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The Pigheaded Soul

Kay Ryan’s Collected Poems 1965-2035.

The matter-of-fact title of the new collection of poems by Kay Ryan tweaks a theme with which the poet, history suggests, has grown pretty comfortable.

All of It: Collected Poems 1965–2035, by Kay Ryan.
Grove Press. $24.00.

The matter-of-fact title of the new collection of poems by Kay Ryan tweaks a theme with which the poet, history suggests, has grown pretty comfortable. In 2010 this book was called The Best of It: New and Selected Poems; now it’s called All of It: Collected Poems 19652035. But then Ryan has never been terribly precious about the titles of her books. These tend to be donated by the lead-off poems, none of which have seemed especially inevitable in the role. In fact, thanks to recent insights into alternate universes, science can now confirm that Ryan’s breakthrough collection, Flamingo Watching, has been variously titled Slant, Say It Straight, Extraordinary Lengths, The Things of the World, and A Certain Kind of Eden. In each universe, the book has always enjoyed the same reception. (Life Studies, on the other hand, has been far less influential when called Skunk Hour, and The Waste Land all but bombs in the universes where it’s known as He Do the Police in Different Voices.) Ryan’s lead-off poems are not born-leaders establishing a theme; they are reliable grunts who got tapped for promotion to the front line. One is as able as another, and the books they add up to are never the point.

Most American poets now follow Ryan’s example. The titles of their books are borrowed from randomly deputized poems, and the books themselves—ever slim—abstain from irrelevant epigraphs, over-determined section dividers, and showy endnotes. But the distaste for what Ryan calls “vogue shapes for poetry books” used to be counterintuitive, if not subversive, back when poetry collections were organized by narrative arcs, those starchy structures that feel to us, in the 2030s, as odd and constricting as the undergarments of an earlier, more decadent age.

It was a weird time, the turn of the century. A majority of poets still taught in mfa programs as opposed to mba programs (that’s Master of Blogging Arts, of course). Weirder still, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference (awp) was not yet virtual but, rather, a real-world destination to which poets and writers actually traveled, in-flesh. Ryan’s account of a trip to one such conference—the much-anthologized “I Go to awp”—preserves, as time capsules do, some of the period detail, including the anxiety experienced by poets and editors who were made to actually mingle with one another, physically. At one point in this classic of gonzo journalism (not to mention anthropological fieldwork) Ryan finds herself surrounded by a pack of poets, one of whom indicates that he hasn’t yet discovered the arc of his new manuscript. Ryan’s baffled response—“What is an arc?”—seems to have been innocent enough. But given its eventual impact on American poetry, she may as well have asked a band of hunter-gatherers why they felt compelled to sacrifice their virgins. With a single question, one that would go on to supply the first major study of Ryan’s work with its title, Ryan had inadvertently killed off the arc as organizing principle, just as the old Apple platform iTunes killed off the lp.

If it’s now an age of poems and 45s, then it’s an age in which most poems look and sound a lot like Ryan’s—so much so that her concise, linear style (heavy on the abrupt enjambment and internal rhyme) is the default setting for versifiers, the way abab was the default for the Georgians and free verse the default for the Modernists and disjunction the default for the Ashberians (or the Sillimen or the Dean Youngians—the scholars are still deciding). Ryan is a giant of letters, which merely means her least gesture (“What is an arc?”) can rattle foundations and get a culture questioning itself. But “I Go to awp” was commissioned at a time when Ryan looked like enough of an outsider to all but guarantee that her visit to a poetry conference would result in the filing of a funny report about a fish out of water. The fish, it turns out, would become even more conspicuous. With reluctance, she would accept the role of poet laureate of the former United States and, in the decades after, the more significant role of poet of her generation. And yet it’s easy to forget the way in which her poems first infiltrated American culture—quietly, covertly, in the manner of things that tend to last.

Ryan didn’t teach creative writing. Worse, she made her home in Northern California, far from centers of literary power, with their schmoozing and book launching and elbow rubbing. (This was the eighties, before the days of social networking, when one had to actually live near a literary party in order to attend it; to be in close proximity to a body in order to poke or friend it.) At a low point, struggling to publish, she considered a trip (by motorized vehicle, of all things) to meet the New Yorker’s poetry editor in-flesh and so obtain an audience for her poems. But at the last minute, she decided not to go. She was too proud, and her poems, it seems, were going to get little help—even from Ryan. Instead, they would have to help themselves; they would have to endure what the poet called, not without a kind of affection, “the slow old mail”: the cumbersome and publicly-run postal system by which paper copies of poems were submitted to blogazines (and by which people, in general, texted one another). The long waits, often followed by rejection, toughened the poet and improved the poetry. In time, accomplished poems began to distinguish themselves to editors who owed Ryan exactly nothing but still couldn’t help being won over by the things. Discreetly, these poems crept into magazines, anthologies, the milieu. They were small, sure—“as small as those animals which save the foolish heroes of fairy tales—which can save only the heroes, because they are too small not to have been disregarded by everyone else.” Actually, that’s Randall Jarrell describing Marianne Moore’s poems. And when Kay Ryan describes the flamingo in her classic “Flamingo Watching”—

unnatural by nature—
too vivid and peculiar
a structure to be pretty,
and flexible to the point
of oddity

—she is describing Kay Ryan poems, whether she means to or not. It doesn’t matter that the flamingo is “too exact and sinuous/to convince an audience/she’s serious”; the Kay Ryan poem convinces.

