Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Research Assistance: Rebecca Gambale, Festival Assistant
Kay Ryan’s poetry has a quality of wit John Donne and other writers of the English Renaissance would have appreciated. Her poems are witty in our modern sense of showing a quick mind and pointed sense of humor, but they are far more than merely clever. Wit, in Donne’s time, was a prized gift for a poet to possess. It suggested the ability to both stretch logic and compress language to their limits. Big ideas were hidden inside tiny containers. In this sense of wit, part of the poet’s skill is like that of the master of the shell-game: we are always surprised by the outcome and delighted by the practitioner’s skill, even if we get stung by what’s uncovered.
We don’t have to go back four centuries to find this kind of wit. It is a thread that joins Ryan to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and many other poets who, with the simple turn of a phrase, can twist an apparently innocuous observation into a startling, even discomfiting musing. What all these poets have in common is that, under the nimble surface of their poems is a barely contained surging pressure. Sometimes it’s emotion or the need to get something said that cannot be articulated or even approached without the help of the poem’s form to provide support and structure. Just as often that pressure is created by the force of conflict, by opposing ideas or observations that cannot be reconciled with mere reason, and the poem exists in that place of tension between them.
It is fitting that we must look to a tradition that stretches across centuries to discuss Kay Ryan’s poems, rather than rely on the vocabulary of the conventions of contemporary poetry. Ryan worked for 30 years teaching remedial English in a small community college in Marin County, California. Far removed from any literary center or the world of creative writing programs, she forged an individual style based on the poets from over the centuries who spoke to her temperament. The result is a unique voice that is at once unmistakable as distinctly hers and simultaneously immediately recognizable as coming from a long tradition.
A generous sampling of Kay Ryan’s poetry cane be found in her most recent collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. Visit the Academy of American Poet’s Kay Ryan Page for a biography and audio recordings of her reading a selection of her poems.
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