Kay Ryan is the new Poet Laureate
July 18, 2008 1:31 PM   Subscribe

My favorite poet, Kay Ryan has been named United States Poet Laureate.

The job is a cheap thrill--it pays $35,000 for the year, and the previous laureate, Charles Simic, declined to repeat the honor for a second year because he needed more time to write. The original title was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, but the title was changed in 1985 to make it sexier. Poets Laureate tend to be accessible poets who write relatively clear poems, with Billy Collins perhaps the most controversial because his gentle, ironic verse is popular and sells well. But then poets don't tend to respect their peers. The first poem I read by her was Turtle; she specializes in very brief, compact, internally rhymed, wry poems. "It's kind of a thrill to go from nothing to this," she says. "This is probably going to keep me so occupied that it will discourage any contact with the deeper mind. But my deeper mind needs a break."
posted by Peach (40 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Hey thanks for this. I added a poetlaureate tag so that people can find the posts for Charles Simic and Donald Hall from the last two years. I don't know anything about Kay Ryan so thanks for this introduction.
posted by jessamyn at 1:36 PM on July 18, 2008

Y'know, I don't know anything about Kay Ryan's life, but I can say that for most poets I've ever known, $35K a year would be...um...quite welcome.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:43 PM on July 18, 2008

This is a great post Peach. The more inside is really more.
posted by three blind mice at 1:54 PM on July 18, 2008

and the greeting card industry loses one of it's better minds.
posted by kitchenrat at 2:28 PM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have gotten to know former U.S Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and he wrote his poetry early in the morning each day, before heading off to work as an insurance company executive. Even now, he probably makes a great deal more in his English faculty position at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln). The position is a nice platform, however.

Like most art, if it's only about the money, you probably aren't doing it right.
posted by spock at 2:33 PM on July 18, 2008

This post reminded me to check a Monkeyfilter thread I started back in 2004 (Coincidentally when Ted Kooser was named U.S. Poet Laureate). Nice to see it is still going strong. Poetry afficianadoes may find some enjoyment in that thread.
posted by spock at 2:37 PM on July 18, 2008

Sappho would be so proud of this lesbian laureate!
posted by Carol Anne at 2:38 PM on July 18, 2008

When this country's Executive Branch starts having Performance Artist Laureates, maybe then I'll ...no it probably wouldn't even matter to me then. Maybe Standup Comic Laureates... Gangsta Rap Laureates? Independant Musical Artist Laureates? Guys Working On Getting Every American Their Own Flying Car Laureates?

For me, poetry kinda peaked somewhere between e. e. cummings and Anne Sexton.

...although, y'know, Maya Angelou. Of Course. Duh. Granted. She rocks.

...but.. this? This is really the best poet in America today? Really? Sounds more like she's the least offensive. Kay Ryan appears to be a safe choice, and as anyone from Ken Nordine to Saul Williams might tell you, being even remotely good at poetry today, is not about playing it safe.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:43 PM on July 18, 2008

One of the jobs of the poet laureate is to go out and get people who think they hate poetry, or who are afraid of it, interested in it. The poet laureate doesn't have to be the most challenging poet in the country. I don't know that I want to start arguing about "best" - although given that this is the blue, it may be inevitable. Having won the Ruth Lilly prize certainly puts her in good company.
posted by rtha at 3:12 PM on July 18, 2008

Hmm. At first, I really didn't like the turtle bit. It's hard to truly appreciate some poetry unless it's read aloud, though, so I read it again, this time speaking it silently. The rhythm is a bit rough in a couple of places for me, but that's probably answered by the way the writer performs it. It got a bit better with that, but still... just not all that interesting.

Someone rez Bukowski and give him the job. He may not be the best poet ever, but he's definitely the most interesting.
posted by Narual at 3:12 PM on July 18, 2008

I am so on it. I'm putting the finishing touches on a Kay Ryan comic as we speak!
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 3:14 PM on July 18, 2008

being even remotely good at poetry today, is not about playing it safe.

Yeah, because poetry is all about today and edgy and Sticking It to the Man.

Nice post, and I'm glad to have been introduced to Kay Ryan. Thanks.
posted by languagehat at 3:18 PM on July 18, 2008 [4 favorites]

And "Boondocks" quoted her, ferchrissake. That's not enough street cred for you?
posted by languagehat at 3:18 PM on July 18, 2008

I usually find it very difficult to enjoy rhyming poems. But these are pretty good. Well structured and subtle rythyms.
posted by troubles at 3:59 PM on July 18, 2008

I'm not a big fan of Kay Ryan's style but these lines from "Turtle"
Her only levity is patience,
The sport of truly chastened things.
rock my socks.
posted by chimaera at 4:08 PM on July 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Poet laureate
Two words that don't mean shet
posted by poppo at 4:08 PM on July 18, 2008

