Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kay Ryan - The Niagra River

I’ve just finished reading Kay Ryan’s The Niagara River, and I have to admit that I just don’t get it. What do I mean by “I don’t get it,” I ask myself. Well, I find great pleasure in a lot of things that are not available to “getting” in the narrow explication sense, so it’s not that. The poems mostly don’t resolve into any discernable point, and that’s fine with me, discernable points are greatly overrated anyway. But what I don’t get is that I think that Kay Ryan thinks that these poems do resolve into something, or at least people out there who talk about her wit and charm and intelligence, seem to think that these poems resolve into some reason for being there (beyond the fact that art objects by being present at all, can be seen as being there because they are there—but again, this line of argument is an avant-garde line, and not one that seems to pertain to these poems or to the way people tend to talk about them).

Take the opening poem, for instance, which I rather like:

The Niagara River

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice—as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

What’s fun about this poem is the domestic image, with all that entails, as it’s there on the river heading for the falls. It would make a fine painting. We know we’ve placed ourselves upon our doom, as one is supposed to guess they’re above the falls . . . if they’re below the falls, I’m guessing they’d be in much less danger. In fact, looking at their situation, who’s to say that if they’re able to sit on water, they wouldn’t be able to float out over the falls anyway? Or maybe it would be a soft landing. The problem with going over the falls is both the fate of being crushed by the fall and then drowning. Drowning seems to be off the table (so to speak), so really it’s only the fall itself that’s the problem. I’m betting the magical dimwits having dinner here might well be magically saved by their obliviousness.

What I’m getting at is that to make a Kay Ryan poem work, even the very best poems by Kay Ryan, which I find this to be an example, one must accept a fuzzy leap of logic and fancy and then to somehow tie it all back up into the real world. It’s a mild surrealism that is supposed to be a metaphor. In the above case, we have the metaphor of the people who build their house upon sand. Because this story is so ingrained upon us, we have no trouble thinking that this very slight revision (sand become the Niagara River) becomes newly fresh and wise.

Much easier to see is how this works in what I consider to be a weak poem, that apparently Ryan really likes, as it gets mentioned in a recent APR interview with her:

Home to Roost

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

This is supposed to be funny at first and then become a sort of dangerous sounding thing, having one’s chickens come home to roost, another version of paying the fiddler. In fact, one could easily turn this into a pay the fiddler poem. Imagine this, then, as an alternate version:

Paying Up

The fiddlers
are all playing different
songs. The songs are
nice, but every other
song is in
the way. Yes,
the air is thick
with the sound of fiddlers,
cacophonous with them.
They play and
then they play
again. These
are the fiddlers
you asked for
one at a time
when you wanted music—
various tunes.
Now they have
come back
to be paid—all
at the same volume
at the same time.

It’s not a terrible way to write poems. It’s quite fun, really. Imagine what you can do with the pratfalls of the Three Little Pigs, or, as she does a bit later in the book, the elephant in the room that no one talks about. So, in this way, Kay Ryan’s poems can be kind of clever, or quaint, and mostly harmless, as they don’t really trouble any of our notions of how the world works, they simply reaffirm all those stories you knew when you were a child. Maybe they even do some good.

But what I don’t get is the amount of acclaim her work is getting the last few years, and how little negative criticism. I’d like to stress this. I don’t think her work is terrible. There are times where it can be charming, but most often it falls as flat as the platitudes upon which it is built.

Take this poem as an example:

A Ball Rolls On a Point

The whole ball
of who we are
presses into
the green baize
of a single tiny
spot. An aural
betrays our passage
through the
fibrous jungle.
It’s hot and
desperate. Insects
spring out of it.
The pressure is
intense, and the
sense that we’ve
lost proportion.
As though bringing
too much to bear
too locally were
our decision.

OK, first, the metaphor only works if you do a fuzzy kind of imagining that what we are might be some “whole ball” kind of thing, maybe in the “whole ball of wax” way, but then we also have to kind of imagine that it’s a real ball, and then that it rolls (rather than floats or bounces or something equally possible for balls), and then to imagine because she’s made a point about the point at which a ball rests upon ground (which only works on a hard surface—a jungle really doesn’t do) is somehow a point about “who we are.”

Still, it’s fun to say “green baize.” And that’s what I take from Kay Ryan’s poetry in the end: it’s fun to say “green baize” and then to kind of soft-focus ourselves through a life lesson in the way that a well-intentioned, genteel aunt or uncle might at some social gathering.


