Kay Ryan may be the only American poet who describes her writing process as "a self-imposed emergency," the artistic equivalent of finding a loved one pinned under a 3,000-pound car. These "emergencies," she says, allow her to tap into abilities she wouldn't normally have, much like a father who single-handedly lifts a vehicle off his child. In Ms. Ryan's case, however, what has survived because of her efforts over the past three decades is a singular voice and vision. Her poems - with their compact size and technical precision, their wit and sharp intelligence - have been praised by critics for their ability to do and say things that none of her contemporaries can match.
Prize committees have also taken notice. This past spring she won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowshipand the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize, which acknowledges an extraordinary body of work.
"This feels like the most remarkable validation of what I've been doing for so many years," she says in a phone interview. The triumph is all the sweeter given that Ryan, now approaching retirement, recalls beingdenied admission to the poetry club at UCLA when she was a student there because she was considered too much of an outsider.
Today, the "outsider" is smiling broadly. Yet what may resonate most with other poets is the courage she has shown, year after year, to embrace those "emergencies" and follow them wherever they've led, even when it seemed that no one but her life partner, Carol, seemed to care.
Ryan clearly remembers one of her first "self-imposed emergencies." She and a friend had left California on a 4,000-mile cross-country bicycle trip, which would give her time to think about whether to devote herself to poetry as a vocation. She had been writing for more than 10 years, ever since her father's death when she was 19. Yet in the preceding few months, as she recalls, "I really found that poetry was taking over my mind." One night, as she read a book of prose, "everything seemed to rhyme."
As the friends pedaled through Colorado, the repetitive, rhythmic exercise gave Ryan a sense of oneness with her surroundings, as if "I could pass through the pine trees and they through me." She suddenly felt as if she "knew everything," she says. "I wasn't bound by the ordinary structures of ego."
In that moment of heightened awareness, Ryan, who is not religious, asked the universe whether she should be a writer.
The answer she got was clear and surprising: "Do you like it?"
Yes, she realized, she liked writing better than anything else.
Since then, Ryan has fashioned a life conducive to poetry, one in which the essential elements of that bike trip - repetition, expansiveness, and large intellectual leaps - shape both her daily routine and her voice as a writer.
Practically speaking, that means a lifestyle with few obligations. Thus, she has taught the same subject - remedial English - at College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif., for the past 33 years. She limits her classes to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
"I've tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy," she says, explaining that the simpler her routine, the more complex her thinking can be. Her poems function much the same way, with deep currents underlying a simple-looking surface, as in "Hope" from the collection "Elephant Rocks":
What's the use
and diffuse as hope -
of going on:
what isn't in
the always tabled
righting of the present.
Readers might notice a touch of irony in this poem, given that Ryan has obviously chosen hope over despair throughout her career. She didn't stop writing even when her first two books - one of which was privately printed by friends - drew no critical attention. Instead, she maintained her work routine, which she wryly describes as breakfast, reading the paper, and then "a lying session," since she writes in bed, with an old black cat holding down the covers. On her nightstand sit several yellow pads of paper and a stack of "difficult books," which she dips into before starting to work, to "help get my mind up to speed." (Recently she has been reading "Anathemas and Admirations," by E.M. Cioran; Walter Benjamin's "Illuminations"; and "The Rings of Saturn," by W. G. Sebald.)
Week after week, month after month, she continued with her distinctive approach, writing short poems even when long narratives became the fashion. She also stuck with her signature style, which is complex, multi-layered, and sometimes sly, rather than trying to write more conventional lyrics.
Her poems, she says, don't begin with a simple image or sound, but instead start "the way an oyster does, with an aggravation." An old saw may nudge her repeatedly, such as "It's always darkest before the dawn" or "Why did the chicken cross the road?"
"I think, 'What about those chickens?' " she says, "and I start an investigation of what that means. Poets rehabilitate clichés."
Some do, perhaps, but many wouldn't dare to enter such familiar territory. Ryan, however, adds depth and so many surprises that the silliest clichés become fertile ground. "The other shoe," from 2003, is a classic example:
The other shoe
Oh if it were
only the other
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the mid-air
collusion of the
unpaired above us
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.
