US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan Dazzles With Terse, Witty Words



For the past year, )

Discovering her calling

It was not until 1976, when Ryan was 30, that she realized that poetry was her true calling. She had just come over the Hoosier Pass in the Rocky Mountains on a cross-country bicycle trip when she found herself in an altered state of awareness.

"I experienced some atomic alteration in my mind," she says, "… and I realized I had this incredible capacity to think like a laser, and I could think out to infinity. At first I was doing a few little 'kite tricks' with it. But then I realized, 'Oh, this is the perfect chance to get the answer to my question: Shall I be a writer?'"

But the "answer" she got was a question.

"And the question was, 'Do you like it?' That was the entire answer. And I just laughed because there was no question about it. I loved it! So I really went down the mountain knowing what I was going to do with the rest of my life."

Exploring the everyday

Such epiphanies notwithstanding, Ryan's poems often explore everyday human emotions such as hope, doubt and fear. In this poem, Ryan expresses a special fondness for relief. She observes that relief is a fleeting emotion which, unlike love, is always "paid for" in advance:

We know it is close  
to something lofty.
Simply getting over being sick
or finding lost property
has in it the leap,
the purge  
the quick humility  of witnessing a birth --  
how love seeps up  
and retakes the earth.  
There is a dreamy  
wading feeling to your walk  
inside the current  
of restored riches,  
clocks set back,  
disasters averted.


To date, Ryan has )

Poetry cares for itself, Ryan says

Ryan nearly turned down the offer to become U.S. poet laureate. She says she wanted to protect her privacy and keep writing without being distracted by the job's many public duties. Ultimately, Ryan accepted the post at her partner's urging. But she says hasn't used her highly visible role to "advocate" for poetry.   

"I think poetry is indestructible, and I don't worry about it, and I don't think it needs the protection of me or the advocacy of me or anyone."

Ryan likens poetry to gold coins: "You can lose it in the couch, or in the ground, or anywhere and when it's dug up its going to be valuable, so that real poetry utterly protects itself, [and] takes care of itself."

Poet laureate advocates for education, careful attention to words

Having said that, she does have a couple of projects she is committed to as the poet laureate. She is a powerful advocate for community colleges, which she believes often offer an excellent education, but are generally underappreciated.

Ryan also says she'd like to make a little bit more "space" in between words.

"I think all words should have a fraction more time if they are spoken, or, [if] on the page, I think we should have a little more white space between words."

It was perhaps in that spirit that Ryan wrote a short little poem called "Dew":

As neatly as peas
in their green canoe,
as discreetly as beads
strung in a row,
sit drops of dew
along a blade of grass.
But unattached and
subject to their weight,
they slip if they accumulate.
Down the green tongue
out of the morning sun into the general damp, they're gone.  


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