Saving Lives and Minds
As a girl, Kay Ryan thought she might grow up to be a carpenter, or a standup comedian. Instead, she became a poet and a community college teacher of basic English. But the deftly crafted poems that led to her current position as the 16th poet laureate have some elements of carpentry in them, and are adept at delivering comic zingers that linger in the mind.
A typical Kay Ryan poem snakes down the page in slender lines; its brevity showcases its intensity, not its breeziness. She describes a “Hailstorm” as “A maelstrom / of ferocious little / fists and punches, / so hard to believe / once it’s past.” The description is marvelously accurate, spiked with striking sounds that mimic those “fists and punches.”
Ryan admits to being troubled by the association of poetry with “doing good.” To her, poetry is “savage. It’s selfish. It’s opportunistic. It’s not a nice thing.” One of Ryan’s hallmark techniques is to torque a phrase that has grown so familiar we don’t notice its strangeness. When she turns her attention to “the elephant in the room,” or “the darkest hour,” she holds a mirror to life’s astounding and humorous complexity. “One does not stack,” she says in “The Difficulty of Drawing Oneself Up.” “It would be like / a mouse on the back / of a mouse / on a mouse’s back.”
Although she writes compact and exacting poems, Ryan prizes simplicity: “I want to write in such a way that anyone who is willing to try can get it.” Three decades of teaching convinced her of the importance of clarity, even though she admits that “to use a word is to take a step into a jungle of forking paths.” While we wander through the jungle, we might as well slow down and enjoy its lushness.
Ryan’s visit to LCC is one of many such stops. As poet laureate, she’s created a national project to draw attention to community colleges, which are “saving lives and minds” across the country. The project is also a way of honoring the memory of Ryan’s spouse and teaching partner, Carol Adair, who died in 2009.
The Best of It: New and Selected Poems is Ryan’s eighth book; she didn’t publish her first until she was 37. The years of obscurity were frustrating, and her poem “Turtle” makes you feel it: “She lives / below luck-level, never imagining some lottery / will change her load of pottery to wings.” Although I imagine she sometimes longs to go back to the privacy that the “load of pottery” gave her, we are lucky that Kay Ryan has, at least for now, traded it for wings.
Kay Ryan reads at 7 pm Thursday, May 13, at the LCC Center for Meeting and Learning (Building 19). — Cecelia Hagen