Poet Kay Ryan: A profile
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"The Fourth," like many of Ryan's poems, does have a spiritual dimension, but the poet is quick to point out that she doesn't view the universe as conscious. She's not writing about the physical world as we experience it, but a world that exists only in her mind. What she does hope to convey is a sense of refreshment. "Poems should leave you feeling freer and not more burdened," she says. "I like to think of all good poetry as providing more oxygen into the atmosphere; it just makes it easier to breathe."Skip to next paragraph
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One way of achieving that goal is to avoid the first-person perspective. Ryan rarely uses "I," because she finds it too intrusive. She wants readers to hear their own voices when they read, that "perfect voice in the mind." The best writers, she says, are people such as Robert Frost and Philip Larkin, who give readers their highest selves.
Ryan believes her highest self is her intellect, which is why she writes about intriguing propositions and philosophical questions, rather than her personal life. One recent poem arose from an image she had of people walking around carrying invisible ladders. Exploring such intriguing concepts gives her "kind of a peculiar way of talking about emotions," she says. "It gives my poems a coolness. I can touch things that are very hot because I've given them some distance."
In addition to "coolness," she demands that her work have a lightness about it, yet she also wants the poems to "insist," to impose her will on readers. Ryan quickly acknowledges the seeming contradiction here: "Lightness can't be pushy, it can't be heavy, so how can it insist? Yet that is the only thing I want."
The fusion of contradictions is one trait that distinguishes her work from other poets'. She manages to convey intimacy and depth, distance and familiarity, at the same time.
For Ryan, the reward of her approach is what she calls "an acceleration of the mind," much like what she experienced on the bike in Colorado. She doesn't wait for the feeling of mental freedom to find her, though. She actively courts it by creating one of her 'emergencies' and forcing herself to do the mental equivalent of lifting a car. Using humor is one way to do this.
"I always counted on [humor] as a child," she explains, recalling a father who was not just a dreamer but could "fail at anything," a man who sold Christmas trees, owned a chromium mine, and died while reading a get-rich-quick book.
Ryan does not share her father's penchant for idle dreaming, but the hard lessons learned during those early years days do seem to color her work, giving it a gravity, a touch of sadness, that makes the wit even more poignant.
To this day, she feels the need to make people laugh, whether she's in the grocery store or reading in front of a standing-room-only crowd. "I need to make them laugh to know they're there," she says. Then, on a more serious note, she adds, "I need [humor] to connect with people."
And connect she has, with readers and critics. Since the publication of her first barely-noticed book in 1983, Ryan has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. She has won the Maurice English Poetry Award and two Pushcart Prizes, and she has published in some of the finest periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Poetry, where her work appears regularly.
Not bad for a woman who was once considered too independent to be accepted by her college's literary elites. Now, however, with her two recent prizes, Ryan serves as an example for other unconventional writers. "If there is a [literary] game of sorts, you can win by staying home and doing the writing," she says. "Good work can make its way in this culture."