The Book Club

Shaking New Meanings Out of Worn Phrases

Dear Tony,

Yes, social satire often yellows with time–which shows there’s at least a little progress (or maybe sometimes regress–change, anyway) in this fallen world. But I still enjoy Kizer’s “Pro Femina,” including its little dig at Mary McCarthy, if that’s who it was, wonderful though McCarthy was in many ways. (For example, she once said, “I was only oppressed by two men in my life, and I divorced them both.”) I think the poem catches very well the way a young woman poet only a few decades back might look around at her literary sisters and foremothers and see not free spirits and geniuses but a collection of Bad Examples and Cautionary Tales. Sylvia Plath’s diaries are full of similar angry thoughts about women writers as invariably forced into being minor, irrelevant, ridiculous. Actually, what dates “Pro Femina” is feminism–the rising stock of the women writers that Kizer (and just about everyone else) saw as warped and sidelined: Now that Emily Dickinson is no longer seen as the fey Belle of Amherst but as a profound intellect and canonical writer central to the shaping of American poetry, it seems silly to think of her as an “old maid”–you might as well call St. John of the Cross an old bachelor!

I don’t want to close our exchange without going back to Kay Ryan and her wonderful new collection Say Uncle. In your first post, you said that all American poets tried to be Whitman and failed, but actually it only seems that way because those people make so much noise. Kay Ryan comes out of the Dickinsonian tradition, of compression, verbal playfulness, humor, and–that word again!--wit, the sort of wit that brevity is the soul of, for her poems are rarely even 100 words long. Elsewhere I described Elephant Rocks, her third book, as Stevie Smith rewritten by William Blake; Say Uncle, her fifth, is like a poetical offspring of George Herbert and the British comic poet Wendy Cope. Ryan manages the difficult trick (except it’s not a trick) of blending cleverness with openness: You feel she is as curious as the reader to know what steel-trap ending her poem is skipping from slant rhyme to slant rhyme in search of.

Ryan is interested in language in a way our other poets are not so much–for her, words are curiosities–sometimes doubloons, sometimes funny old buttons in a drawer. She loves odd coinages, as you noted, and shaking new meanings out of worn phrases with titles like “Say Uncle,” “Water Under the Bridge,” “Drops in the Bucket”: The tightness of the word play is one of the elements that distinguishes Say Uncle from the other books we’ve considered. In Kunitz, in Komunyakaa, and especially in Kizer, the preoccupation is with establishing a poetic “voice”–often the poems seem rather to flow into each other as if they are all cut from the same bolt of cloth. But with Ryan, as with Dickinson, each poem is its own sharp, spiky self.

Here’s “Mockingbird,” which I take to be Ryan’s “Ars Poetica”:

Nothing whole
is so bold,
we sense. Nothing
not cracked is
so exact and
of a piece. He’s
the distempered
emperor of parts,
the kind of patch,
the master of
pastiche, who so
hashes other birds’
laments, so minces
their capriccios, that
the dazzle of dispatch
displaces the originals.
As though brio
really does beat feeling,
the way two aces
beat three hearts
when it’s cards
you’re dealing.

By snipping and transposing and rearranging, the mockingbird makes art out of the spontaneous self-expressions of other birds. (Take that, nightingale! you too, skylark!) Artifice beats nature, the cracked beats the whole, brio beats feeling in the “as if” realm of art–but possibly only there.

Even readers who dislike poetry–or think they do–might enjoy Say Uncle. Given that we seem to have entered the era of the permanent election, with concomitant, 24-hour hot-and-cold-running punditry and blather, I’d say they owe it to themselves to give it a try.

I’ve really enjoyed this, Tony. Till next time, fingers still crossed, and possibly eyes as well,