In Praise of a Brazen Poet: On the Essays of Kay Ryan, Outsider

Jason Guriel Considers the Legacy of a Literary Maverick

The other day on Twitter, an accomplished poet posted a draft of a poem and invited feedback.

“Twitter, help me workshop this!” he cried, the word “Twitter” suggesting he was open to opinions beyond his 10,000 followers. The tweet brought to mind—as the verb “workshop” itself always does—an essay I first read some 15 years ago, by the American poet Kay Ryan. Ryan was an outsider in the poetry world. She lived in Northern California, didn’t teach creative writing, didn’t network.

Her poems, too, were outsiders: essay-like, flensed of first-person pronouns, and littered with landmines, buried rhymes that could send you skyward. She was growing in popularity but nobody’s idea of a poetry professional—which was probably why Poetry magazine, in an act of inspired mischief, dispatched her to a creative writing conference. The resulting essay, “I Go to AWP,” is a classic of gonzo travel writing. Ryan attends panels, hankers after free keychains, eats with other poets, and generally recoils in horror.

Part of the pleasure of the piece, especially if you’re familiar with the poetry world, is experiencing an insular microclimate through alien eyes. What are “arcs,” Ryan wonders, and why should books of poems have them? Moreover, why do poets toss around the word “mentor” with such abandon? And what compels them to bounce, en masse, on fancy words like “transgressive” until “the springs pop out”? At every turn, the interloper dilates exquisitely. Here she is on that verb “workshop”:

In the old days before creative writing programs, a workshop was a place, often a basement, where you sawed or hammered, drilled or planed something. You could not simply workshop something. Now you can. You can take something you wrote by yourself to a group and get it workshopped. Sometimes it probably is a lot like getting it hammered. Other writers read your work, give their reactions, and make suggestions for change. A writer might bring a piece back for more workshopping later, even. I have to assume that the writer respects these other writers’ opinions, and that just scares the daylights out of me. It doesn’t matter if their opinions really are respectable; I just think the writer has given up way too much inside. Let’s not share. Really. Go off in your own direction way too far, get lost, test the metal of your work in your own acids. These are experiments you can perform down in that old kind of workshop, where Dad used to hide out from too many other people’s claims on him.

Screeds against creative writing programs are easy enough to write, but Ryan is too clever not to step around the pitfalls of the genre: the reactionary politics, the curmudgeonly (if inconveniently accurate) hunch that poetry can’t be taught.

“It doesn’t matter if their opinions really are respectable,” she concedes—point to the programs. But then she raises the hammer and nails the problem with the workshop: aspiring poets surrender their stubborn streaks at the door. She proceeds to reclaim—and refurbish—the metaphor, nudging out the crowd in favor of the cranky loner. “Let’s not share. Really.” It’s all so very deft. You barely notice she’s laying waste to a vast infrastructure.

Ryan started publishing poetry in the 1980s, and was writing in her mature style by the 1990s. But she didn’t publish many of her best essays until the aughts. A good number of them appeared in Poetry, under Christian Wiman’s editorship. They were charming and philosophical. They gave the impression of a master who had waited years to speak her mind; and of a mind that had required those years to mull its concerns: poetry, memory, time, Moore, Frost, Dickinson. The mind seemed calmly, irrefutably, itself. Unlike so many of her contemporaries, who had “given up way too much inside”—to workshops, to the online fracas, to the fiction of fellowship—here was a writer who had stayed steeped in her own acids.

The mind seemed calmly, irrefutably, itself.

At first, it was the poems that got most of the attention. They appeared to be members of some previously unidentified species of verse that surely must’ve been with us all along, lurking under some frond. If you thumbed through any of her books, and squinted, they described the same shape over and over: a lean column, typically one per page.

“Progress—the idea of progress—doesn’t mean anything to me,” she said in her Paris Review interview. “I don’t have to think my books are getting better. I just want to keep going back to the same well to have another little drink.” She started attracting the big awards, and even served as US Poet Laureate, a rare blip in a life of preferring not to. Ryan was suddenly everywhere. My poems started sounding like hers. So, too, did the poems of others.

But it was the essays—in Poetry and elsewhere—that stayed with me, quietly, like burrs. (I carried a photocopy of one, a piece about the dangers of notebooks, which first appeared in Parnassus, through several moves.) I came to feel that a book of Ryan’s essays, if there were ever enough of them, would make a monument: a monument to the independent-minded critic, a figure fast disappearing off the face of the culture. And so I waited.

*

Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose (Grove 2020), a collection of Ryan’s reviews and essays, came out last spring, in the midst of the pandemic. The New York Times and a few other places made note of the item, but it quickly fell off radars already preoccupied with COVID. I didn’t even know about it until many months later.

