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Kay Ryan Reflects on Role as Nation’s Poet Laureate

March 25, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Known for compact writing and for leading a quiet life, Kay Ryan has taken on a very public role as the nation's poet laureate. For more than 30 years, she has taught remedial English in Marin County, Calif. Her poems are often praised for their wit and wisdom.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, a conversation with the poet laureate of the United States, Kay Ryan. She spoke recently with Jeffrey Brown, part of our ongoing series on poets and poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Known for short, compact writing and for living a very quiet life, Kay Ryan has taken on a big and very public role as the nation’s poet laureate.

For more than 30 years, Ryan has lived and taught remedial English in Marin County, California. Her poems are over praised for their wit, wisdom and brevity. Ryan is in Washington to award this year’s Witter Bynner fellowships at the Library of Congress, part of her official duties as poet laureate, and she joins me now.

And welcome.

I remember when you were named as poet laureate. There was some sense of you as an unlikely laureate. And I wonder, did you feel that?

KAY RYAN, poet: I felt extremely unlikely. I didn’t think it would ever happen. Usually, the laureates are chosen from among the academic classes.

I mean, I’m academic in the sense that I teach and have taught remedial writing skills for 33 years, but that isn’t usually the group from whom the laureate is selected. Usually it’s someone with a much more public profile in the creative writing world.

Growing up with language

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you grow up with poetry? How did you come to it?

KAY RYAN: You know, I came to poetry reluctantly. As a child, I was totally infatuated with language. And I mean, I...

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it in the house? Was it around you?

KAY RYAN: Poetry was not around me to any great extent. But, of course, language is always available, even to the poor, and you can have as much of it as you want. So I went out seeking it.

And I remember being a small child. And one of my classmates said, "Don't broadcast it," as I was, you know, broadcasting something. And I thought, "Oh, what a great thing to say." And I just loved picking up language, and I always made the personal challenge for myself of saying a thing differently than I'd ever said it before, never, you know, using the old standby.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dana Gioia, the poet and critic who just recently stepped down as the head of the NEA, he wrote that he was stuck by, quote, "the unusual compression and density of your work," that's that tightly packed poetry.

KAY RYAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that -- is that what you seek? I mean, is that a conscious effort to get it down to an essence, in a sense, or is that the way you think?

KAY RYAN: It's apparently the way I think. I would like to say that, if a poem feels really dense, it isn't good. I mean, if you put it in your hand and it falls through your hand, that's no good. It's got to float.

If you have this idea of compressed language, it gives people a sense that it's going to be dense and kind of oppressive, whereas I would like to think that it can be highly selected, but not make you feel that you've just had a vitamin pill.

A poem

JEFFREY BROWN: I want you to give us an example, and I asked you to pick something for our times, which are hard economic times, right?

KAY RYAN: I'd be happy to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

KAY RYAN: I want to tell you first that it is often my pleasure to begin with a cliche. I tend to think in cliches when I think to myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean to get yourself going?

KAY RYAN: Yes. You know, I mean, like I might say to myself, kind of trying to cheer myself up, "It's always darkest just before the dawn." And, in fact, on this occasion, I did say that very thing. And here's the poem, "It's Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn."

But how dark

is darkest?

Does it get

jet --or tar--

black; does it

glint and increase

in hardness

or turn viscous?

Are there stages

of darkness

and chips

to match against

its increments,

holding them

up to our blindness,

estimating when

we'll have this

night behind us?

Entering the limelight

JEFFREY BROWN: So has -- I'm curious now, listening to that and hearing you talk about how you come to writing and this sort of outsider status that you've had for -- purposely for a long time.

KAY RYAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here you are now in a very public role. Has it changed you? Has it changed your poetry?

KAY RYAN: Well, it hasn't changed my poetry in the sense that the poetry is already written and I haven't had an opportunity during this time to do any writing, other than nice introductions for people getting prizes or answers to interviewers' questions. So I think that the laureate has to put writing on hold, ironically.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do what? How do you see your role?

KAY RYAN: Well, I see my role as completely paradoxical to my nature. I think the nature of the poet is to be someone who insists on being individual and seeing things from a very particular point of view and having a voice that isn't like anybody else's voice.

And then, as the poet laureate, one is compelled to generalize about poetry and do the sort of -- use language in a way that is -- becomes public language and attempts to not insult too many people at one time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, poet laureate Kay Ryan, thank you very much.

KAY RYAN: My pleasure.