While I Was Out, Kay Ryan Was U.S. Poet Laureate

One of life’s unanticipated pleasures is catching up on great stuff I missed during the hardcore years of early parenting. Beginning in late 2007 I devoted all waking and most potential sleeping hours to my high-needs infant daughter and to finishing school. Which means that I was oblivious to the appointment of Kay Ryan as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010.

I wish we’d all missed other things too, like the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, the global financial meltdown, cropped skinny jeans.

But back to Ryan. Discovering her wonderful poems feels like a surprise holiday, or some totally unexpected consolation for awful parenting magazines and rapid aging.

Some fun facts: Ryan lives in Marin County, California and taught remedial English in a community college there for thirty years. For decades she had trouble even getting published but kept writing anyway. Her collection The Best of It: New and Selected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. In 2011 she was named a MacArthur Fellow.

Ryan is not overtly historical or political in her writing. Her playful poems, which often include what she calls “recombinant rhymes,” are more concerned with unraveling the intricacies of language and reviving clichés than with personal suffering. But it would be a mistake to think that she writes naively or superficially. Her poems seem light but often harbor a lovely and subtle dark side, somehow both triumphant and totally in the know about the limits of triumph.

A good example of this lyric chiaroscuro is her poem “Relief”:

We know it is close

to something lofty.

Simply getting over being sick

or finding lost property

has in it the leap,

the purge, the quick humility

of witnessing a birth-

how love seeps up

and retakes the earth.

There is a dreamy

wading feeling to your walk

inside the current

of restored riches,

clocks set back,

disasters averted.

I think this poem partly celebrates relief as sincerely wonderful, and I love the way Ryan opens up space to notice relief as an experience, not just a feeling. That is a rare gift in an anxious world of endlessly streaming data where many people struggle to notice their kids let alone the finer points of emotion.

But there is also a subtle irony here that I like. Relief is necessarily a reaction and temporary. It might feel like love, but it is only like love inasmuch as love actually retakes the earth, or as much as clocks set back change the pace of time. Relief is more like infatuation earned in advance.

And this difference implies an underlying hard-nosed realism, because exalting relief like this suggests some previous experience of loss or at least an awareness of it – anxiety at the very least. Otherwise there would be little surprise in finding the lost money or avoiding the house fire even though you accidentally left the oven on all day. If disasters must eventually come, at least we will have humbly earned the “dreamy wading feeling” in the lucky times when they don’t.

Ryan’s poems are not generally dramatic, but this one feels like it’s got stage potential, especially for dramatic irony. I can imagine some modern Hamlet speaking these lines to convince himself that things might really be okay, just before his uncle usurps the family business. Or a slightly silly character reading them straight.

It is a happy moment to find such a talented poet. I dare say it’s a relief to know that while I was fighting sleep and worrying about an infant’s slow weight gain, the U.S. exalted not just the Tea Party and Sarah Palin but the quirky and talented Kay Ryan.

Disasters not averted, and a sign of light in our history.

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