As a philistine, I naturally hate poetry, but I decided I liked this Kay Ryan character when she said her goal is to "prevent all bad poetry from being published during my reign."
All hail our new poet-queen!
posted by smartyboots at 4:08 PM on July 18, 2008

Narual, this article talks a bit about Ryan's unconventional use of meter:

Although the poems contain no regular meter - alternating between iambic and unmetered - Ryan says she doesn't write free verse. She says she intentionally inserts "clunky passages" if the meter becomes too fluid.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 4:11 PM on July 18, 2008

On further thought, and contemplating the other poets people mentioned, I think I like her for the way she takes a conventional phrase and twists it into something surprising and unsettling, and for what Dana Gioia calls her "complex wordplay, dense but irregular rhyme, elastic lineation, and extreme compression." Her poems warrant re-reading and re-reading. "Turtle" isn't my favorite any more--but "All Shall Be Restored" is a favorite, and so is "Patience," but as someone getting older and more forgetful, "A Hundred Bolts of Satin" is the one I try to memorize :)
posted by Peach at 4:18 PM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

LanguageHat: "Yeah, because poetry is all about today and edgy and Sticking It to the Man."

Actually, poetry is about finding the timelessness in today. Capturing the now for posterity so the future will see the past and go "cool." Read Angelou's "Still I Rise" again. Tell me that's not still edgy. Tell me that's not Sticking It To The Man. I still get chills just thinking about it. THAT's poetry!
posted by ZachsMind at 4:36 PM on July 18, 2008

The US poet laureate from 1997-2000 was Robert Pinsky, who had been my favorite professor at Berkeley when I was getting my master's degree. A friend of mine just sent me a crafty little poem of Pinsky's that was embedded in a text-based online game he was playing. I love it:

by Robert Pinsky

Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,

Knowledge, love. Many
Need oblivion, painkillers,
Quickest respite.

Sweet time unafflicted,
Various world:
X=your zenith.
posted by digaman at 4:50 PM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks, Peach, for those links. Fantastic.
posted by rtha at 5:16 PM on July 18, 2008

Your Favorite Poet Su... er... is actually really good.
posted by tkchrist at 5:29 PM on July 18, 2008

The Wikipedia entry for the US Poet Laureate says:
When Billy Collins was appointed to the position, a group of poets and critics associated with the POETICS list protested by voting for an anti-laureate. Anselm Hollo was elected to this position.
Doesn't say why, though. Poking around to other entries also doesn't reveal this.

So, uh, why?

Please keep in mind, when answering, that before five minutes ago, I had never heard of Billy Collins, Anselm Hollo, or "the POETICS list".

I am half-imagining that, because he served during the current Bush administration, maybe he was, like so many appointees of this administration, appointed more for his willingness to subvert the government to the purposes of the Republican party than for his, uh, qualifications. Perhaps his magnum opus is entitled "Jesus Wants To Bomb Iran", or something.
posted by Flunkie at 5:41 PM on July 18, 2008

I think Billy Collins -- first poet laureate of the Bush administration -- was thought of as too "accessible" and academicky. The whole anti-laureate thing got some traction because it was in the NYTimes but I dug around on the list some and there didn't seem to be a huge outcry, just some grousing and some self-congratulatory stuff. You can read Hollo's acceptance speech here.
posted by jessamyn at 5:56 PM on July 18, 2008

Her poetry is really hard to memorize. Which at one point led me to have a B instead of an A. I still like her, though.
posted by sondrialiac at 6:06 PM on July 18, 2008

Here's one of Kay Ryan's that I posted to the Monkeyfilter thread that Spock mentioned.

It's great when poems written before the fact suddenly turn apt. And this one summarizes in perfect words, the housing bubble and collapse.


Much of life
is Dutch

in which
legions of
big robust
people crouch

badly cracked
dike systems

by the thumbs

their wide
balloon-pantsed rumps
up-ended to the
northern sun

while, back
in town, little
tulip magnates
stride around.
--Kay Ryan

posted by storybored at 6:28 PM on July 18, 2008

ZachsMind: ...although, y'know, Maya Angelou. Of Course. Duh. Granted. She rocks. ...but.. this?

Angelou, in spite of donning "serious" and "empowering" themes, is not (considered) a serious poet; in contrast, the "Turtle" poem you link puts a more respectable wordplay in the service of a more whimsical subject. It's really a matter of preference, but I'd say that formal skill trumps subject matter among many who read poetry as poetry.

