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Poet Kay Ryan: A profile

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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
shoe hanging
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
didn't congregate
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the mid-air
collusion of the
unpaired above us
acquiring density
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.

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