But the book might’ve passed the culture by anyway, pandemic (and Trump and TikTok and Tiger Kings) notwithstanding. Ryan’s criticism doesn’t engage much with the zeitgeist. Pop culture doesn’t particularly figure into her writing, and her references can be bracing curios. (William Bronk’s poetry, she writes, is “like the small brown bottle my grandmother carried in her purse and sniffed for the pick-me-up jolt.”) She can proceed like a philosopher, with Platonic forms at hand. (“This is actually an abstract walk,” she writes in one essay, “one I’m making up, a generalized walk based on what I like. I have usually done this on a bicycle, but I was asked to write about a walk, so I’ll walk.”)

She has the gall to rope us into the first-person plural, the gall to believe in the transcendent. (“There is a permanent time that poetry lets us into. There are doors in all the centuries, feeding into this permanent time.”) Her essays are counterintuitive, but never contrarian. (“We must run roughshod over what threaten to become memories.”) Ryan isn’t interested in what a Robert Frost poem reveals about his politics, or the economic conditions that shaped Marianne Moore. She has never handled a hot take.

Her reviews and essays are ostensibly about poets and poetry, but they inevitably range further, into stretches of intellectual territory many contemporary critics steer clear of, where grand old ideas loom like the sandstone buttes in Monument Valley.

“Something nonsensical in the heart of poetry is the very reason why one can’t call poetry ‘useful’,” she explains at one point, and then adds, a little later, “This is why Auden and others can say with such confidence that poetry makes nothing happen. That’s the relief of it. And the reason why nothing can substitute for it.” We don’t expect critics to assert such truths anymore, let alone with such confidence. We expect them to “problematize,” to qualify. Ryan’s own confidence, then, is thrillingly anachronistic: obstinate, sure, but warming, too, as if a cast-iron stove were squatting in the middle of that valley.

Elsewhere, turning over T.S. Eliot’s definition of poetry as “a superior amusement,” Ryan observes, “I am reminded by him that though we cannot be exactly precise or complete, that is no reason not to make gigantic statements, for there is great enjoyment in gigantic statements.”

She has the gall to rope us into the first-person plural, the gall to believe in the transcendent.

To borrow a line from Ryan: “I can hardly begin to suggest the courage this… gives to me.” After all, so much of our criticism—and its grumpy, online parody “culture writing”—takes a grim pleasure in chipping away at “gigantic statements.” But Ryan is perfectly happy standing amid some Stonehenge of “gigantic statements.”

Her genius, really, is for metaphor. It’s metaphor that makes “gigantic statements” possible—that winterizes her generalizations against our objections. Imagining her readership, she writes:

When I am writing, I feel that I have insinuated myself at the long, long desk of the gods of literature—more like a trestle table, actually—so long that the gods (who are also eating, disputing, and whatnot, as well as writing) fade away in the distance according to the laws of Renaissance perspective. I am at the table of the gods and I want them to like me. There, I’ve said it. I want the great masters to enjoy what I write. The noble dead are my readers, and if what I write might jostle them a little, if there were a tiny bit of scooting and shifting along the benches, this would be my thrill. And I would add that the noble dead cannot be pleased with imitations of themselves; they are already quite full of themselves.

You could write a monograph about this passage—its rhetorical subtleties, its sly humor, its beauty. Ryan is animating something like T.S. Eliot’s tradition—a grand order of works of art, which adjusts itself slightly as upstart works of art elbow in. But she avoids the loaded word “tradition”; hers is a “trestle table.”

What’s more, she puts up an astonishing tableau: those “gods of literature” dwindling toward some vanishing point “according to the laws of Renaissance perspective.” Then comes the disarmingly likeable confession: “I am at the table of the gods and I want them to like me. There, I’ve said it. I want the great masters to enjoy what I write.” It’s a hit of pure honesty; after all, isn’t the enlightened, contemporary writer supposed to spurn canons and welcome the fellowship of the workshop, of literary community? And yet Ryan wants her place among the greats—and wants to “jostle” them, no less. The charming cheek of it!

In lieu of Eliot’s clinical description of how the “existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them,” we get something much livelier: literary giants “scooting and shifting along the benches” in response to a Ryan poem.

Oh, and these aren’t simply the “dead white males” of right-thinking discourse, a brick of a phrase that would’ve sunk the passage. “[T]hey are already quite full of themselves,” she jokes, letting the air out of her “noble dead”—and letting air into Eliot’s “ideal order,” stuffy as a catacomb. Somehow, in a matter of sentences, she’s revived the idea of tradition. She’s made it okay to aspire to eternity.

“[M]etaphor is where the creative imagination reveals its furthest capacities,” writes that old editor of Ryan’s, Christian Wiman, in the book’s introduction. And metaphor, I’d add, is what can elevate criticism into the realm of art. (There, I’ve said it—one of those “gigantic statements.”) Ryan’s essays are works of art or, at least, contain them: stray images and sentences so strange and immediately memorable they seem like aphorisms in waiting:

Work which pleases itself first just snips so many binding strings in the minds of
others.

