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March 25, 2009

Nation’s Poet Laureate Starts With Cliches

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.

She says she came to poetry reluctantly, but even as a child, she was infatuated with language.

“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,” she explains in this interview.

“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.”

To begin a poem, Ryan says she starts with a cliché. “I tend to think in cliches when I think to myself,” she explains. But then she makes it a personal challenge to say “a thing differently than I’d ever said it before, never, you know, using the old standby.”


“It’s Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn.”

But how darkis darkest?Does it getjet –or tar–black; does itglint and increasein hardnessor turn viscous?Are there stagesof darknessand chipsto match againstits increments,holding themup to our blindness,estimating whenwe’ll have thisnight behind us?

Warm Up Questions

1. What is a cliche?

2. How do artists use cliches to reflect on the world around us?

Discussion Questions

1. What did Kay Ryan say in this poem?

2. What images did the poet use? How would you describe the rhythm of the poem?

Additional Resources

Transcript of this interview

Profile of Kay Ryan (Poetry Foundation)

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