And it does so by encouraging its audience to feel like the one anatomized in another Ryan classic, “Ideal Audience”:

Not scattered legions,
not a dozen from
a single region
for whom accent
matters, not a seven-
member coven,
not five shirttail
cousins; just
one free citizen—
maybe not alive
now even—who
will know with
exquisite gloom
that only we two
ever found this room.

Ryan’s relatively clear language and quick turn-around of rhyme (a rhyme one is never quite prepared for) had the effect of smelling salts. Thus did her skinny columns of type, with their unexpected kinks, create an alert consumer (and out of tough-to-thaw types like Dana Gioia and Charles Kinbote—literally “tough-to-thaw,” since both have since been cryogenically frozen for posterity). But the point is the poems never sacrificed their entertainment value. They were too smart not to please.

They were also too smart to appear to bother much with the ideas of their day. They weren’t oblivious to the ideas and maybe even accepted some of them. The notion that our most unique expressions are only ever remixes of, or responses to, the expressions of others—the notion that nothing is original—was merely a given in Ryan’s poems, which often salvaged some cliche of language or another’s words as epigraph, and then proceeded to make small talk with the salvaged scrap; to open, as they used to say, a dialogue. The notion that the meaning of an image like lime light is only ever provisional and depends on context—that a “bowlful” of limes

right at
one’s elbow

produces no
more than
a baleful
glow against
the kitchen table

—was another given which her poetry accepted but never condescended to make explicit. Even the lyric “I”—for which so much twentieth-century poetry served as a bullhorn and which so much of the rest of the century’s poetry sought to muffle—was casually absent in many of Ryan’s poems. Her poetry could take humanism and leave it.

Many academics came late to Ryan’s work, despite the fact that poems like “Shift,” in which “Words have loyalties/to so much/we don’t control,” were as critical of our attempts to represent the world through language as any old l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poem. (The poems’ only sin, really, was readability.) Also, Ryan’s advocacy for underdogs of all stripes obscured the fact that she had a cause: underdogs of all stripes. As a result, critics were slow to claim lines like these, from her poem “Turtle,” for the left, for Ecopoetry, for what have you:

                               With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. She lives
below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
will change her load of pottery to wings. 

Other poems, such as “A Certain Meanness of Culture,” excerpted below, weren’t aggressively anti-globalization or anti-capitalistic, but they did take their swipes at yuppies like T.S. Eliot, on behalf of those who dwell in pre-gentrified deserts

before the mythology,
..................in the
first tailings of industry,
and [who are] of course lonely
and susceptible to
the opinions of donkeys
since donkeys are the
main company out here
among the claims.
Snakes and wild things
skitter off too fast
for conversation.
You can get an appreciation
for why a donkey is
fussy about books
since she carries them.
You start to value culture
like you would water.

In short, Ryan’s poems could be transgressive, a word that once enjoyed a currency and that some academics liked to say of the literature they liked. But the transgression was never obvious, and anyway, Ryan’s suspicion of buzzwords (like “transgression,” for one) was never going to endear her to a certain set, at least in the early days of her career. “It’s funny how writers will all want to jump on the same bed till the springs pop out,” Ryan famously wrote of that word “transgression.” “Then they go jump on another one.”

Despite the subtlety of their, yes, transgressions (and despite the poet’s own apparent wariness of herds), Ryan’s poems always seemed to angle for something like the ideal audience of a universal reader. They weren’t overheated; they understood, as the poet herself liked to say, that only a properly chilled poetry can draw heat, life forms, readers. They certainly didn’t limit their readership by making specific references to, say, a popular culture the readership might not share. Topical events were left uncommented on, and at least one poem that could’ve been mistaken for commentary was held back for a spell. “[‘Home to Roost’] was sitting on the desk of an editor in New York at the time of 9/11,” Ryan once told npr, “and it suddenly took on this terrible added significance, and I had to withdraw it because it seemed cruelly appropriate.” Ryan’s poems didn’t aim to be cruel. Nor did they assume the poet’s personal traumas would necessarily interest a discerning reader. Nor did they succumb to the fragment, which lured so many of the previous century’s poets down a dead end, where thoughts need not be completed. Rather coolly, Ryan’s poems completed their thoughts, following unforeseen lines of thinking, roads less traveled, a fork’s most-slanted tine. They showed their work and obeyed a logic, but not the logic of a Mr. Spock, a logic feeling around for firm footing. The Ryan poem often concealed a loose plank in its reasoning, through which a reader was apt to plunge. Indeed, many of the pithier responses to the Ryan poem—the blurbs on her books—are really just confessions of vulnerability to an underestimated power: the scrawny kid who pins the stronger arm (David Yezzi); the change-up that freezes its batter (Kate Moos). “People come up and say, ‘Oh, your poems are so funny,’” Ryan would recount. “I tell them, wait until you get home.”

