Born in California in 1945 and acknowledged as one of the most original voices in the contemporary landscape, Kay Ryan is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Ryan's tightly compressed, rhythmically dense poetry is often compared to that of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore; however, Ryan’s often barbed wit and unique facility with “recombinant” rhyme has earned her the status of one of the great living American poets, and led to her appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate in 2008. She held the position for two terms, using the appointment to champion community colleges like the one in Marin County, California where she and her partner Carol Adair taught for over thirty years. In an interview with the Washington City Paper at the end of tenure, Ryan called herself a “whistle-blower” who “advocated for much underpraised and underfunded community colleges across the nation.”
Ryan’s surprising laureateship capped years of outsider-status in the poetry world. Her quizzical, philosophical, often mordant poetry is a product of years of thought. Ryan has said that her poems do not start with imagery or sound, but rather develop “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation.” Critic Meghan O’Rourke has written of her work: “Each poem twists around and back upon its argument like a river retracing its path; they are didactic in spirit, but a bedrock wit supports them.” “Sharks’ Teeth” displays that meandering approach to her subject matter, which, Ryan says, “gives my poems a coolness. I can touch things that are very hot because I’ve given them some distance.”
Kay Ryan is the recipient of several major awards, including fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She has received the Union League Poetry Prize and the Maurice English Poetry Award, as well as the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Since 2006 she has served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
- Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, Taylor Street Press (Fairfax, CA), 1983.
- Strangely Marked Metal: Poems, Copper Beech Press (Providence, RI), 1985.
- Flamingo Watching: Poems, Copper Beech Press (Providence, RI), 1994.
- Elephant Rocks, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1996.
- Say Uncle: Poems, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2000.
- The Niagra River, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2005.
- Jam Jar Lifeboat and Other Novelities Exposed, illustrated by Carl Dern, Red Berry Editions (Fairfax, California), 2008.
- The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2010.
- Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers, Poets & Writers (New York, NY), 1997-98.
- Antioch Review, fall, 1996, Daniel McGuiness, review of Elephant Rocks, p. 496.
- Atlantic Monthly, October, 2000, Peter Davison, review of Say Uncle, p. 136.
- Booklist, April 1, 1996, Elizabeth Millard, review of Elephant Rocks, p. 1340.
- Choice, December, 1985, R. Whitman, review of Strangely Marked Metal, p. 606.
- Entertainment Weekly, June 29, 2001, "Books: The It List," p. 90.
- Georgia Review, fall, 2000, Paul Lake, review of Say Uncle, p. 584.
- Library Journal, August, 1994, Christine Stenstrom, review of Flamingo Watching, p. 91; February 1, 2001, Ann K. van Buren, review of Say Uncle, p. 100.
- New Yorker, December 16, 1996, Benoit van Innis, review of Elephant Rocks, p. 108.
- Poetry, May, 1997, Andrew Frisardi, review of Elephant Rocks, p. 101; May, 2001, David Yezzi, review of Say Uncle, p. 103.
- Publishers Weekly, March 18, 1996, review of Elephant Rocks, p. 67; July 24, 2000, review of Say Uncle, p. 82.
- Yale Review, July, 1995, George Bradley, review of Flamingo Watching, p. 170; April, 2001, Rachel Hadas, review of Say Uncle, p. 170.
- Salon.com, http:// www.salonmag.com/ (September 15, 2001)*.
Poems By KAY RYAN
More poems by Kay Ryan (70 poems)
- All Your Horses
- Almost Without a Surface
- Backward Miracle
- Bait Goat
- Blue China Doorknob
- Carrying a Ladder
- Crocodile Tears
- Cut Out For It
- Fake Spots
- Felix Crow
- Flamingo Watching
- Grazing Horses
- He Lit a Fire with Icicles
- Home to Roost
- In Case of Complete Reversal
- Lighthouse Keeping
- Marianne Moore Announces Lunch
- Miser Time
- New Rooms
- On the Difficulty of Drawing Oneself Up
- Paired Things
- Party Ship
- Polish and Balm
- Rats' Tails
- Repulsive Theory
- Rubbing Lamps
- Sharks' Teeth
- Still Start
- Tar Babies
- Tenderness and Rot
- The Best of It
- The Egyptians
- The Fabric of Life
- The Late Worm
- The New Kabbalists
- The Niagara River
- The Obsoletion of a Language
- The Pieces That Fall To Earth
- We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It
- Why We Must Struggle
- Winter Fear
Articles By KAY RYAN
Blog Posts By KAY RYAN
Articles About KAY RYAN
Audio & PodcastsPoetry Off the Shelf
100 Years of Poetry Magazine
The editors discuss a few favorite poems from the new centennial anthology.
Abusing Animals in the Name of Poetry
Kay Ryan asks, "Who would be a turtle?"
Garrison Keillor, Billy Collins, and Kay Ryan
Excerpts from an evening of conversation and poetry.
Kay Ryan on Robert Frost
Our greatest American poet collected the wisdom of chicken farmers.
Poem Before the Event
A pair of poems about September 11th, written before the planes were even in the air.
The Poetry Garage
A thing of wonder and of beauty
By Kay Ryan
Carrying a Ladder
By Kay Ryan
Home to Roost
By Kay Ryan
Charms that Forestall Harm
Poems from Kay Ryan, James Arthur, Fanny Howe, Sarah Lindsay and the Thai Elephant Orchestra; plus Carolyn Forché on the poetry of witness.
Feeling Like a Worm in Tequila?
Poets chasing poets, Dean Young vs. Tony Hoagland, a theory of hats, and more.
Kay Ryan: Essential American Poets
Recordings of current poet laureate Kay Ryan, with an introduction to her life and work. Recorded September 11, 2007, in studio, San Francisco, CA.
VideoNewsHour Poetry Series
- Unlikely Laureate: A Conversation with Kay Ryan
Known for short, compact writing and for living a very quiet life, Kay Ryan has taken on a big and very public role as the nation's Poet Laureate.