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Thursday, July 1, 2010

In which Kay Ryan Gives It Those Ones

US poet laureate Kay Ryan's verse is like freshly cut grass -- sharp, soft and on song. There are no big words to break your mouth or make you reach for your Oxford. Ryan is not a poet who was smelted in a writing workshop, and therefore her poetry is largely free of pretension.

Nina Martyris
In an unflattering dun coat that only serves to accentuate a shoulder stoop, square glasses, and a rough haircut, US poet laureate Kay Ryan is as shorn of frill and lace as her poetry. Arsenic, though, frequently tinctures her wit and verse as was evident in March this year, when she kept a hall of students and professors at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, riveted with her refreshingly simple poems and stabs of self-deprecating humour. She spoke softly, in a pleasantly deep voice, and in a thoughtful gesture, said she would read out each poem twice so that the audience could savour it the first time and better understand it the second, adding dryly, "I'm not Milton, so we won't be here all winter."

Certainly more Hobbesian than Miltonic, Ryan's poetry (seven anthologies, the latest being The Niagara River) is brutish but leavened by a puckish wit.There are no big words to break your mouth or make you reach for your Oxford. Ryan is not a poet who was smelted in a writing workshop and so her poetry is largely free of pretension. Occasionally, if there is a flash of peacock, as in the use of a word like "persiflage", Ryan is quick to explain and contextualise. With a deft playfulness that brings to mind the dreaded, lazy flicking of a serpent's tongue, she writes: "Born sans puff or rattle he counts on persiflage in battle. Before his flippant tongue children stiffen, dogs fall like beef cattle."

Often compared to the great Emily Dickinson, who used the dullest household objects like balls of twine and leftover sherry in goblets to convey strikingly intense emotions, Ryan's poetry, though equally rooted in everydayness, is less lyrical and more chopped up. Like freshly cut grass, her language has a quality both soft and sharp, sucked of spongy sentiment but well grooved with feeling. It gives no quarter to fat or fuzziness and its cored harshness reflects the poet's childhood years spent in the sandy embrace of the Mojave desert in California. As in the instance when she compares an alzheimered mind to a train that "uncouples, all the way back", triggering a sudden slack fear as if one has been temporarily loosened from the blessed straitjacket of memory.

Unsentimentality is her hallmark when she writing about nature, one of her favourite themes. When she doffs her cap to Darwin and his dogma of survival, she does so with a suppressed glee at the brutish laws of nature, where every entity on the food chain is both prey and predator. Sweet furry rabbits were made for coyotes to snack on, shrugs a tough little poem which she described as "awful but cheerful", so do suck it up and get on with it.

The jackrabbit is a mild herbivore
grazing the desert floor,
quietly abridging spring,
eating the color off everything
rampant-height or lower.

Rabbits are one of the things
coyotes are for. One quick scream,
a few quick thumps,
and a whole little area
shoots up blue and orange clumps.

At once morbid and life-affirming -- a rabbit has been killed so that the flowers can live -- the other pleasing aspect to the poem is its springy sense of rhyme. Rhyme, said Ryan, is such a primeval source of pleasure that if would be foolish not to employ it to sweeten language or electrify it. Comparing words that rhyme to magnets that attract one another in a hopeless and compulsive way, she said, "One of the deep pleasures that every child takes is rhyming -- table, mable, stable, the little boy bouncing in the back of a pickup truck. In the Seventies, rhyming was in terrible disfavour, in my work it was began creeping in, it's like cheating -- a great way to create the illusion of reason, you know, rhyme and reason." She uses the sing-song innocence of rhyme to soften a savagely comic poem that deals with old age and death.

As some people age
they kinden.
The apertures
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;
I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it
Like letting in heaven
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven and think boiled or broken.

Ryan delights in projecting herself as a queer old broad with a fondness for the bottle, but there is no doubt in anyone's mind that she is dead serious about her poetry. What does your poetry do for you, she was asked by a student. "Apart from the big bucks," to loud chuckles, "it allows me access to parts of myself that I would never have access to." When a Rastafarian youth wanted to know how similar her poetry was to that of Charles Bukowski's, the poet of pimps and whores, memorably described by Time magazine as “the laureate of American lowlife”, she replied calmly, "We're terribly different, but our drinking habits are similar." And when the laughs had died, came the serious answer, "We both gave our lives to the word -- and the bottle.” Ryan repeatedly injected a cynical lightness into the event. After reading out a particularly depressing poem about the absurdity of despair, she poked the audience in the ribs by quoting from a light-hearted poem on Atlas, who “can’t lend a hand to Brazil without stepping on Peru”.

The session started with Ryan choosing "a cold poem" -- a nod to the wintry temperature outside -- about an obscure Danish saint, St Sebolt, who had the power to miraculously light bonfires with ice (the patron saint of global warming?). Short and staccato, 'He Lit a Fire with Icicles', like a stalactite in a cave, has the capacity to impale with its beauty. The poem, said Ryan, was dedicated to W G Sebald, a bewitching German writer who died prematurely and whose strange combination of fiction, memoir and travel (a worthy forerunner to V S Naipaul?) had a hypnotic quality. St Seblot wasn't a saint when he got married but when he said to his unsuspecting wife on their nuptial night, "Tonight we enjoy ourselves, tomorrow we are food for worms,” the young bride thought that perhaps she had married more than a mere man.

He Lit a Fire with Icicles
For W.G. Sebald, 1944-2001

This was the work
of St. Sebolt, one
of his miracles:
he lit a fire with
icicles. He struck
them like a steel
to flint, did St.
Sebolt. It
makes sense
only at a certain
body heat. How
cold he had
to get to learn
that ice would
burn. How cold
he had to stay.
When he could
feel his feet
he had to
back away.

Toes curl instinctively at the last line, away from the imaginary blaze. It is this visceral reaction that Ryan achieves again and again. The poem reminded one of Jack London's masterful short story To Build A Fire, a promethean struggle by a man in the Yukon, to get a fire going to keep himself alive. Ryan conveys in a few lines the bone-crushing coldness of an icy wasteland, and the miraculous paradox of ice burning. Extreme cold and extreme heat punish nerve endings in the same blinding way, and could well be a wise metaphor by this daughter of the desert for love and hate, which at their most intense, are essentially one feeling.


Lorraine Robain said...

Hi Nina, as a longtime fan of Kay Ryan, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. Many years ago,(before Ruth Lilly; before Poet Laureate) I attended one of her readings carrying dog-eared copies of each of her books (except her first book 'Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends' which she had taken out of circulation). While she autographed my books, I mentioned that I was also a maker of poems and gushed about how great a fan I was. She said 'Go forth and do likewise.' Then she reversed herself 'No, go forth and do differently.'

Nina Martyris said...

Dear Lorraine
Thanks so much for your kind words. And for sharing the anecdote. The wry reversal sounds very much like something Ryan would do.She had us chuckling through the reading with her asides.
Yes, I love many of her poems too.
Best, Nina

Lorraine Robain said...

Sorry, I entered my incorrect (blogger)address with the last comment. Here it is corrected. Thanks.

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