We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.

… imagine a glass filled with a supersaturated solution; if you give it a tap, it
could turn to crystals. Rereading is like these mysteries.

If a poem sticks you to it, it has failed.

I hasten to add these aren’t rare jewels that have been wrested from otherwise prosaic settings; I could’ve opened the book to any page and found something worth pocketing. Nor do they suggest layers of polish.

“A few of these essays have never been seen before,” writes Wiman, “and arrived at my door in pencil, each without a word crossed out and bearing such boreal clarity and crisp precisions that I found myself pausing to write things down.”

*

“Boreal clarity” is a jewel of its own; Ryan’s prose compels its critics to rally their resources—some of its critics, anyway. When I was in grad school, I wrote a chapter of a dissertation about Ryan. Armed with Bourdieu et al, I scrubbed at her poems and prose. But theory, when applied to a writer who’s already defiantly clear, becomes steel wool: it scuffs, it doesn’t clarify. Ryan’s example challenges us to put aside our critical frameworks and pay attention.

In her essay, “Notes on the Danger of Notebooks,” she tells the story of a lecture given by Gertrude Stein. The audience, made up of studious note-takers, is struggling to understand Stein. But a photographer, off to the side, is getting it. He has an “edge,” says Ryan; because he’s taking pictures, and is half-preoccupied with his camera, he doesn’t have the mental space to be actively trying to understand the supposedly forbidding modernist. Stein’s words break across him, and he is able to merely listen and receive them: a radical posture.

Ryan’s prose compels its critics to rally their resources.

Ryan is always clear, never coyly oblique. Indeed, there’s a relief in reading her ruthlessly specific judgments. By that, I don’t necessarily mean “fierce opinions of other people’s work,” though she has those. For instance, she can approach an Emily Dickinson poem with the confidence of a picky reader, not a supplicant, and is perfectly comfortable pointing out that some stanzas aren’t that special:

Dickinson terrain is hard on the brain suspension. In any poem of more than one stanza, one stanza is likely to bottom out.

#1099 has several things not going for it. First, I always worry when it looks like she’s going to inhabit an insect. These experiments can go bad in the fey direction. (Recall the “little tippler / leaning against the—sun—”) And here she is in stanza one already sensing herself in the early stages of becoming a butterfly.

This is audacious, brazen stuff. We tend to approach figures like Dickinson as towering giants laurelled with cumuli, their texts like tablets handed down from Parnassus. We take their aesthetic decisions for granted, as settled matters, and concentrate mostly on meaning: what is the poem driving at? Or we cut such giants down to size by plumbing trendy depths: what Leon Wieseltier calls the “habit of correcting high thought with the social and economic lowdown.” You have to know your mind, and have quite a bit of nerve on hand, to view a Dickinson poem anew; to see it as a compendium of fresh decisions made by a brilliant but fallible artist—and to pass judgments on those decisions.

By “ruthlessly specific judgments,” then, I really mean “courageous choices.” While most critics celebrate the harvest (read Twitter sometime or virtually any literary journal), Ryan chooses: this over that. And the force with which she expresses those preferences can sneak up—and tip you—like a sudden gust. Here she is on the impact of discovering Stevie Smith, and why no other poet, up to that point, could’ve replaced Smith:

It seems so unfair, how the heart is. Why couldn’t I feel the same about Auden? Surely Auden is profound and so wise and weary and puckish too, obviously a vastly more elastic soul and mind and talent. Or Larkin. Larkin was alive then, when Stevie Smith was, in the seventies. Maybe I didn’t know about Larkin then.

As she piles on the superlatives—“profound,” “wise,” “weary”—she quietly buries Auden, that “obviously” a shield, driven into the soil, mid-sentence, to turn back our objections. She’s too smart to attempt a proper frontal attack against Auden or Larkin; it’s not them, it’s her.

“Maybe I didn’t know about Larkin then,” she writes, the sentence the shrug of an innocent. It doesn’t matter if Auden and Larkin are the greater poets. Ryan has made peace with her heart—has even used the word “heart”! You’re left with the feeling of wanting to feel for a poet the way Ryan feels for Smith. Your assent is total—even if you disagree.

Ryan goes on to marvel at Smith’s poem, “Duty was his Lodestar,” which begins by mangling the title: “Duty was my Lobster, my Lobster was she… ” Ryan is floored by this mischief, and spends over a page sprawled on the floor, accounting for herself. Here, I will break in on Ryan, a third of the way through:

It gives me so much hope, to see language get pantsed.

It’s one thing to have duty as a lodestar: a high-toned piety one might
repeat: perfect for lip service.

