Friday, July 18, 2008

Here Comes The New Chief American Poet

Addendum as preface:

OK, so I’ve been browsing around the internet, reading what Kay Ryan poems I can find. Here’s one I rather like:

Nothing Ventured
by Kay Ryan

Nothing exists as a block
and cannot be parceled up.
So if nothing's ventured
it's not just talk;
it's the big wager.
Don't you wonder
how people think
the banks of space
and time don't matter?
How they'll drain
the big tanks down to
slime and salamanders
and want thanks?

* * *

I like her impersonal nature. That’s worth praise, as it runs its own path, counter to the major tendencies of the age. But, I’m leaving up the rest of this post from yesterday. I still don’t like the way Kirsch characterized the whole thing in this article. And there is a surface to Ryan’s poetry, whether dark or impersonal or not, that I wish she’d trouble. The world is more complex as it unfolds than the way Ryan quietly intones it.

For example, looking in the above poem, really, there is no nothing (in time and space). Nothing is an invention. That should somehow force this poem into a more difficult relationship to the “nothing ventured.” She almost does that in the second half of the poem, as it turns weirder, but she still allows “So if nothing’s ventured / it’s not just talk” when it obviously is “just talk.”


With the announcement from the Library of Congress that Kay Ryan will be the country's next poet laureate I have found a poet whose poetry I can dislike almost as much as I dislike the poetry of Ted Kooser. Whew. I was getting a little tired of Kooser-bashing. Now I can Ryan-bash. Yippie. Lucky me.

Adam Kirsch, of The NY Sun, sees it differently (I found this through Poetry Daily this morning):

“. . . is a cause for celebration. In part, this is because Ms. Ryan is an excellent poet, and in poetry it is rarer than it should be for merit and recognition to find one another. But it is also because Ms. Ryan has advanced to the top rank of American poets while keeping a principled distance from the institutions of the poetry world. In 2005, she filed a hilariously skeptical report, for Poetry Magazine, on the annual conference of AWP, the Association of Writing Programs, which began: "I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers conferences. It's been a point of honor: the whole cooperative workshopping thing, not for me. I have never taken a creative writing class, I have never taught a creative writing class, and I have never gone, and will never go, to anything like AWP, I have often said.’

One of the sections in that essay was titled "A Lifetime of Preferring Not To," and while Ms. Ryan is not quite as hermit-like as Bartleby the Scrivener — her work appears regularly in the New Yorker, and she has received some of the country's leading literary awards, including the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize — she has always refused to join the interlocking directorate of MFA programs, conferences, and workshops. It is true that Ms. Ryan, like many American poets, makes her living as a teacher. But instead of teaching seminars on the sestina at Iowa or Bennington, she teaches remedial reading at a community college in Marin County, where she has lived since 1971.

Ms. Ryan is, in fact, a lifelong Californian. She was born in 1945 in the San Joaquin Valley, the daughter of an oil driller, and she graduated from UCLA. And her reputation took a long time to spread nationwide. Her first book, "Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends" (1983), was privately printed and went unreviewed. Not until her fourth, "Elephant Rocks" (1996), was she published by a major trade house, Grove Press. And only in the last decade or so has she become really well known to poetry readers, thanks in part to the advocacy of the poet and critic Dana Gioia. (Indeed, since he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003, Mr. Gioia has had a perceptible influence on the poet laureateship: Ted Kooser, who served in the post from 2004-06, is another poet Mr. Gioia has warmly praised.)

In her diffidence and self-sufficiency, as in her dark vision and metaphysical scope, Ms. Ryan is oddly reminiscent of another California poet, Robinson Jeffers. Not that their poetry sounds at all similar: Jeffers's craggy free verse looks positively monumental next to Ms. Ryan's dexterous, compressed lyrics. Ms. Ryan's poems have, in fact, been widely admired for their accessibility and apparent modesty. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, announced her appointment as Poet Laureate by saying, "She writes easily understandable short poems on improbable subjects." But this kind of tepid, reductive praise misses the strengths that raise Ms. Ryan above superficially similar poets like Billy Collins and Ted Kooser.

In fact, like Jeffers — who wrote with grim satisfaction about the end of civilization, in poems like "Shine, Perishing Republic" — Ms. Ryan sees both out far and in deep. Take the poem "Chop," from her most recent collection, "The Niagara River" (2005):

The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
reached. His
each step makes
a perfect stamp—
smallish, but as
sharp as an
emperor's chop.
Stride, stride,
goes the emperor
down his wide
mirrored promenade
the sea bows
to repolish.

