The Highbrow

The Outsider Artist

Assessing Kay Ryan, our new poet laureate.

Kay Ryan

Kay Ryan, who has just been named America’s new poet laureate, is a miniaturist. She favors compression the way Walt Whitman favored expansion. Like oysters, she has said, her poems take shape around “an aggravation.” They are also small (most are only about 20 lines long), rich, and dense. A single one might not always make a meal, but a well-selected plate will satiate most readers.

If Ryan’s language is spare, her concerns are broad and philosophical. A typical Ryan poem begins with a proposition—”Everything contains some/ silence” or “It’s what we can’t/ know that interests/ us.” She explores old bromides, wondering what the fabric of life is like (“stretchy”) or what it might be like to live on an island where silence is revered. 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. Here’s “Green Hills,” from The Niagara River, her sixth (and most recent) book:


Their green flanks
and swells are not
flesh in any sense
matching ours,
we tell ourselves.
Nor their green
breast nor their
green shoulder nor
the langour of their
rolling over.

This little lyric contains many of Ryan’s hallmarks: the juxtaposition of unlike things (green mountains and human flesh); the skinny, syncopated lines (“are not/ flesh in any sense”), which propel the unfolding thought by emphasizing the musicality of the language; and heaps of internal rhyme (“shoulder” and “langour” and “rolling over”), which help create a sense of closure. Internal rhyme and assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds) are crucial to the success of Ryan’s poems, in part because her epistemological investigations of the human condition can hardly be called completist or definitive; rhyme adds a crucial layer of complexity. She practices dipstick philosophy, taking a quick reading of the oil in the motor and slamming the hood. She moves away from her themes as rapidly as she engages them, which may be why some critics have compared her to Emily Dickinson, even though her dramatic imagination is far more detached—less blasphemous and exalted—than her predecessor’s. 


Born in California in 1945, Ryan, who succeeds Charles Simic, has been described as an “outsider,” largely because she has managed not to be drawn into the great peristalsis that digests most “creative writers” in America today; she has taught remedial English in California’s Marin County for many years. And yet it’s hardly a surprise that the Library of Congress tapped her. Ryan rejects the pained, stylized self-consciousness that characterizes so much contemporary poetry. Where many poets today are engaged in issues and questions that would be meaningful mainly to other practitioners of the art, Ryan’s concerns about the nature of reality are relatively translatable to a general audience. She has called herself a “rehabilitator of clichés,” an apt description of the way the ordinary is transformed through close attention so that a mockingbird becomes a “distempered/ emperor of parts” or the moon becomes “evening’s ticket/ punched with a/ round or a crescent.” What might be a geyser of explication in another poet’s hands is condensed in hers to a single shot: “The satisfactions/ of agreement are/ immediate as sugar—/ a melting of the/ granular, a syrup/ that lingers, shared/ not singular./ Many prefer it.”


In a sense, Ryan is an American pragmatist, making her more like Robert Frost (about whom she’s written enthusiastically) than Dickinson. Hers is a parsing imagination, given to trying to differentiate between the real and the imagined, the real and the taken-for-granted. In “Carrying a Ladder,” she writes “We are always/ really carrying/ a ladder, but it’s/ invisible. We/ only know/ something’s/ the matter:/ something precious/ crashes; easy doors/ prove impassable.” While her work has deepened over the years—The Niagara River is her strongest book—she has always been most interested in the idea that “whatever reality is, it is something we only know in the negative—by being constantly wrong about it.” Many of the poems end on a note of deflation, pointing up the traps our expectations set for us.


Of course, being “wrong” is compelling only insofar as it reveals just how limited—or self-serious—our ideas about being “right” are, and Ryan’s poems pack the greatest punch when she not only inverts an improbable juxtaposition or takes an old bromide literally—Q: What might “lime light” really look like? A: “A baleful glow”—but presses forward to formulate a more exacting ars poetica. For example, in “Repulsive Theory”:


Little has been made
of the soft skirting action
of magnets reversed,
while much has been
made of attraction.
But is it not this pillowy
principle of repulsion
that produces the
doily edges of oceans
or the arabesques of thought?
And do these cutout coasts
and in-curved rhetorical beaches
not baffle the onslaught
of the sea or objectionable people
and give private life
what small protection it’s got?
Praise then the oiled motions
of avoidance, the pearly
convolutions of all that
slides off or takes a
wide berth …


The tone is both ironic and sincere; it is the case, I think, that repulsion is genuinely seen as a virtue, but there is a loss that the speaker skates over—namely, the loss of true intimacy, of the possibility of sustaining a genuine “private life” while also not withdrawing from the clamor and love and pain of the world around you.

The risk posed by radical compression is that the poems become merely whimsical. In the lesser work, the poem and reader meet cute (“Outsider Art”: “Mostly it’s too dreary/ and cherry red”) but fail to develop much of a relationship. At other times, Ryan battles with her own highly developed armature. Sometimes her categorical imagination remains resolutely vague, and many poems invoke a “someone” about to do “something” while declining to name just what these forces are. This can make for unsatisfying poetry—sort of B-minus Frost, as in “New Clothes,” a revisiting of the fable about the emperor’s new clothes that fails to find firm footing:


You will cast aside
something you cherish
when the tailors whisper,
Only you could wear this.”
It is almost never clothes
such as the emperor bought
but it is always something close
to something you’ve got.

Ryan’s sly humor and elusive categorizing is intended in part to subvert the high earnestness of Modernism and Postmodernism. Indeed, her poems could be read as a retort to the sprawling complexities of “ellipticism” and Postmodernism, as well as to any post-Romantic nostalgia that poets may harbor for an age of Keatsian splendors. (As Ryan puts it in one poem, “Romantics are/ always fingering/ some discolored fabric or other/ feeling a deep nostalgia for sepia.”) Her dramatic imagination is deeply pragmatic, stressing what is known over what is longed for and choosing diffidence over despair, even if she does so ironically.

It’s these layers of complexity that make her best work more nuanced than the Library of Congress’ descriptions of its “accessibility” might have you think. A pervasive darkness catapults her strongest poems beyond the more quotidian decrescendos into profundity. And every now and then—because Ryan prides herself on her intransigence—a touch of sublimity creeps into the usual irony. For example, in “Desert Reservoirs,” which opens, “They are beachless basins, steep-edged/ catches, unnatural/ bodies of water wedged/ into canyons, stranded/ anti-mirages/ unable to vanish…./ Nothing/ here matches their gift.”