At 11/19/2009 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of these descriptors may just as well apply to your man Ashbery. Hmmmm..."clever"..."quaint"... "charming"...


At 11/19/2009 3:42 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

When writing this, I was thinking about the way a lot of people write about Ashbery -- the whole Emperor has no clothes thing -- and aware that I have that same kind of head-sccratch aspect in regards to Ryan as some do with Ashbery.

I don't know what to say past that. Their projects are very different, even if it's possible some people could use similar adjectives.

I've also heard some people compare Ryan with Armantrout, another poet I greatly admire and read, in those regards they talk about "funny" things and spare lines.

At 11/19/2009 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But the way you describe Ryan's work is problematic for this very reason. Just as some may dismiss Ashbery as a poet they "don't get," others may laud Ryan for being, well, gettable. And vice versa. It seems a flawed, or at least unproductive, criteria with which to approach poetry.

Instead of "I don't get it," why not "I don't like it." At least then you're being honest. We should all dislike poetry sometimes.

At 11/19/2009 3:45 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Point taken. I should have been much more clear what I meant! I’ll try here:

Well, just to say “I don’t like it” isn’t very productive either, I think. And it wouldn’t be quite true. Yes, by and large, I don’t “like” her poems, generally. But I don’t want to throw the book across the room or anything, either. They aren’t horrible.

What I’m thinking of when I say I “don’t get it” is more about the enthusiastic reception her poems receive from many quarters (including a lot of my friends), than it is about the “meaning” of the poems. Especially when people do, specifically, say they “get” something from her work that is a “something” as opposed to writers like Ashbery or Armantrout, maybe, who don’t, many people say, have things to “get.” They call her things like “accessible” and such, and call Ashbery (and sometimes Armantrout) “inaccessible.”

It’s my contention that this “accessibility” that people see in Ryan is a residue of her content, the fact that she’s dealing with truisms and sayings and updating them, or putting new clothes on them, and ending up with a kind of mixed-metaphor goulash. It’s interesting as a project, but I think, in the way that Ryan is using that technique, people are making her poems more clever than they are, by filling in the thinking, or, in some respects, doing the thinking for them, by imagining they are full of “mysterious clarity” and “passion” and “precision.”

At 11/19/2009 5:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember, Billy Collins was lauded as "America's best poet!", rather than "a not entirely unpleasant way to while away half an hour on the commuter train"--this may just be restating JK's point, but the problem with poetry criticism in the culture at large is that everything typically gets lined up along the accessibility/difficulty spectrum--and every other possible axis is for the most part ignored.


At 11/19/2009 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems John like your criticism of Ryan's poems is that they seem to gesture towards an undefined notion of "simplicity" or "clarity of thinking" while not actually doing the hard work of getting there. So her poems do just enough to allow readers to reside in this penumbra of unearned aha-ness -- philosphical equivalent of the poetry noise made at readings -- without actually achieving much of anything of significance.

This strikes me as not dissimilar to the way people often criticize Billy Collins's poems, though I think usually the critique of Collins also brings in a sense that there is something vaguely cynical and nihilistic about his treatment of the role of the imagination in human behavior.

Anyway, I think you are reading Ryan pretty carefully and fairly and I can see what you mean, though I myself have never quite had that reaction to her work. Which maybe is an implicit agreement. I think this issue can be illuminated further by comparison of her work to something equally simple but a lot more chilling and weird, and to my mind undeniably authentic: the shorter poems of Yannis Ritsos, in books such as Exile and Return and Late Into the Night.


At 11/19/2009 5:21 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I don’t think that’s restating JK’s point. He was mostly reacting to my poorly chosen “I don’t get it” bit, which set my argument up as a kind of straw dog thing. I agree with you that the difficulty/accessibility thing is a bad avenue that’s largely unproductive. But what I’m trying to say about it, and not doing a very good job is stated much more clearly by MZ above.


Thanks for the rephrase. Sometimes I feel like I need to walk around with a translator. It would help.

That is something of the argument I’d make against Collins’s poems if I were inclined to do so, but it seems that’s a pretty agreed-upon critique of his work. What I keep wondering about is why people aren’t making this argument about Ryan’s poetry? Is it because she seems more genuine about it, and, as you said (according to the critique), he seems cynical, or something like it? So there’s a kind of sympathy for her work?

At 11/20/2009 1:39 PM, Blogger Colin Sheldon said...

Green baize!


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