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Kay Ryan, “The Least Typically American of American Poets,” at Parnassus
Stephen Burt wrote this appreciation of Kay Ryan, who represents the US at Poetry Parnassus, over at The Guardian.
Kay Ryan’s poetry, and her public – if you can call it that – persona defy almost every stereotype that a reader outside the United States might bring to an American poem. Ryan’s poems are witty, reserved, unprepossessing, impersonal, small-scale, as well as short-lined, practical rather than spiritual, never boastful. Most fit inside the left half of a single page. First-person pronouns are rare, rhymes are dense, puns abound – “A bestiary catalogs / bests” – and each joke opens up to reveal something worrisome about our shared lot: in Bestiary, for example: “The mediocres / both higher and lower / are suppressed in favor / of the singularly savage / or clever”. A chapter of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, entitled Why Americans Writers and Orators are so often Bombastic, is devoted to Americans’ individualism, bordering on self-centredness, and to their religious fervour. By these standards Ryan does not seem very American at all.
He continues, talking about her “access” and style:
[H]er poems almost never require you to know other literature beforehand, though they can reward those who do. Ryan spent most of her adult life in and around community colleges, whose comparatively affordable degree programmes can prepare Americans (often working adults) to study at university. Ryan attended a community college herself before transferring to UCLA. After she left a PhD programme in literature, she returned to the same college to teach, then, in 1971, moved north to Marin County, north of San Francisco, where she would cover remedial English and writing at another community college for three decades. She still lives in the small town of Fairfax, California, almost equidistant from the Golden Gate bridge, the seashore and San Rafael Bay.
That background, along with her introverted and outdoorsy temperament, may also speak to the terse common sense in her style. Ryan began to write poetry seriously after a long-distance bicycle trip in 1976 brought her vocation home to her. Asked how she would use her time after her term as laureate, Ryan told a Washington DC interviewer: “I plan to do a lot more bicycle riding”.
Even more here.