Here are the short lines, plain diction, and buried assonances — "sharp/chop," "step/stamp" — that define Ms. Ryan's verse. But once you ponder the miniature allegory of "Chop," that homely music starts to look desperately ironic. For Ms. Ryan's bird is an emblem of man in his arrogant mortality. The emperor's imperative gesture, the "chop" that commands obedience — or the chopping off of heads — is reduced to the prim stepping of a bird. And like the emperor and his deeds, all memory of the bird's passage is instantly erased — by waves which, in a further twist of Ms. Ryan's metaphor, are deceptive "bows," gestures of obeisance that are actually acts of oblivion.

"Chop," then, is a less accessible poem than it looks, and less comforting than it is accessible. Like Robert Frost, Ms. Ryan tends to lay out her metaphors like traps, coaxing the reader into them before springing all their dark implications. In "Grazing Horses," an initially comic image — the horses are thoughts, grazing "the green pasture of the mind" — turns terrible when "the mind tilts abruptly":

legs buckle
on the incline,
unhorsed by slant
they weren't
designed to climb
and can’t.

The simplicity and finality of that last line turns the poem into an evocation of despair.

Yet such a statement of despair, when made by a true poet, is more consoling than any amount of official uplift and exhortation. That is because the mutual recognition of poet and reader, the sharing of experience that a poem makes possible, is poetry's most trustworthy gift. As Ms. Ryan writes in "Lighthouse Keeping":

the lighthouse
keeper keeps
a light for
those left out.
It is intimate
and remote both
for the keeper
and those afloat.

* * *

OK, so there are so many things about this that depress me, I barely know where to start. To, on the one hand, tout Ryan as some sort of anti-poetry world, principled, heroic figure (while getting in some sort of sideways dig at anyone who would stoop so low as to teach at Iowa), while on the other hand show her close affiliation to the most powerful institutions in American poetry, Dana Gioia and Poetry Magazine, is more than a little disingenuous. And why the slam at AWP? Sure, AWP can be pretty bland at times, and yes, there are creepy moments here and there, but it’s a pretty harmless conference, and actually does some good (I got to meet Ashbery!). And then, on top of those shots across the bow of some fantasy of the Academic Poetry Establishment, these are the two poems that get quoted.

Well, here we go. I know these are just two poems, and that they may not be the best of Kay Ryan’s poems, but even so, they are being held up as proof of her genius, and how this is better than what we've been having lately (Charles Simic? Is that who he means?). No matter how Kirsch tries to make them complex, I think James Billington has it more correct: “She writes easily understandable short poems on improbable subjects.” I’m not enraged by them. It’s more that I find them unremarkable. I don’t see anything to get excitied about one way or the other. Maybe someone can help me?

With so much money behind Poetry Magazine, and with the power that Dana Gioia wields, this might well turn out to be the dawn of a new age of “easily understandable” poems. I’m half-convinced that might be a good thing, as it will occasion a strong response from what I consider more interesting quarters.

This makes me think again of the teams idea that was brought (back) up this week in reference to Mark Halliday’s review of Clover. I believe there is something akin to teems in contemporary American poetry, but there are not two. Maybe six. The first two are easy to see:

1. The Dana Gioia people. Poetry Magazine. Ted Kooser. Billy Collins. Kay Ryan. (etc)
2. The Language Poets (or Avant-garde poets?). Ron Silliman. Lyn Hejinian. Charels Bernstein.

Ron Silliman has labels, which float about, for a couple more teems, that come to mind: faux-Avant, and school of quietude. Am I remembering correctly? Anyway, I’ve not liked those labels, as both are more dismissive than descriptive. Therefore, they’ll never catch on. But they are out there. I forget the actual names, but I think school of quietude includes The Dana Gioia people as well as a lot of others. I would separate out many of those others as a separate group. Call it Group 3 poets. A lot of whom I like. A good example of this group? Ah, who knows, I’m already bored by making groups. Robert Hass, maybe? Louise Gluck?

But Silliman’s faux-avant group, I think, is similar to, I’m probably getting this wrong, the group Reginald Shepherd recently wrote about as a group he termed Post-Avant, which is somewhat similar to the group Burt called “Elliptical Poets.” I’m about to fall asleep over this little blog entry, so I’ll stop there, which means, for me, today, there are four groups in contemporary American poetry. They often trade players. And perhaps some are spies. Some involved in prisoner exchanges. We’ll give you Rae Armantrout for Charles Bernstein, or somesuch.

