Well, Kay Ryan's poetry that is.
I admit it, I knew almost nothing of Ryan's poems when I heard that she was named our new poet laureate last week. She's often called an 'outsider' choice for the role that's welcomed Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, and other big cats into its ranks. I think the 'outsider' label is hilarious. I mean, poetry as a whole is something of an outsider art. Sure, I just used the phrase "big cats" to describe some of our leading writers, but when modern bookstores keep a mere shelf or two for its poetry books--and a miniscule percentage of that space for writers who are still alive--who dares call Ryan an outsider of the art form, she whose laureate honor is only the latest of her many, many poetry honors?
But what matters, finally, are the words.
In the bustle of announcements and tributes and profiles and interviews, my impression of Ryan's poems began to take a shape. One compared her elliptical lines to Emily Dickinson's; another praised Ryan's "imaginative flair"; yet another memorably described Ryan's poems to "Faberge eggs--tiny, ingenious devices that inevitably conceal some hidden wonder."
So. It's time to see for myself what its all about. The results of my investigation? I love Kay Ryan's poems.
I love the edges of her poems--the hard rhymes of "wings" and "things," "go" and "crow," of the weird play of near-rhymes "bend" and "sand" and "shark" and "parks." Her poems take a strong narrative stance, manifesting a particular voice and point-of-view outside of first-person conventions. She gets away with using the word "extrapolate" in the second line of a poem. There's wonder in her poems, either in literal questions ("Who, who ...") or in metaphors ("...sticks of things."), which brings charm to their sharp corners.
And she taps into the power and dynamism of compression remarkably well. Even where she allows herself a measure of expansion (as in "Surfaces," below), the lines are narrow and sentences, tight.
The words "it" and "take" act as heartbeats at the end of the first stanza. The poems use of parentheticals act as devices of compression even in this relatively long poem for Ryan. She uses "s" sounds to build tight turns throughout it, bringing movement into the edged lines, giving us readers the experience of the contained panoramas she speaks of.
One might say that Kay Ryan's poems are as "compact and dangerous as a shark." And I'm damn happy she's my poet laureate.