All of It will interest the completists who feel that they must have every last poem, the least b-side, the grainiest demo. But it’s a bulky book, and those curious about the poet’s early work might be better off consulting The Rest of It: Uncollected (and Repudiated) Poems, which collects banished books like Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends and Strangely Marked Metal, and is available for download on iVerse. I myself still return to the first retrospective, The Best of It, from 2010, an altogether more user-friendly affair than later and increasingly comprehensive selections. I also return to the book as a form of penance, self-flagellation of which I hope Ryan—who is still biking up Mt. Tam every day at the age of ninety—approves. (Biking, or mobile spinning, is a charmingly archaic mode of self-propelled teleportation by pedaling, still popular in some parts.) As your search engine may recall, I entertained some reservations about The Best of It, in a review for this very blogazine twenty-five years ago, a moment when Ryan, heaped with honors, must’ve seemed due for backlash. I wondered if she had published too many poems and, in doing so, had diluted her body of work. We now know she hadn’t. That collection, at least, holds up. And its one imperfection, its one amateur effort—an early poem for her father, set off from the rest—turns out to be the perfect touch of sentiment, the perfect off-note.

Still, after decades of living in this, the Age of Ryan, one can start to long for some of the sprawl of late-twentieth-century poetry—those book-length projects and, stuffed inside them, almost to bursting, the long lines and shaggy verse paragraphs and confessions of dredged-up stuff and photojournalistic set-pieces and collages of this and that. Ryan, to be sure, has too many imitators, turning out competent poems like “Bendable Straw,” by one Frank Hoaks, which recently appeared in the New Yorker:

Long repressed
it reveals its inner
accordion and
with a little pressure
down like the back
of the camel
it comes to
a wrinkle in
some spine’s plan.
Extracted from
its malted
it would make
for buoyant bedding
for the exalted—
for example
in his manger
some son of man.

The blogazines are glutted with this sort of lean, clever thing, so much so that it may be time to revisit those former giants—specialists in sprawl like John Ashbery or Anne Carson—who have been long forgotten. Or, better yet, it may be time to just plain visit poets like Samuel Menashe, Peter Van Toorn, Don Coles, Arturo Belano—singular poets who never achieved the material success of Ryan (or Ashbery or Carson) but were her quirky peers and continue to persist in certain memory banks.

Will Ryan still be a giant of letters in another twenty-five years? It’s wonderful that she ever was one, that she became so central, that Gioia’s early hope—“Ryan’s magnificently compressed poetry . . . signals a return to concision and intensity” (1998!)—even came to pass. But perhaps, as some critics contend, she has had her day. Many of these same critics assure me that the Neo-Flarfists (who wring their poetry from the recycled transmissions of extraterrestrials) are the next big thing. Others insist that the future of poetry belongs to the bow-tie-sporting robots, many of whom are fairly dominating the blogazines (or the Criterion 3.0, anyway) with their machine-tooled sonnets and sestinas. Still others argue that the great poet of the twenty-first-century—the last poet, really—is Facebook, which is to say: all of us.

It would be easy to ignore these predictions for the simple fact that they are predictions. But then even Jarrell was not above making a prediction, which is only science fiction for exactly as long as it takes to come true. Here’s Jarrell again, on one future in particular:

Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-tone shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the television wall of their apartment, only their eyes moving. After I’ve looked a while I always see—otherwise I’d die—a pigheaded soul over in the corner with a book; only his eyes are moving, but in them there is a different look.

    Usually it’s Homer he’s holding—this week it’s Elizabeth Bishop. Her Poems seems to me one of the best books an American poet has ever written: the people of the future (the ones in the corner) will read her just as they will read Dickinson or Whitman or Stevens, or the other classical American poets still alive among us.

In time, the pigheaded soul swapped out Bishop for Ryan. Will he still be reading Ryan, over in the corner, in 2060? Maybe not. It’s probably pointless to bet on the next big thing, especially when you’re not Jarrell and especially when cultures are fragmenting and poetries replacing poetry and the next big thing is likely just a lot of little things. Perhaps you should only blog your enthusiasms and make a case for your favorites (even if it can’t hurt too much to imagine a future in which you wouldn’t entirely mind living).


  • Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Pigheaded Soul

Kay Ryan’s Collected Poems 1965-2035.


  • Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

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