The Poetry Style of Kay Ryan
Comments by J. Zimmerman

Kay Ryan's Time Line.
Books by Kay Ryan:
* The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010).
* The Jam Jar Lifeboat and Other Novelties Exposed (2008).
* The Niagara River (2005).
* Say Uncle (2000).
* Elephant Rocks (1996).
* Flamingo Watching (1994).
* Strangely Marked Metal (1985).
* Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends (1983).

Take out your copy of Kay Ryan's Say Uncle (2000) and read the title poem (p. 1), which starts and ends thus:

Every day
you say,
just one 
more try.
why won't you
say uncle.

Notice and admire the contents: how "Say Uncle" teeter-totters between on the one hand being an acceptance and a giving up while on the other hand being a celebration of hanging on even in the face of great difficulty. While this poem applies to any difficult decision or relationship, it's also a poem about the difficulty of being a poet or artist.

Notice and admire the form: the brevity (small number of very short lines), the inner rhymes and slant rhymes, the wit, the surprises.

Take out your copy of Kay Ryan's The Niagara River (2005) and read her poem "Houdini" (p. 46):

Each escape
involved some art,
some hokum, 
... It
was the hardest
part to get right
routinely: breaking
back into the
same Houdini.

These two poems exemplify what I admire about Kay Ryan's mature poetic style:

  1. Their content:
  2. Their form:

Again take out your copy of Kay Ryan's Say Uncle (2000) and read her poem "Why We Must Struggle" (p. 54):

If we have not struggled
as hard as we can
at our strongest
how will we sense
the shape of our losses
or know what sustains
us longest 
how loss activates
a latent double, how
we can feed
as upon nectar
upon need?

Joseph Parisi (in 100 essential modern poems by women (2008)) writes:

Kay Ryan's witty poems are bracing distillations of her precise observations of the world and the vagaries of humankind. Aside from the shardlike fragments of Sappho or the sharpest of haiku, it is unusual to find such compression of thought and deftness of touch as are typical of her minimalist art ... fine craftsmanship and subtly subversive tendencies.

Dennis Morton, host of the KUSP public radio Poetry Show, in an email exchange (2010) praising KR's work:

It takes genius to pare the redundancies from one's writing, to have that sense of the essential and to resist embellishment. I think it also takes a bit of bravery, as a poet, to say "that's it: it's all there, in that small bundle".

Dana Goia, whose essay reprinted at was one of the first to praise her work, writes:

Kay Ryan's magnificently compressed poems shimmer exuberantly not only with joy and intelligence but also with genuine wisdom.

Finally look again at your copy of Kay Ryan's The Niagara River (2005) and read her poem "Tar Babies" (p. 25):

Tar babies are
not the children
of tar people.
It is far worse.
The tar baby occurs
When you start
to help her
is when she 
starts to stick.

Kay Ryan's poems are likely to last for centuries - at least I hope so. In addition to their worthiness of content and form as noted above, these issues relate to their survival likelihood:


In her 15 February 2006 City Arts and Lectures event, Kay Ryan said whose work she prefers to read, which is consistent with my finding a stong resonance of Ryan's work with Larkin's:

I read the noble dead: Donne, Hopkins, Larkin, Housman.

Links and Books.

[Thanks for visiting.]