OK, now I’ve decided, in a wandering way, that it’s good to have Ryan as poet laureate (whew, she will breathe easier now, I’m sure), and have her next book win a Pulitzer. I was getting comfortable with Simic being poet laureate. I was beginning to feel we were all on the same page. We can’t have that, now can we?


At 7/19/2008 12:54 AM, Anonymous Louise M said...

Hey John-
I actually really like Kay Ryan and think this is super cool. yes, she's had some "establishment" type success in the last decade but before that, really no one knew who she was and she'd been slogging it out a long time. She still teaches remedial english at a community college, something she's done for something like 30 years. She's funny and shy and likable and self deprecating when you read interviews etc. And I could sort of relate to her article about AWP. I didn't read it as anti-AWP so much as she was poking fun at herself for her reclusive nature.

Hope your summer is going well. Cheers, Louise

At 7/19/2008 7:12 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I always hate it when I don't like someone's work and they turn out to be nice. In much the same way that I hate it when I like someone's work and they turn out to be a jerk.

The stuff about AWP and programs and such seems to be mostly the slant of Kirsch in how he wrote the article.

If I ever get the chance to meet her, I'll try not to talk about poetry!

My summer's good enough, a bit tiring.

At 7/19/2008 9:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few Kay Ryan's I really like, from the collection Say Uncle.


If we could love
the blunt
and not
the point

we would
almost constantly
have what we want.

What is the
blunt of this
I would ask you

our conversation
weeding up
like the Sargasso.

A Hundred Bolts of Satin

All you
have to lose
is one
and the mind
all the way back.
It seems
to have been
a train.
There seems
to have been
a track.
The things
that you
from the
abandoned cars
cannot sustain
life: a crate of
tractor axles,
for example,
a dozen dozen
clasp knives,
a hundred
bolts of satin--
perhaps you
more than
you imagined.

At 7/19/2008 10:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I thought "blunt" was a going to be a fat joint. Maybe it is?

I'm not sure what it really means, though, if not that. What am I missing?

I get the "point," about points, but why there would be this thing called "blunt" to arrive as the only alternative is beyond me. This thing counter to the point? The pointlessness? But we do ask such things of each other all the time, don't we? The point of not needing a point? But why make that a unitary thing? I would think the point of not needing a point would be a primitive sensuousness with being. Maybe that's what she means with the intrusion of the Sargasso?

It has the assurance of logic, as it's set up as a logical proposition. That's nice.

Is it really about how word-play works, through enacting a slippage of conversational point into physical point, that might have a blunt backside? As if blunt were the counter to point, when it's not really, it's just a point that has been worn.

And the "almost" here. How interesting.

At 7/19/2008 10:31 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"A Hundred Bolts of Satin" is quite beautiful, actually.

At 7/19/2008 10:41 AM, Blogger jeannine said...

Yah, I thought the classification of "outsider" everyone keeps touting was a little much. After all, she shows up in every single frickin issue of Poetry Magazine (as well as the New Yorker, as you pointed out,) she gets paid by the Poetry Foundation people to make fun of AWP because she's "above all that," etc. I said this on another forum, but she is, at best, "an insider's outsider" - someone who's on the real inside, not the vague AWP-going poetry masses like me kind of inside.
On the plus side, she's female, and since there have been a total of eight women PLs, I've got to be happy about that, I suppose.
I think those two teams you mention - kind of a Dana Goia verus Ron Silliman thing - is so sad, because the best American poetry is at neither extreme, on neither team.

At 7/19/2008 11:14 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I've never been able to keep straight who's in what corner, past the extremes. I've always really liked the poetry of Lyn Hejinian, for instance, and she's supposed to be smack in the Language camp. And Michael Palmer, as well, is one of my favorites, though I'm not sure if he is really in that camp. And another favorite of mine, Rae Armantrout, where does she "belong."

I've decided it's best for my head to just like what I like. The drawing the line stuff isn't a help. Even though, now and then, I try to figure out how and why I like what I like, and look for similarities.

But the power that The Poetry Foundation has is amazing. I imagine the luncheons: Gioia and Barr and Wiman sitting there with Kooser and Poet X (there's always a Poet X).

Kay Ryan is a better writer than the four of them, so there is that. Currently, I guess, she's Poet X?


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