THE BLOG
07/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Meet Your Next Poet Laureate

Kay Ryan the poet may have just been thrown into the spotlight, but her work has been there for a while. Her poems have filled six books, won her more than a few prestigious prizes, and appeared regularly in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. Now they have earned her the field's most glamorous posting, though Ryan herself didn't clamor for it.

While most prominent poets snap up teaching positions at the top Universities, Ryan has spent the last few decades hidden away in Northern California, contentedly teaching a remedial English class. When the New York Times--a piece on Ryan led off their Thursday Arts section--asked her if the coming attention would make it harder to write, she replied "No, uh-uh. I think it will make it impossible."

She may be a little reluctant, but she deserves the influx of attention. Her poems are great. The poet and critic J.D. McClatchy rightly described them as "compact, exhilarating, strange affairs." They are also very clear and brief, while boasting a remarkable depth of meaning. In a Times book review, the poet David Kirby mused on how she accomplishes this:

"Ryan's special talent is for illuminating the known and showing how the unknown defines it, as when she writes of a frozen lake that has its own seasons under the ice or says that Houdini's greatest trick was to emerge from the chains and padlocks as himself."

Here are a few of Ryan's poems. First, "Hailstorm," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. To borrow Kirby's formula, the unknown that defines the hailstorm gives this poem its pop.

Hailstorm

Like a storm
of hornets, the
little white planets
layer and relayer
as they whip around
in their high orbits,
getting more and
more dense before
they crash against
our crust. A maelstrom
of ferocious little
fists and punches,
so hard to believe
once it's past.

You can see the importance of form to Ryan's work. Like William Carlos Williams, she uses quick, jarring line breaks to infuse "Hailstorm" with tension.

"Patience" is a different sort of poem. It's an odd and brilliant exploration of what patience is, replete with its own geography. Like much of Ryan's work, it teaches you something about a concept you thought you fully understood.

Patience

Patience is
wider than one
once envisioned,
with ribbons
of rivers
and distant
ranges and
tasks undertaken
and finished
with modest
relish by
natives in their
native dress.
Who would
have guessed
it possible
that waiting
is sustainable--
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
time's fullness
the diamonds
of patience
couldn't be
distinguished
from the genuine
in brilliance
or hardness.

Finally here's "Home to Roost," (Ryan often employs and playfully explores clichés) which manages to be strange, magical and funny at once.

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.

If you want to read more, the Times has some great resources on Kay Ryan here.

In case you were surprised to learn that this country has a poet laureate (don't feel bad--I meet people who are surprised to learn that this country still has poets), here's some background. The laureate position has been around since 1986--prior to that a "Consultant in Poetry" position existed, and holders of that title included Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop. The poet laureate is expected to serve as a sort of ambassador for the art. The position is technically chosen by the librarian of Congress, one Mr. James H. Billington, who is probably not qualified to make the decision. Not to worry though, he gets a lot of advice from poets and critics around the country.

Ryan is America's sixteenth poet laureate. If you're curious, here's a list of the country's laureates to date:

2008-09 Kay Ryan
2007-08 Charles Simic
2006-07 Donald Hall
2004-06 Ted Kooser
2003-04 Louise Gluck
2001-03 Billy Collins
2000-01 Stanley Kunitz
1999-00 Rita Dove, Luise Gluck, W.S. Merwin
1997-00 Robert Pinsky
1995-97 Rita Dove
1992-93 Mona Van Duyn
1991-92 Joseph Brodsky
1990-91 Mark Strand
1988-90 Howard Nemerov
1987-88 Richard Wilbur
1986-87 Robert Penn Warren

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.