Gary Lehmann - Author

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

How to Win the Poetry Game

There is natural tendency, especially when you’re just getting started, to try to write like everybody else. After all, that’s what gets published. That’s what everybody is reciting at poetry readings. That’s what everybody appears to like. Why buck the crowd? Still, just sometimes, the fresh and the unique still manage to win out. Case in point? The selection of Kay Ryan as the new United States Poet Laureate.

Kay Ryan was a surprise candidate to many. She has always been an outsider. The appointment has usually, until very recently, been given to a consummate insider --like Billy Collins or Rita Dove. The Poet Laureate is appointed annually by the Librarian of Congress who consults with prominent poets before making a selection. All the more surprising then that Kay Ryan was picked. Dana Gioia, a poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has described her as a “skeptical outsider,” a sort of modern Emily Dickinson.

How is she an outsider? She’s always lived out west, California, away from the eastern poetry establishment, so-called. She writes in an unusual style, compact, rhyming and clever with an ironic aftertaste. And she hasn’t published an overwhelming quantity of poetry in her lifetime. As a student at UCLA, she was turned away from admission to the Poetry Club, because her work was too different. She was something of a loner. Now she teaches at a college. That’s to be expected, but remedial English at the College of Marin, not poetry composition at UCLA, as you would expect. She restricts her classes to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to enable her to write the rest of the time. In short, she’s a breath of fresh air in the tight world of poets laureate.

In a recent Christian Science Monitor profile, she talked briefly about her style and method of drafting a new poem. She says the way she forces herself to write is by creating what she calls “self-imposed emergencies.” These internal crises create a pressure to produce something. Each day she has breakfast, reads the paper, and then goes back to bed where she composes with a cat to hold down the covers. Her poems don’t begin with imagery as is so common today, but start out with an intellectual problem. She tries to look behind common phrases like the chicken crossing the road or letting the other shoe drop. We all know these phrases, and they must have some deep-seated place in our consciousness since we continue to use them, but why?

The other shoe
by Kay Ryan

Oh if it were
only the other
shoe hanging
in space before
joining its mate.
if the undropped
didn’t congregate
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the mid-air
collision of the
unpaired above us
acquiring density
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.

Simple routines are suddenly transformed into philosophical icons for reconsideration. Ryan wants to parse out the meaning of our most fundamental notions. She takes up clichés we have long ago discarded and imparts them with new significance. Here is another example.

Home to Roost
by Kay Ryan

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

There is an ominous warning here. Things fall apart as we try to remanufacture our chicken-loving world. This new life she gives old ideas revivifies them for us. The simple suddenly looks complex once again.

Kay Ryan started writing when she was 19 after the death of her father. After 10 years, she decided to become a serious poet while undertaking a 4000 mile bike ride with her life partner, Carol, starting in California. The regular rhythm of the pedals, the highway noises and the monotony of the road gave her time to think. Do I like poetry enough to make this commitment? Yes. Can I sustain it? Long pause. She found that poetry was taking over her mind and the poetry she has produced since has that same combination of the mundane and the original, the repetitious and the new.

Unlike other poets who rewrite for years, Ryan stays with a new composition until it comes to a natural completion. Her partner says this is because she has a very short-term memory. Many things are developing in a poem at once, and so she has to capture them before they escape. Some times a poem goes through a number of drafts, but by then the compositional process has been started up all over again with new contingencies to guide it.

Ryan tries to write in the moment, and the resulting poem has a kind of linear unity and spontaneity that transforms old words into something new again.

Nothing Ventured
by Kay Ryan

Nothing exists as a block
and cannot be parceled up.
So if nothing's ventured
it's not just talk;
it's the big wager.
Don't you wonder
how people think
the banks of space
and time don't matter?
How they'll drain
the big tanks down to
slime and salamanders
and want thanks?

The Niagara River
by Kay Ryan

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice—as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

Ryan is unlike other writers of poetry. She does not seek to be part of a grand tradition, or to do what others are attempting. She is not into imagery. Her poems do not use the first person singular to draw attention to herself. Instead they are philosophical really, meditative truisms that emerge as she works the ideas into poetic form. The goal is to strike common ground, find the unique in the common and reveal what has been hidden by overuse.

One might fear that such a poetic philosophy would be distant and aridly intellectual. Ryan sees it otherwise. “It gives my poems a coolness,“ she says. “I can touch things that are very hot, because I’ve given them some distance.” Sometimes she touches things that are hot. Sometimes she touches things that are cold, but she does it in a totally individualized way.

In a time when MFA programs all over the country seem to pump out poets with remarkably similar visions -- all too often, Kay Ryan makes us stop and see her world and forget our own. She is an outsider in the best sense. She has taken the whole complex world of poetic conventions, picked out what she likes and dislikes and left the rest for others to handle. She’s not trying to be everybody’s favorite poet. She’s just trying to be the best poet she knows how to be, and isn’t that a perfectly fine ambition? What results is work that is completely unique. It works because of its freshness. Her recent nomination to the nation’s highest poetry position just proves that you don’t have to write like everybody else to produce quality work.

1246 words



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