The Best of It

New and Selected Poems

by Kay Ryan

The Best of It by Kay Ryan X
The Best of It by Kay Ryan
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2011, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva
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BookBrowse Review

A collection of poetry from the U.S. Poet Laureate

Poets have obsessions - structures or ideas they return to ruminate on again and again. Sifting these out usually requires deep readings and re-readings, putting batches of poems in the gold pan of your mind until the motifs rise up and glimmer jewel-like on the surface. Returning to a poet you know in this way can feel wonderful; like a secret shared, or holding your lover's hand, the sensation still holds enough mystery to keep you returning, but the knowing brings you deeper. But the time and care it takes to reveal a poet's secrets might be daunting to the new poetry reader.

Enter Kay Ryan, 16th Poet Laureate of the United States. Despite her lofty government-issued title, Ryan lays her poet's cards right out on the table, in short, sly poems that wear their obsessions boldly and yield their secrets willingly. You can re-read a Kay Ryan poem several times in one minute and mine it quickly for its hidden treasures. "Say Uncle" showcases her style and trademark preoccupations in just 15 lines:

Every day
you say,
Just one
more try
.
Then another
irrecoverable
day slips by.
You will
say ankle,
you will say knuckle;
why won't
you why
won't you
say uncle?

Funny, right? "Ankle" and "knuckle" are funny-sounding words all by themselves, and the botched homophones make the poem delightfully silly. Upon first reading, that's what I notice most: it's rhythmic and funny. Read it again, and this time I get caught on the last lines. A little haunting feeling, or is it more sad, or wistful? Something darker lies inside. Read it again, lingering this time on "just one more try" and "another irrecoverable day slips by." Now I'm closer to knowing just what the speaker is urging the subject to give up, and the poem has suddenly changed, the fun is over, the echo of earlier laughter now haunting and mocking.

Ryan leads you playfully to the end the diving board with rhyming words and paired sounds, delicious nouns and rich words, sing-songy cadence and consonance; you don't realize she's tied a block of cement to your foot til you're already over the edge.

Reveling in the tricky origins of words, Ryan reveals the ways we manipulate language, and how we can fool ourselves and hide behind ambiguity or double-meanings:

CRIB

From the Greek for
woven or plaited,
which quickly translated
to basket. Whence the verb
crib, which meant "to filch"
under cover of wicker
anything--some liquor,
a cutlet.
For we want to make off
with things that are not
our own. There is a pleasure
theft brings, a vitality
to the home.
Cribbed objects or answers
keep their guilty shimmer
forever, have you noticed?
Yet religions downplay this.
Note, for instance, in our
annual rehearsals of innocence,
the substitution of manger for crib--
as if we ever deserved that baby,
or thought we did.

Many of Ryan's poems end on a note of warning or admonition, the sudden turns at the end serving as reprimands that probe assumptions and intentions, lies we tell ourselves, or mental trickery we use to ease our fears. "We" is the subject here - Ryan is squarely speaking from a level moral ground. Far from wise or superior, she's in the same game as the rest of us, trading everyday wickedness for the occasional moments of grace. Her poems are likeable and accessible (an equally lauded and derided descriptor of poetry), but that doesn't mean they're easy or entirely pleasant. Readers looking for soothing meditations on beauty or nature to set them at ease might be beguiled at first quick glance by a Kay Ryan poem, but they'll be unceremoniously knocked onto their backsides if they read through to the end. Those of us who choose to weather the kick to the curb will be richly rewarded, if slightly bruised.

Reviewed by Lucia Silva

This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

Just What Is a Poet Laureate?

The United States Poet Laureate* is appointed annually by the Library of Congress, and is poetically described by the LOC as the "official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans." (Personally, I like the very idea of a "collective poetic impulse," and find its acknowledgement and promotion by an institution of the federal government deeply heartening!) The Laureate's job is to promote poetry in the national consciousness however he or she wishes, often by implementing public programs and education in schools. They also head an annual poetry reading series at the Library. The Laureate receives a stipend of $35,000 (which when the stipend was originally instituted served as quite a nice living for a poet, but now serves as more of a bonus to the Laureate who usually earns a living teaching at a university.)

Since 1937, the Librarian of Congress (currently James H. Billington) has appointed poets to the position, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Stanley Kunitz, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, and Billy Collins. In making the choice, the Librarian consults with former Poets Laureate, the current Laureate, and poetry critics.

As the 16th Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan recently launched the Community College Poetry Project, in an effort to highlight poetry in community colleges nationwide. Ryan has taught remedial English at community colleges for more than 30 years, and is a faculty member at the College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif. "I simply want to celebrate the fact that right near your home, year in and year out, a community college is quietly - and with very little financial encouragement - saving lives and minds," said Ryan. "I can't think of a more efficient, hopeful or egalitarian machine, with the possible exception of the bicycle."


*There are also State Poets Laureate, as well as Poets Laureate for some cities and communities: Tina Chang was recently named Brooklyn's Poet Laureate! Many other countries around the world also appoint Poets Laureate.

Reviewed by Lucia Silva

This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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