Kay Ryan’s "Snack-Size" Poems Will Stick To Your Ribs

Our new Poet Laureate Kay Ryan describes her short poems as “snack-size”, and on the one hand, she’s right–her poems are so short they’re almost haiku. But don’t let their size deceive you; these poems are anything but snacks. Take as an example her poem entitled “Hope” (from the book Elephant Rocks):

Hope

What’s the use
of something
as unstable
and diffuse as hope–
the almost-twin
of making-do,
the isotope
of going on:
what isn’t in
the envelope
just before it isn’t:
the always tabled
righting of the present.

Nothing snack-like about the content of that particular poem! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All of Ryan’s poems tap into deceptively simple truths; honest morsels to which your first thought is to shrug and think well of course that’s true, but which upon further reflection leave you agog, mouth hanging open in amazement at the shades of complexity to be found in one simple truth. “Mirage Oases” (Also from Elephant Rocks) is just one of many of Kay Ryan’s poems that leave me open-mouthed:

Mirage Oases

First among places
susceptible to trespass
are mirage oases

whose graduated pools
and shaded grasses, palms
and speckled fishes give
before the lightest pressure
and are wrecked.

For they live
only in the kingdom
of suspended wishes,

thrive only at our pleasure
checked.

I have to admit that I was surprised to find myself falling in love with Kay Ryan’s poetry. There are very few contemporary poets to whom I feel drawn. It was only after hearing an interview with Ryan on NPR’s On Point that I felt compelled to pick up one of her books. Ryan reads a few of her poems during the course of her show, and after hearing her read the first poem I was hooked. Her voice is rich and hypnotic, giving context to each poem with mere sound, no back-story or explanation was ever necessary.

Once I started to spend some quality time with Ryan’s poetry, it seemed only natural that she would become one of my favorites. Ryan’s poetry puts me somewhat in mind of Emily Dickinson, another singer of deceptively simple songs with an endless well of truth and meaning.

I’m glad to have Kay Ryan added to the roster of United States Poets Laureate, and not just because she’s a native of California. (A state that–as a native Californian myself–I feel is grossly under represented.) I like that her poetry is unpretentious. It is (to use an over-used word) accessible. I don’t feel that her poems are pushy, or require that I cup my chin and look skyward. But at the same time, Ryan asks that her readers do put sincere thought into age-old assumptions

I will end this post with the poem of Ryan’s that first hooked me. Everything after this one has only drawn me in deeper. I’m a willing victim, held spellbound by the cadence of her lines, the honest simplicity of her themes, and perhaps a little by the decidedly un-intimidating length of the poems; each one of which seems to say, “Oh what’s the harm in reading just one more?” This poem, in which the author asks God to please simplify the world a bit, seems a particularly apt closing to a blog post about a poet who makes us see more by showing us less.

Blandeur (from the book Say Uncle)

If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth’s
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.

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