and “Polish and Balm”), bitterness (see “Bitter Pill”), weariness (see “Waste”), loss (see “So Different”), and  failure (see “Failure 2,” which includes a spark of hope). Fanzine has noted that “her sympathy is generous, and her plea is not to but for all of us,” and that she recognizes how “it’s the daily struggles that make [life] hard.” I have to agree.

Ryan’s work is also very funny. I love, for example, the image in “Counsel” of undigested iron tablets: they “pass through us like / windowless alien crafts.” I also love the “wide / balloon-pantsed rumps / upended to the / northern sun” in the poem “Dutch” — humor that sharpens the threat, at the end of the poem, of the “black-suspendered / tulip magnates” running the show in the center of town. Ryan hints (as Deb Baker pointed out) at the expression “holy moly” in “How a Thought Thinks”: “A thought lives / underground, not / wholly mole-ish / but with some / of the same / disinterests.” Wordplay is part of Ryan’s craft. She plays with oddly literal interpretations of phrases like “limelight,” “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” “chickens coming home to roost,” and “nothing ventured,” and part of the joy of reading her work is taking the journeys these interpretations invite us to share.

The discussion has made me eager to read Say Uncle and The Niagara River, collections that Fanzine suggested were underrepresented in The Best of It.

© 2011 Martha Carlson-Bradley


Articles and Interviews: Kay Ryan

Here are some articles about / interviews with Kay Ryan. The two marked with an asterisk are ones I’ve added to the list I handed out at the Book Club for Poets discussion on July 13:

Academy of American Poets. “Kay Ryan” (bio, with sample poems, including audio). www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/352.

Academy of American Poets. “Poets Forum 2010 Highlight: Discussion Panels.” www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/21992.

Birkerts, Sven. “Clarity and Obscurity in Poetry.” Academy of American Poets. www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20443.

*Fay, Sarah. “Kay Ryan, The Art of Poetry No. 94.” Paris Review (Winter 2008). www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5889/the-art-of-poetry-no-94-kay-ryan.

Garner, Dwight. “Stealthy Insights amid Short Phrases,” New York Times, March 4, 2010,  www.nytimes.com/2010/03/05/books/05book.html.

*Gioia, Dana. “Discovering Kay Ryan.” Dark Horse 7 (Winter 1998–99). www.danagioia.net/essays/eryan.htm.

Halstead, Richard. “Kay Ryan Rises to the Top despite Her Refusal to Compromise.” Marin Independent Journal. September 23, 2007. www.marinij.com/ci_6975060.

“Kay Ryan: The Best of It.” Fanzine. March 2, 2010. www.thefanzine.com/articles/poetry/417/kay_ryan_the_best_of_it/4.

Miller, Laura. “Kay Ryan,” part of the “Poetry for the Rest of Us” series, Salon.com, www.salon.com/weekly/ryan.html.

Poetry Foundation, “Kay Ryan” (bio, with sample poems, including audio). www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/kay-ryan.

Tracy, D. H. “Eight Takes: Swann, Rogers, Brock, Howard, Nelson, Logan, Ryan, Stevenson.”  Poetry Foundation.  www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/178089.


© 2011 Martha Carlson-Bradley