It’s another thing to have duty as a lobster. It doesn’t work at all. It just won’t
abstract right. The lobster has torn free of duty by the first line. What we
get is a clattery lobster dance with breaking-up and making-up.

In fact, we might say—it has just occurred to me—that the joy of this
poem is that it has torn free of duty. The duty to be more than a prank, duty to
rhyme decently, to keep to a rhythm, to find fresh words even.

It’s the special fun of laughing someplace you’re not supposed to laugh,
like church. Because it must be said that the fun results from scrambling the piety;
the fun is had at the expense of sobriety. And it wouldn’t be much fun to think
about the lobster if one were not thinking about its not being a lodestar.

Maybe this poem really only works for people who are tyrannized by duty.

I quote from this essay at such length to give a sense of Ryan thinking in real-time, but also to convey how her prose can work: proceeding from a minor, playful point—“It gives me so much hope, to see language get pantsed”—to an unlikely, even dark epiphany—“Maybe this poem really only works for people who are tyrannized by duty.” Between those polarities, the prose is sneaky, sidling crablike up to its point—though, of course, the sidling, the stylish writing, is the point.

Even mavericks like Ryan need their champions.

You don’t have to be enchanted by the Smith poem to be enchanted by Ryan’s enthusiasm for it. Enthusiasm is its own reward. I didn’t get this at first. Poetry published a letter of mine once, complaining about a short Ryan essay on Bronk. I saw nothing memorable in Bronk’s work. But Ryan had already anticipated this.

“I don’t remember a single individual Bronk poem,” she writes in the original piece, “and I don’t know if they’re actually memorable; anyhow, they don’t matter to me in that way.” This sort of sophisticated prose soon rubbed off on me. I even came to see myself in Ryan’s confessions:

I have a weak character. I am very susceptible to other people’s enthusiasms, at times actually courting them. I like to sit among people who feel strongly about a basketball team, say, and get excited with them. I love to love ouzo with ouzo lovers.

It was endearing to know that Ryan, too, was drawn to enthusiasm—or shall we say the enthusiasm of authority.

“We have to listen to so many dumb people; it’s such a pleasure to watch somebody’s brain working that fast,” she says of Linda Gregerson, one of the speakers, at that fateful writing conference, who appealed to the interloper. Ryan thinks a lot about thinking. The effort of the singular mind—as it pulls together scraps and fashions poems—is a recurring trope in Synthesizing Gravity: a grave reminder that making art is lonely, difficult watch repair: news no workshop wants to hear.

*

Still, we cannot entirely dispense with society, with the catalyzing properties of sympathetic editors and readers. Even mavericks like Ryan need their champions. The first decade of the 21st century was an especially fecund time for poetry criticism, because of magazines like Wiman’s Poetry, but others, too. Organs of honest, spirited criticism walked the earth then: Parnassus, Contemporary Poetry Review, Books in Canada—all part of the fossil record now.

“Everything Kay wrote for Poetry was commissioned,” Wiman told me. “I was always after her to write prose—and only sometimes succeeded.” We might not have had a book like Synthesizing Gravity.

We almost certainly won’t have another for some time. What scandalized Ryan 15 years ago—the phenomenon of poets overexposing themselves to the opinions of others—is no longer quarantined in the writing workshop; it pervades social media, to which poets and critics have flocked en masse. Groupthink prevails, and writers self-censor—before they can even be policed by others.

Young sensibilities praise on Twitter what they disparage in email. (Trust me.) There are a few outliers. The Scottish poetry magazine The Dark Horse remains a bastion of scrappy indifference to the convulsions of literary community. William Logan continues to display an undying death wish in his fierce reviews. Mostly, though, the zeitgeist has spooked us: it has scared off many of the uncompromising commentators who would’ve peopled another age. But there I go again, making gigantic statements.

There’s plenty of clamor, of course: plenty of voices professing a passion for poetry. Flip the switch on Twitter and you will find them all over the place (I am there, too!) sharing their likes or, occasionally, organizing into storm clouds against some perceived transgression.

There’s no shortage of “content,” that most contemporary of words. No shortage of people churning out what is ostensibly criticism—for websites, journals, blogs, Substacks. Surely a lot of this work is interesting. Surely we should call the authors “critics.” But Ryan seems to me among the last of a kind, and Synthesizing Gravity, a monument to a crumbling moment and, shored against it, a singular mind.

__________________________________

forgotten work

Forgotten Work is available from Biblioasis. Copyright © 2020 by Jason Guriel.

Jason Guriel
Jason Guriel
Jason Guriel’s most recent book is the verse novel Forgotten Work (Biblioasis 2020). His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, ELLE, The Walrus, and elsewhere. He lives in Toronto.





More Story
On Iain Sinclair and the Radical Act of Walking Through a City Iain Sinclair is not a writer normally given to concise, epigraph-ready sentences, but every once in a while he does exactly...