I might have missed Kay Ryan altogether, if it hadn’t been for my father-in-law. Even though she was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008-2010 and her 2010 collection, The Best of It, won a Pulitzer, Ryan’s name didn’t mean anything to me until Roger pointed out her poem in the July 25 issue of The New Yorker (the one with the two brides on the cover).
Roger, who is 85, keeps his brain sharp by memorizing poetry. He’s been a fan of Ryan’s for a while. Her poems are easy-ish to memorize because they’re short, he explained. And they’re hard-ish to memorize, because they don’t rhyme. Well, they don’t rhyme in the conventional way, anyway. (More on that later.)
I always like discovering a new poet, so when I stopped by the going-out-of-business sale at my local Border’s, I picked up Ryan’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection.
What a fun book! Ryan’s poems are easy-ish to understand, because they use plain, clear language. And they’re hard-ish to grasp all at once, because their simple surfaces can twist around and surprise you with an insight you never expected, and might not have even recognize until after the whole thing has had a chance to settle in. Here’s a nice one:
The Hinge of Spring
The jackrabbit is a mild herbivore
grazing the desert floor,
quietly abridging spring,
eating the color off everything
rampant-height or lower.
Rabbits are one of the things
coyotes are for. One quick scream,
a few quick thumps,
and a whole little area
shoots up blue and orange clumps.
Ryan’s bio on poets.org quotes poet J.D. McClatchy, who calls her poems “compact, exhilarating, strange affairs, like Erik Satie miniatures or Joseph Cornell boxes.” He also compares her to Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.
Ryan’s poems are often described as funny. In a 2008 interview with The Paris Review, she says, “When I read my poems to any audience there’s a lot of laughing, but I always warn them that it’s a fairy gift and will turn scary when they get it home.” What she means, I think, is that her poems aren’t so much funny ha-ha, as funny aha.
Those funny aha moments often come from her use of clichés. For a fancy-shmancy poet, she’s awfully fond of them, along with malapropisms, and other well-used idioms whose inherent metaphors are usually overlooked. An example she mentions in the Paris Review is limelight, which comes from the days before electric light. “[T]hey heated lime, or calcium oxide, to create incandescence for stage lights,” she says. In her poem “Lime Light,” Her poem, “Lime Light” misinterprets the term.
One can’t work
by lime light.
the kitchen table.
The fruit purveyor’s
what daylight did.
What did daylight do? Produce those limes, for one thing. And what else? The ability to see those limes? Such a seemingly simple poem leaves you with so much to think about.
As someone who writes (and spells) primarily by ear, what I really love here is how she plays with sound. These fifteen brief lines offer a feast of alliteration: one / work, lime / light, purveyor’s / pyramid, doesn’t / daylight / did. And listen to the internal rhymes! Bowlful, elbow / produces / glow / whole, bowlful / baleful, table / unstable, lime light / daylight. The fact that you have to tease the echoes from what appears at first glance to be pretty plain speech makes discovering them that much more satisfying.
Ryan explains that when she started writing in the 1970s, rhymes were out of favor, but they kept coming to her “without…permission.” So she jammed them in odd spots, where they help to hold the poem together without calling too much attention to themselves. She calls her rhymes “recombinant,” an approach she says is “like how they add a snip of the jellyfish’s glow-in-the-dark gene to bunnies and make them glow green; by snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem I found I could get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.”
Lest you miss that extra glow, Ryan often ends her poems with a rhyme – a device that might take you by surprise, and send then send you back in search of the rhymes you might have missed. That’s what happens in “The Hinge of Spring,” above, and here:
Forgetting takes space.
Forgotten matters displace
as much anything else as
anything else. We must
skirt unlabeled crates
as though it made sense
and take them when we go
to other states.
Speaking of forgetting, my father-in-law might be interested to know that Ryan doesn’t memorize her own poems. She has a very bad memory for poetry, she says.