Small Demon
Jul 252008
 

Just wanted to note that Kay Ryan has been on my radar for quite a while, though I’d known none of the details now coming out about her life now that she has been named poet laureate. As someone who teaches Freshman English every fall, I was particularly impressed by the fact that Ryan teaches basic writing at a community college:

“It was mainly second-language students and students who lost their way in school,” Ryan says. “They wanted something that I could help them get: an understanding of the basic elements of grammar, pronouns, those pesky apostrophes. The goal was to write an effective paragraph that was coherent and well supported. We aspired to the semicolon, but that rarely happened.”

This, too, struck a chord with me:

But the stress of becoming America’s ambassador of poetry is already keeping her up at night. “I just lie in bed rigidly,” she says, “and I think about how I have moved from a condition where the world can humiliate me to one where I can humiliate myself. And let down other poets.”

The sentiment is consistent with the attitude expressed in this journal Ryan wrote while attending her first AWP conference. Unlike Ryan, I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to fit in at AWP (I was even on the board) & elsewhere before giving it up as damaging. (Though much of the damage was self-inflicted, only aided & abetted by the culture industry.) Anyway, I’m glad to have a poet like Ryan as the laureate. I must say in closing that I appreciated Mark Strand’s remark on the laureateship — after having read about the non-poetic demands of the job as recounted by recent honorees Charles Simic & Billy Collins, it was refreshing to read, “For others, though, the sudden celebrity is an upside. Mark Strand, who served from 1990 to 1991, says that hobnobbing at cocktail and dinner parties was his favorite part of the job.”

[See also this note (with two short poems) from 3 Quarks Daily.]

  3 Responses to “Kay Ryan”

  1. The article missed out on much, most conspicuously the details of what the former poets laureate actually did and how it changed their lives. Billy Collins was charged with writing an occasional poem to commemorate 9/11 when a joint session of Congress convened, and he read the poem, “The Names,” at that joint session. Such an assignment is anomalous to the post of the poet laureate. I’m sure Mark Strand isn’t the only one whose social life changed exponentially. Just because others didn’t talk about it to this reporter doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. This article was about Kay Ryan, worthy PL that she is. It couldn’t have been a comprehensive look at the position bestowed by the Librarian of Congress, James Billington.

  2. Not sure what your point is, unless it’s that I wasn’t nice enough to Billy Collins. But everybody is nice to Billy Collins — for someone with such a modest talent, he has done extremely well for himself. And while being charged to write a commemorative poem by Congress is a unique experience, Collins was not uniquely qualified — any of a thousand poets could have done it. Finally, I included Strand’s comment because I thought it was funny — he was my teacher many years ago & I can assure you that despite an extensive social life — this would have been in the 1970s — he always seemed to aspire to bigger & better things. Anyway, I find your comment weirdly pedantic. You seem to charge me with tasks I did not undertake in a brief blog post. I think Kay Ryan will make a delightful laureate.

  3. joseph,this interview of 1988 w/carl rakosi is a good heads-up on who and where we poets are. i accessed it from your poets site under ‘MODERN AMERICAN POETRY’ edward mycue

    RAKOSI: I’ll answer that in this way. Let’s say there are ten thousand adult readers of poetry in this country, and that’s a generous estimate. That’s less than one-hundredth of one percent of the adult population who ever read poetry or are affected by it in any way. Add to that the fact that the way in which that one-hundredth of one percent of the population is affected is not social, although its medium, language, is, and poetry winds up with a place in society that’s not visible. This gnaws away at us and gives us no peace, not because we are vain but because the non-poet in us, which is inseparable from the poet, is social and needs and craves, like everyone else, social recognition and social appreciation, what you mean by a place in society. This is one of those situations in life that is not remediable. Hence your question. Things are not as bad as they seem, however, because your question is misdirected. It assumes that poetry exists where the Marxists have placed it, in the world of social behavior and social values. But that’s not the case. Poetry exists, like the other arts, in the private life of the individual–not a small world. It exists because man has a creative imagination and urge and was meant to use them, to realize himself through them. It exists because it wants to, it has to, that is the nature of human nature, and in that sense it is existential like life itself. To perceive it as a social activity is to misunderstand its nature. To judge it by its social utility is to give ourselves undeserved pain. In all this, society talks to the artist with a forked tongue. It goes about its business as if the arts didn’t exist, at the same time extolling them as if they were superhuman. It’s sickening. Another turn of the screw. On the other hand, perhaps all this means is that society, if it thinks about us at all, has a dim awareness that the arts are existential, as I’ve said, not social, but has not thought it through enough to clean the old, romantic cobwebs out of its thinking. The all-time low for this kind of inanity was Shelley’s declaration that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. I understand from you, George, that Auden’s comment on this was that Shelley must have been talking about the secret police. Well, good for Auden.

    CONJUNCTIONS: Are you saying that poets and poetry don’t have any political impact?

    RAKOSI: I am inclined to say that, and to ask why they should be expected to have, but there are always special situations. Petöfi, for example. His patriotic lyrics fired up the Magyars during their war to free themselves from the Austrians in 1848. But why do you ask?

    CONJUNCTIONS: One thinks of a poet like Neruda.

    RAKOSI: He might be a special case too. I don’t know what his influence was in Chile. There’s no question that his poetry had political objectives but whether it had any social impact depends on how many read it and who they were and whether they read it as poetry or as message. It’s true that in a repressive or unjust society, poets, who are humanists, will take up literary arms against the enemy, as in Chile, and that in countries where free expression is not allowed, people in large numbers, as in the Soviet Union, will turn to poetry as an alternative to get what poetry expresses, ideal states of beauty and expressiveness, but poetry as such is simply not institutionalized to have either a social or political impact.

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