Of course, a poet can go too far in either direction. There is always the danger of becoming overly precious and poisonous and seeking ever more elliptical, offbeat ways of rendering the mundane - and of poems collapsing into a hyperdense mess of evasions. But of the bad poets, I think far more venture into the other, more marketable excesses, those of Angelou and "slam" poetry: of slit wrists, chainsmoking drunken machismo, overblown race/gender/subculture identity crises, victimization and empowerment dramas. It's a cheap emotion forcefeed with a two-drink-minimum, and within its parameters Dennis Leary becomes as much a poet as anyone else. Thank you for buying Def Jam, drive around, come again.

So, in "Turtle's" defense, it's taking the extreme less traveled.
posted by kid ichorous at 6:42 PM on July 18, 2008

Thanks for this, good post, and from what I've seen in this thread I want to investigate this Kay Ryan further.

I'm amazed that someone would criticize this stuff whilst holding up maya angelou (shudder) as an exemplar of what poetry should be. Well, not actually amazed, but snickering into my martini.
posted by the bricabrac man at 6:49 PM on July 18, 2008

Billy Collins is also, as I've heard, kind of a jerk. I know another college student who is an (of course, like so many English students) aspiring poet who went to an event for him. While getting a book signed she told him that she would like to be a poet, too, and really likes his works. She said he later made some snide comment about 8-year-olds calling themselves "poets."

That surprised me, so I googled quotes and found this pretty quickly:

“I think more people should be reading it but maybe fewer people should be writing it, ... there's an abundance of unreadable poetry out there.”

Which is true... but still, kind of douchey behavior for the Poet Laureate.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:52 PM on July 18, 2008

Billy Collins being textually suplexed by the The Drunken Boat. If only Zero Punctuation tackled poets...
posted by kid ichorous at 6:58 PM on July 18, 2008

ZachsMind: If Maya Angelou is your idea of a good poet, we clearly have nothing to say to each other on the subject.
posted by languagehat at 6:25 AM on July 19, 2008

Hey, if we have gotten to "Your favorite poet sucks", I'd say that poetry really HAS made a comeback!
posted by spock at 4:35 PM on July 19, 2008

Regarding the whole "good poetry/bad poetry thing" I'm reminded of the primary lesson found in the screenplay to the wonderful movie "Wonder Boys":
		Nobody teaches a writer anything. You tell 
		them what you know. You tell them to find their 
		voice and stick with it, because that's all you 
		have in the end. You tell the ones who have it 
		to keep at it and you tell the ones who don't 
		to keep at it, too. Because that's the only way 
		to get where you're going. 
		Of course, it helps if you know where you want 
		to go. 
posted by spock at 4:41 PM on July 19, 2008

Corrected screenplay link: http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/thewonderboys.html
posted by spock at 4:42 PM on July 19, 2008

Billy Collins is also, as I've heard, kind of a jerk.

I attended a cocktail party with an English Literature professor of mine. He was a Shakespeare man and I like to drink, so we both maintained a gauzy distance from the rest of the participants happily indulging in our own specialties. At the event I remember an angry-looking fellow who sat in the corner all night drinking water, looking pensive, and hiding his eyes behind a hat; he caught my attention because it seemed he fit in even less than me. I asked around but nobody could tell me his story. I tried to talk to him but he was completely dismissive.

Then a slick and clever balding man told me the backstory about the pensive guy and his time in Vietnam. He told me that the pensive guy was stuck in a rut writing about his suffering in Nam. Like my father, the pensive guy was still living in another time and place and hoping his readers were still willing to indulge him. That guy's name was Tim but I shouldn't bother talking to him. I was young and nothing he said contradicted the stories I heard from my father, so I swallowed his story whole.

The slick and clever balding man told me his name was Billy Collins, but as the youngest drunk in the room I was not expected to remember it.

About a year later I recognized Billy on the television, and I was pretty moved by what he had to say. And I realized that he is somewhat of a jerk.
posted by peeedro at 1:03 AM on July 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

In my various years of reading poetry, taking poetry classes, meeting and reading about poets, and interacting with the poets I know, many of them (but not all) are jerks, and they are almost all of the general opinion that other people besides them should stop writing so much bad poetry.
posted by Peach at 6:02 AM on July 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

In light of which, Ryan goes to a conference, and says: I think poets should take the lesson of the great aromatic eucalyptus tree and poison the soil beneath us.
posted by Peach at 4:33 AM on July 21, 2008

In 2004, during the brief period when San Francisco was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Ryan and Adair got married at San Francisco City Hall. "We did it again last week" at the Marin Civic Center, Ryan says -- "it's legal statewide this time" -- on the same day, coincidentally, that she found out about the laureateship.

I have yet to see an article referring to Carol Adair as Kay Ryan's wife. When will the journalistic community make this transition, I wonder (sincerely)? Only at such a time that the US Federal government acknowledges same sex marriages? Have California (Massachusetts, Canadian, etc.), news outlets yet been more respectful of this status?
posted by Morrigan at 6:59 AM on July 21, 2008

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