What she feels building, during work sessions, are various elements - rhyme, metaphor, a narrative thread, and matter transmuting into new shapes - that create a certain thrust in her mind. Once she begins writing, she continues until a complete poem has emerged. She can't stop, she says, because so much is happening at once. She may go back and revise later - some poems have taken 18 or 19 drafts - but by then the poem will seem new to her. Her memory, as her partner says, is very short-term, "read-only."
Some readers and critics have compared her to the metaphysical poets - her work does seem to have a certain omniscience - but Ryan doesn't align herself with any historical or modern group of writers. Likewise, she does not claim a specific set of religious beliefs. She was raised in the "Church of Proximity," she says, meaning her family attended whichever church was closest to where they were living in the small towns of the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert.
What she values most about her patchwork religious education is the collection of stories she learned, which allow her, in some cases, to strike a deep, universal nerve. At other times, the tales establish common ground, which she then transforms with sly humor.
The Fourth Wise Man
The fourth wise man
disliked travel. If
you walk, there's the
gravel. If you ride,
there's the camel's attitude.
He far preferred
to be inside in solitude
to contemplate the star
that had been getting
so much larger
and more prolate lately -
(like the souls of martyrs)
toward the poles
(or like the yawns of babies).
"The Fourth," like many of Ryan's poems, does have a spiritual dimension, but the poet is quick to point out that she doesn't view the universe as conscious. She's not writing about the physical world as we experience it, but a world that exists only in her mind. What she does hope to convey is a sense of refreshment. "Poems should leave you feeling freer and not more burdened," she says. "I like to think of all good poetry as providing more oxygen into the atmosphere; it just makes it easier to breathe."
One way of achieving that goal is to avoid the first-person perspective. Ryan rarely uses "I," because she finds it too intrusive. She wants readers to hear their own voices when they read, that "perfect voice in the mind." The best writers, she says, are people such as Robert Frost and Philip Larkin, who give readers their highest selves.
Ryan believes her highest self is her intellect, which is why she writes about intriguing propositions and philosophical questions, rather than her personal life. One recent poem arose from an image she had of people walking around carrying invisible ladders. Exploring such intriguing concepts gives her "kind of a peculiar way of talking about emotions," she says. "It gives my poems a coolness. I can touch things that are very hot because I've given them some distance."
In addition to "coolness," she demands that her work have a lightness about it, yet she also wants the poems to "insist," to impose her will on readers. Ryan quickly acknowledges the seeming contradiction here: "Lightness can't be pushy, it can't be heavy, so how can it insist? Yet that is the only thing I want."
The fusion of contradictions is one trait that distinguishes her work from other poets'. She manages to convey intimacy and depth, distance and familiarity, at the same time.
For Ryan, the reward of her approach is what she calls "an acceleration of the mind," much like what she experienced on the bike in Colorado. She doesn't wait for the feeling of mental freedom to find her, though. She actively courts it by creating one of her 'emergencies' and forcing herself to do the mental equivalent of lifting a car. Using humor is one way to do this.
"I always counted on [humor] as a child," she explains, recalling a father who was not just a dreamer but could "fail at anything," a man who sold Christmas trees, owned a chromium mine, and died while reading a get-rich-quick book.
Ryan does not share her father's penchant for idle dreaming, but the hard lessons learned during those early years days do seem to color her work, giving it a gravity, a touch of sadness, that makes the wit even more poignant.
To this day, she feels the need to make people laugh, whether she's in the grocery store or reading in front of a standing-room-only crowd. "I need to make them laugh to know they're there," she says. Then, on a more serious note, she adds, "I need [humor] to connect with people."
And connect she has, with readers and critics. Since the publication of her first barely-noticed book in 1983, Ryan has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. She has won the Maurice English Poetry Award and two Pushcart Prizes, and she has published in some of the finest periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Poetry, where her work appears regularly.
Not bad for a woman who was once considered too independent to be accepted by her college's literary elites. Now, however, with her two recent prizes, Ryan serves as an example for other unconventional writers. "If there is a [literary] game of sorts, you can win by staying home and doing the writing," she says. "Good work can make its way in this culture."