Kay Ryan brought her customary charm and wry humor to her final reading as the 16th Poet Laureate of the United States.
In the Coolidge Auditorium on May 20, after an eloquent introduction by Carolyn Brown, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs, Ryan approached the lectern to enthusiastic applause.
“How am I going to wean myself from all this adulation? I try to remember it’s not me. It’s the title,” Ryan said.
Many would disagree. It’s not the title that draws adulation—it’s Ryan’s inimitable self, and her compact, fresh poems that are packed with surprising insight and off-beat wisdom.
“Kay Ryan has brought to us the last two years a certain sharp and loving honesty, a great wit, charm and wonderful self-deferential humor,” Brown said. “Her humor is grounded in profound seriousness about life—life being so consequential, one dare not take it too seriously. Humor is what helps you balance the seriousness with what you’re living.
“Her wit sparkles with a deep inquisitiveness about the worlds of experience that are within her and within each of us.”
Brown also said the title of Ryan’s poetry project “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy” can be a sound-bite description for Ryan’s poetry itself. “I imagine that each of her poems had started with Kay thinking ‘isn’t it strange that …,’ because there is a curiosity that I always see present in her poems. Then her musings begin. Her thoughts are crafted for sound and sense, placed carefully in small compartments with not a smidgen of extra space. When you reach the end, there’s the brief moment, a tickle, of understanding—the moment of the mind’s joy.”
Ryan served as U.S. Poet Laureate for two terms, from 2008 to 2010. During her tenure, she initiated a poetry project that focused on poetry written by community college students across the nation. The project, “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy,” included a poetry-writing contest, a videoconference with students at community colleges and designation of April 1 as Community College Poetry Day. The events were sponsored by the Library, in collaboration with the Community College Humanities Association.
“I can say that poetry is alive and well on community college campuses. There’s a great deal of excitement,” Ryan said. “I visited many colleges over the country and we had a real good time. That all worked out well.”
Ryan also reiterated the importance of community colleges. “Everyone knows community colleges are an absolutely essential, life-saving link in our education system and culture. As I’ve said before, community colleges are nitrogen-fixing devices that enrich the very soil of the communities in which they exist. The students come out of the colleges. They are improved, and they return to the communities.”
Ryan read 28 poems. About 24 of them came from her newly released book “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.” She started the evening with “Extraordinary Lengths,” the poem that she likes to read first at her community college appearances.
The Poet Laureate said, “’Extraordinary lengths’ is a phrase used in relationship to emergencies. The deal with me is that I hate emergencies. My project in this poem—by sheer assertion—is to separate extraordinary lengths from a condition of emergency. I’m trying to create a little more room and a few more flourishes and make them available to the mind.
“I find the first two lines so incredibly true. It takes a little while to understand how funny they are,” Ryan said. The first two lines of “Extraordinary Lengths:” The only justification/ for extraordinary lengths/ is extraordinary distances. / Yet you don’t find this/ in the majority of instances.
Ryan read several poems about memory, including “Lacquer Artist.” Ryan said her memory tends to have a lot of lacunae in it. An excerpt from the poem: There is a nacreous gleam/ in certain areas of the mind/where something must have been/ at some time—/ perhaps many somethings,/ judging by the pearlescence;/
After Ryan read her poem “Lime Light,” she had a lot to say about the limelight. “I have had the luxury of finding out more about the limelight than I knew when I wrote this poem,” she explained. “I can say it is hard to get any work done when one is observed.
“I mean, it’s very odd to be made Poet Laureate, because you are extracted from your environment, which is to stay home and write. And that environment is understood to be preparation somehow for being a public figure,” Ryan said.
In another amusing observation, the Poet Laureate said, “I like the feeling of facts in a poem, but I don’t care about them if they don’t rhyme or fit in. So I just modify what happens.”
Ryan also read “Against Gravity,” which she said is a poem about “why we don’t get smacked down by all the gravity there is.” Explaining the poem, Ryan said, “I loathe emergency, but I don’t like weight, either.” Some lines from “Against Gravity”: How do we move/ under weight?/ What opposite force/ do we generate/ that keeps our clothes/ floating around us/.
The poem ends with the lines: Because we’re glad some mornings,/ and buoyant, as though we had/ no bombs or appointments. Ryan, who prefers to lead a simple and quiet life, said, “Bombs and appointments—it tickles me that I consider them equal.”
Ryan ended the reading, and her laureateship, with her poem “Matrigupta,” about an ancient poet who was given the entire state of Kashmir because his poetry pleased a ruler of India, Rajah Vicrama Ditya. Matrigupta ruled Kashmir for five years (from 118 to 123) and then abdicated to become a recluse. “You can see the applicability here,” Ryan joked.
An excerpt from “Matrigupta”: “I am too blessed,”/ went the little thank-you/ poem he had rehearsed,/ but already his words/ were getting reversed/ and he said, “I am/ blue tressed,” which was/ only the first indication/ of how things were in Kashmir/ before his abdication.
“Thank you,” Ryan said. The audience gave her a standing ovation before she walked off the stage.
Donna Urschel is a Public Affairs Specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.