By DONNA URSCHEL
U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan had many insightful and incisive things to say about poetry, in her introductions of the two 2009 Witter Bynner poetry fellows, Christina Davis and Mary Szybist, at the Library of Congress recently.
Ryan expounded, for instance, on the way poems should be read and appreciated. “I’m going to read that again,” Ryan said, after reading a poem by Davis. “I didn’t do a great job, plus I just think it needs a second reading. And let me say, parenthetically, I think all poetry needs at least two readings. If you read a poem and you said you got it and thought it was nice, then either it wasn’t a poem or you’re not through with it yet.
“Poetry can stand up to multiple readings and, in fact, requires them,” Ryan continued. “Although, and this is parenthetical to my parenthesis, it is also the job of poetry to provide something immediate, to have surface pleasure, something immediately available for sensory satisfaction.”
The two fellows accepted their awards at the Library on Feb. 26. Davis is the curator of poetry at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University, and Szybist is an assistant professor of English at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. They each received $10,000, provided by the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry in conjunction with the Library of Congress.
Every year, the U.S. Poet Laureate selects poets of distinction who are not yet widely known for the Witter Bynner fellowships. The award program is in its 12th year.
“It’s a novelty for me to be a prize-giver, to have attained a position where I can return favors, to pass good things on,” said Ryan. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to identify other writers and help move poetry along.”
Ryan described what she liked about each fellow and introduced them separately. “So their introductions are closer to their readings,” Ryan explained. “I always find that’s more effective for my brain.”
About Mary Szybist, Ryan said, “I’m so interested to see what she’ll do next. I was compelled by her poems in the November Poetry Magazine.” Ryan especially liked “On Wanting to Tell [Blank] About a Girl Eating Fish Eyes.”
“At first this sounded pretty much like a poem I wouldn’t like. I thought it would lean upon the sensational. It was a narrative, which I’m always afraid is too satisfied with the surface. But this work had the power to hypnotize me,” Ryan said.
An excerpt from the poem:
… Now the dark rain
looks like dark rain. Only the wine
shimmers with candlelight. I refill the glasses
and we raise a toast to you
as so and so’s daughter—elfin, jittery as a sparrow—
slides into another lap
to eat another pair of slippery eyes
with her soft fingers, fingers rosier each time,
for being chewed a little.
If only I could go to you, revive you.
You must be a little alive still.
I’d like to put this girl in your lap.
She’s almost feverishly warm and she weighs
hardly anything. I want to show you how she relishes each eye. To show you her greed for them …
“I’ve made myself familiar with many of Mary’s poems in her first book “Granted,” and I’m getting to understand her point of view,” Ryan said. “She struggles with how we neither fit inside ourselves nor in the escapes that we imagine for ourselves.”
Ryan also said Szybist has the capacity “to talk about mysteries by going to the edge of them and then picking up again on the other side. I really admire that.”
Szybist read 11 poems, about half of them from her book “Granted” (Alice James, 2003). She, too, read the “Fish Eyes” poem, and explained that she wrote it because she was intrigued by the “amazing juxtaposition of observing the hunger of a child while feeling the loss of an older friend.”
One of Szybist’s poems, “Swamp,” was a response to a poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass titled “Meditations at Lagunitas.” She said Hass’s poem was “a beautiful celebration of particularities.” Szybist explained, “But I have a childish impatience with particularities at times. They don’t seem to hold the same capacity for exuberance.”
Szybist said she had been working on a series of poems on the Annunciation, the scene depicted in the Gospel of Luke when the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she would conceive a child to be born the son of God. Szybist read four from the series, which, she said, depicted the “dramatic confrontation between the earthly realm, the godly realm and the spirit.”
When Ryan returned to the podium to introduce Christina Davis, she joked, “I forgot to mention the strange coincidence that both poets were published by Alice James Books a few years apart. I have no connection to Alice James, and none to these poets, except for appreciating their beautiful poetry.”
About Davis, Ryan said, “Scattered along the path of questions, which are integral to Christina Davis’s distinguished poems, she leaves a trail of observations as fresh and useless as Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs. By useless, I mean, they seldom lead to answers. What they do is create an exciting mental world we can care about without answers.”
Ryan continued, “She can think the most breathtaking ‘as-ifs’ that lead straight to something one feels is absolutely true but not on our cramped planet. But also regarding this planet, if you know something of one of her topics, say one’s relationship to a loved one after the loved one’s death, then you feel how close she comes to as close as we can come.”
Ryan then read a poem by Davis that she really liked, “Third Person”:
Whatever you do, do not make me say him. Him was not a word in his presence. To speak of what was is to hold it above its home, a fish dripping against a gunwale Whereas inside the sea, the fishes do not drip.
Ryan further described Davis’s talent as a poet. “Davis is willing to be large to command with her language. To accept the authority you must accept, as when handling firearms. She is wrestling, I would say she is in a mortal struggle, with her poems, and I like that. They’re surprisingly quiet on the top. Her language is alive with uncanny metaphors. At every juncture, she has the courage to put more pressure on fewer words.”
At the outset of her reading, Davis said that 15 years earlier she sat in the same room, the Montpelier Room in the James Madison Building, listening to then-Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Davis then read 12 poems, some of them from her 2006 book “Forth a Raven.”
In addition to reading her poems, Davis relayed a heartfelt story about receiving the Witter Bynner award. Moments before opening her letter from Kay Ryan that announced the prize, she had heard about the death of a dear old friend from England, Peter Goodbaum, who often saw her writing while sitting in a restaurant in Oxford. Goodbaum once asked Davis if she had a writing muse.
Davis said, “I regretted to inform him that there was no muse. He was deeply distressed and asked, ‘Aren’t you accompanied by something?’ To which I said, ‘I don’t know.’
“So I was thinking of my good friend Peter when I opened the letter and learned that Kay Ryan, a poet whom I deeply admired, had heard my words across the country. I understood at that moment that Peter was onto something. In truth, we are accompanied, across a tiny table in Britain, across a page, across a nation …”
Davis continued, “I’d like to dedicate this reading to the great companions in my life. If my poems seem heavy, may they not be of hailstones, but of the gravity and love that binds us to this Earth.”
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.