Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate

I'd be pleased if a poet preferring small matters to large themes became our Poet Laureate, but in the matter of Kay Ryan, I find her work malnourished, under muscled, simply lifeless and still as a rusty coin in a cushion crack. She is part of what is termed The School of Quietude, a dismissive term coined by Ron Silliman to describe the poets of the larger market place who concentrate on approaches to poetry that will not attempt to tackle more than one idea at a time. I have less animus toward poets who desire to do one thing well before moving on the next matter at hand, and have taken more than a bit of joy reading Billy Collins, Robert Haas.
Collins, though, is someone whom you "get" in short order , amused , shall we say, but his stylish effects but with no compelling reason to revisit the poem. Dickinson, certainly not a Quietuder (although she has been mentioned in conjunction with Ryan's name) , shows all of us that compact does not mean straight forward; whole philosophies and shades of far reaching intellection exist between those dashes. We read her because she's not easy to reach; with each re-reading, the reader tends to bring more to their experience of her work. Collins gets paraphrased, like a joke one half-recalls. The impression he leaves is soon smooths out into a general nothingness like the white noise that makes up radio static.

The compressed diction, the ruthlessly scoured syntax and sparse, clean rhythms (or rhythmless, at times) is breath taking when it works in the world of single-subject
poets, analogous to rare moments when a perception, an odd and unplanned arrangement of things, surprises you when your eyes come to rest on them. It's the sight of surprise, the aha!, and the short formers, the Quietuders likely excavate against excess rhetoric and come upon the one thing they are writing about. It's not an easy thing to do well. But more often it is mere shtick, a form of slick appitude for evading the harder edges a poet would be expected to walk on. One idea, maybe too, a fine turn of phrase, a quick exit. Ryan, though, isn't even this interesting.

My problem with Ryan is that too often she seems to be getting started on an idea , about to unravel some mystery of a material thing and connect it with an ongoing argument each poet has against Platonic idealism, but she leaves, she darts away, she is elsewhere after her aggravations are generated.

Bad Day

Not every day
is a good day
for the elfin tailor.
Some days
the stolen cloth
reveals what it
was made for:
a handsome weskit
or the jerkin
of an elfin sailor.
Other days
the tailor
sees a jacket
in his mind
and sets about
to find the fabric.
But some days
neither the idea
nor the material
presents itself;
and these are
the hard days
for the tailor elf.

From Say Uncle, 2000

One admires skeletal purity and an aesthetic that won't be overstated or festooned with gamy rhetoric, but there are some things Ryan might have taken from the more formal approaches she turned her back on, central among them the need to finish a thought. As with the above, the ganging up of internal rhymes makes this poem cute as a button, but not effective as a poem. It would serve, I suppose, as a set up for a longer set of complications with the size of the clothes one is supposed to wear, but the theme is rather banal, that one grows out of their clothes as they age and gain weight, and complications don't seem to interest Ryan anyway. Incompleteness can indeed be appealing in a poet who provides a strong sense of the absent details they address elliptically--strong points for Dickinson and the fascinating Rae Armentrout--but Ryan's is not that kind of poet.Her poems make you lean in so you can hear this soft voice suss through contradictions and the follies of fanciful thinking, but it ends in a mumble.

One should consider the work of a lesser known but though brilliantly clear eyed poet named Kate Watson, a writer I know and was was featured with in a 1996 anthology Small Rain: Eight Poets from San Diego (D.G.Wills Books). Her tone is modulated, her sentences balance tactile adjectives and purring verbs with an uncanny equilibrium, and her quiet moments transcends the perceived banalities of the School of Quietude and actually enters into perceptions that sweetly unique, clear, aesthetically riveting. Something is arrived at. The rare thing about my friend Kate is that her version of considering the thing-in-and-of-itself is without the faux profundity so many other poets would evoke inspite of their best efforts to rein in their egos; poets by nature have a hard time stepping from being the Arnoldian seer/priest. Kate Watson's is a poetry that is in large part free of those posturing suppositions.


pink eared, squints
in the sunshine,
sniffing flowers.

Button-eyed, she
purrs and
furlicks my legs
in the kitchen.

Four years ago, four
kittens born
in a drawer, smelled
of a barnyard.

Mature, she sleeps
in a circle,
the slope of her head suggests--young doe.


She meets I
in the body
which is one
with my mother

I can see
where sits by the blue fire
flame-quick knitting
Is she sighing
shall I sing
she is I
am a long way away
when the wind blows

white wall coal black
light grey hair

my mother winks
from the middle of the flame
and I rise up
and leave her
In the fire a reflection

coming home?

(C) 2008 Kate Watson

This is just a way of saying that the Library of Congress could have made a better choice. Saying that they could have done worse than Ryan doesn't say much for for
the office nor for what good graces are to be found in her conceit-laden lines.


  1. Dickinson ain't no School of Q (and seldom took on just one thing at a time)

  2. I don't think so either, though my sentence would seem to say so. Sorry for the egregious confusion on my part.More particularly, I should have said that small, compressed poems such as hers offer larger rewards to the reader than many of the well-positioned monologists who garner major poetry awards and stipends. Note the sentence is modified, and allow me to wallow in the glory of self-revisionism. The distinguishing feature between an SofQer and the compact complication of Dickinson would be that no matter the skill Billy Collins shows in his virtuoso tricks, you get what he has to say with the speed of parsing a weekly news columnist; there's absolutely no reason to revisit the poem he wrote again, save for use as a wedding commeration. Dickinson, we might both agree, is read and re-read, discussed , dissected and re-read yet again is because she continues to challenge us and bring other matters to our experience of her work. This is what difference between the Poet and the maker of clever ironies.


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