Sunday, July 19, 2009

Poet Laureate: Kay Ryan

I've been reading The Niagara River, a book of poems by Kay Ryan, our poet laureate, in preparation for my reading group meeting on Friday. I'm ambivalent about Ryan. Her poems are short and simple and I found it easy to get through the book, but they seemed almost too simple. I was left hungry. I was also a little frustrated because, although the poems seem simple, she has a habit of throwing a final phrase into each poem that seems designed to wrap everything up but sometimes (in my view) just makes everything more ambiguous.

One of the things I do like about Ryan's poems are the unexpected internal rhymes and her use of alliteration. In terms of the subject of the poems, I liked it best when Ryan took every day sayings, which at this point are cliches, and used them as the idea from which to make a poem. For instance, here she takes the phrase "the chickens are coming home to roost" and makes this poem:

Home to Roost

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.

And here's one that uses the phrase "the elephant in the room" as its starting point:

The Elephant in the Room

It isn't so much
a complete elephant
as an elephant
sense--perhaps
pillar legs supporting
a looming mass,
beyond which it's
mostly a guess.
In any case, we
manage with relative
ease. There are just
places in the room
that we bounce off
when we come up
against; not something
we feel we have to
announce.

I like the unexpected internal rhyme between announce and bounce. I like how "elephant", "sense", "legs" and guess" have the same "e" sound in them.

The following poem, which riffs off the phrase "waiting for the other shoe to drop" is my favorite:

The Other Shoe

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 midair
collusion of the
unpaired above us
acquiring density
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.

The internal rhymes of "congregate", weight" and "accumulate" aren't obvious until you go looking for them. Like "midair" and unpaired".

I also looked for a youtube of Ryan reading some of her poems to get a better idea of how she felt and heard her poems. I discovered that I liked many of her poems better when she was reading them aloud than when I was reading them in my head. (She also seems like the kind of person that would nice to meet - not intimidating in a "poet" kind of way. ) See for yourself: