Kay Ryan

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.]


My month in paradise has come to an end & I have returned to . . . paradise. It is lovely to be home, though it’s going to take a while to get through the mail. I already feel a bit of nostalgia for BMC, but am also carrying forward certain consolidations in my work that were achieved. I also already miss the people I shared the month with — the good news is that we’ll be setting up a group weblog in order to carry forward the conversations begun in paradise. That dynamic — between Eden & the World — can be very rich, for those of us privileged to experience it. The first time I went to BMC fifteen years ago, I felt as if I deserved it; no one deserves such a luxury, but sometimes one is lucky. The problem then is how to live up to one’s good fortune. To have had those conversations, to have listened to the crows, to have seen the loons on the lake, to have watched through the clear water huge bass hanging motionless . . . that exerts a responsibility.

BMC: Finishing Up

I’ve been circumspect blogging about BMC — I don’t want to have the sense that I’m invading anyone’s privacy, while at the same time wanting to give some impression of my time here. (I have in fact password protected one post that seemed overly personal.) Now that the month is winding down, I’d just like to say how impressive a group my fellow-campers are. Each & every one a fine artist from whom I’ve learned something. I’ve had a pretty good month working & will leave with seven or eight finished poems I didn’t have before, as well as with an outline of the book-length poem I’ve been thrashing around with. I probably could have done more, but I’ve always been a streak worker — I’ve had three mini-streaks each lasting a few days while I’ve been here & I couldn’t have expected more. In the periods between streaks I did a lot of useful reading & had many, many fine conversations. A good month.


When I was much younger, I thought writing poetry would give me a place in the world. I was good at it, after all. Maybe as good at it as a middle level pro athlete is good at his sport. I think that’s an honest claim. But if there’s pro tour for poets in the US, I’m not part of it, even with my books & chapbooks & magazine publications. This is part of the reason I no longer go to the annual AWP meeting — nearby in NYC this year, it’s going on right now. I used to go religiously every year, like the Haj (to shift metaphors from sports to religion), but starting six or seven years ago — after I came back from a year in Hanoi on a Fulbright — I just couldn’t take the anguish & posing anymore. Mine & others’. I hadn’t actually thought of it until just now, but in Vietnam poets are honored & wide-circulation newspapers & magazines carry literary essays & poems. For a while at least, I had more readers in Vietnam than in the US. I was even on television there, reading a poem. In the US, though, if you’re a poet, you had better write out of your own deep enjoyment of language, or out of a neurotic need to put things into language, or because you simply love the practice of the art, because nobody is going to pay the least bit of attention to you as a poet. Out of love, then. Even poems of hatred have to originate in love.

Zbigniew Herbert: “Preliminary Investigation of an Angel” (1969)

Preliminary Investigation of an Angel

When he stands before them
in the shadow of a suspicion
he is still all
composed of light
the aeons of his hair
are pinned up in a bun
of innocence

the blood is helped on
with instruments and interrogations

with an iron ferrule
a slow fire
the limits of his body
are defined

a blow on his back
fixes his spine
between cloud and mudpuddle

after a few nights
the job is finished
the leather throat of the angel
is full of gluey agreement

how beautiful is the moment
when he falls on his knees
incarnate into guilt
saturated with contents

his tongue hesitates
between knocked-out teeth
and confusion

they hang him head downwards

from the hair of the angel
drops of wax run down
and shape on the floor
a simple prophecy

[trans. Alissa Valles]

This seems to me to be the way to write a political poem. Tangential, even cagey. Drawing on cultural symbols with deep emotional roots. A quiet voice speaking matter-of-factly about horrifying realities. In this poem, Herbert performs poetic jujitsu from stanza to stanza, keeping the reader off balance even as the lines themselves are phrase-based and do not disrupt the syntax of the poem.

Later: There is an optical phenomenon, or quality of the human eye, so that when you look just beside a faint object, you see it more clearly. I think poetry often operates like that. Herbert was writing during the Soviet domination of Poland, of course, so he had life/death reasons for being cagey; still, looking beside the thing, giving it an old, deep name instead of a modern one — especially when combined with a kind of deadpan voice — you get a poem that insinuates itself into the reader’s mind.