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July 17, 2008

Librarian of Congress Appoints Kay Ryan Poet Laureate

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington today announced the appointment of Kay Ryan as the Library’s 16th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2008-2009.

Ryan will take up her duties in the fall, opening the Library’s annual literary series Oct. 16 with a reading of her work. She also will be a featured guest at the Library of Congress National Book Festival in the Poetry pavilion Sept. 27 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Ryan succeeds Charles Simic as Poet Laureate and joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served in the position, including most recently Simic, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass and Rita Dove.

Dr. Billington said that the Laureateship is uniformly awarded for the highest quality of poetry. "Kay Ryan is a distinctive and original voice within the rich variety of contemporary American poetry," Billington said. "She writes easily understandable short poems on improbable subjects. Within her compact compositions there are many surprises in rhyme and rhythm and in sly wit pointing to subtle wisdom."

Patricia Gray, coordinator of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, noted that although Ryan’s appointment as Laureate may disrupt her quiet life temporarily, her career path is likely to inspire poets everywhere who work independently, forgoing time-consuming career tracks and more remunerative positions so they can lead lives that nourish their writing.

Ryan was born in 1945 in San Jose, Calif., and grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert. Her father was an oil well driller and sometime-prospector. She received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 1971, Ryan has lived in Marin County. Her partner of 30 years is Carol Adair.

For more than 30 years, Ryan limited her professional responsibilities to the part-time teaching of remedial English at the College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif., thus leaving much of her life free for "a lot of mountain bike riding plus the idle maunderings poets feed upon." She said at one point that she has never taken a creative writing class, and in a 2004 interview in The Christian Science Monitor, she noted, "I have tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy."

In her poems Ryan enjoys re-examining the beauty of everyday phrases and mining the cracks in common human experience. Unlike many poets writing today, she seldom writes in the first person. She has said, "I don’t use ‘I’ because the personal is too hot and sticky for me to work with. I like the cooling properties of the impersonal." In her poem "Hide and Seek," for instance, she describes the feelings of the person hiding without ever saying, "I am hiding":

It’s hard not
to jump out
instead of
waiting to be
found. It’s
hard to be
alone so long
and then hear
someone come
around. It’s
like some form
of skin’s developed
in the air
that, rather
than have torn,
you tear.

She describes poetry as an intensely personal experience for both the writer and the reader: "Poems are transmissions from the depths of whoever wrote them to the depths of the reader. To a greater extent than with any other kind of reading, the reader of a poem is making that poem, is inhabiting those words in the most personal sort of way. That doesn’t mean that you read a poem and make it whatever you want it to be, but that it’s operating so deeply in you, that it is the most special kind of reading."

Ryan’s poems are characterized by the deft use of unusual kinds of slant and internal rhyming–which she has referred to as "recombinant rhyme"–in combination with strong, exact rhymes and even puns. The poems are peppered with wit and philosophical questioning and rely on short lines, often no more than two to three words each. She has said of her ascetic preferences, "An almost empty suitcase–that’s what I want my poems to be. A few things. The reader starts taking them out, but they keep multiplying." Because her craft is both exacting and playfully elastic, it is possible for both readers who like formal poems and readers who like free verse to find her work rewarding.

John Barr, president of The Poetry Foundation, said: "Halfway into a Ryan poem, one is ready for either a joke or a profundity; typically it ends in both. Before we know it the poem arrives at some unexpected, deep insight that likely will alter forever the way we see that thing."

Ryan has written six books of poetry, plus a limited edition artist’s book, along with a number of essays. Her books are: "Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends" (1983), "Strangely Marked Metal" (Copper Beech, 1985), "Flamingo Watching" (Copper Beech, 1994), "Elephant Rocks" (Grove Press,1996), "Say Uncle" (Grove Press, 2000), "Believe It or Not!" (2002, Jungle Garden Press, edition of 125 copies), and "The Niagara River" (Grove Press, 2005).

Her awards include the Gold Medal for poetry, 2005, from the San Francisco Commonwealth Club; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from The Poetry Foundation in 2004; a Guggenheim fellowship the same year; a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship as well as the Maurice English Poetry Award in 2001; the Union League Poetry Prize in 2000; and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in 1995. She has won four Pushcart Prizes and has been selected four different years for the annual volumes of the Best American Poetry. Her poems have been widely reprinted and internationally anthologized. Since 2006, she has been a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Background of the Laureateship

The Library keeps to a minimum the specific duties required of the Poet Laureate in order to permit incumbents to work on their own projects while at the Library. Each brings a new emphasis to the position. In the period prior to 1986 when the library’s Consultant in Poetry was designated Laureate by the Congress, Allen Tate served in 1943-44 as editor of the Library’s publication, The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, and edited the compilation "Sixty American Poets, 1896-1944." Some consultants have suggested and chaired literary festivals and conferences; others have spoken in a number of schools and universities and received guests in the Poetry Room.

Increasingly in recent years, the incumbents have sought new ways to broaden the role of poetry in our national life. Maxine Kumin initiated a popular women’s series of poetry workshops at the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center. Gwendolyn Brooks met with groups of elementary school children to encourage them to write poetry. Howard Nemerov conducted seminars at the Library for high school English classes. Most incumbents and many other poets reading at the Library of Congress have contributed to the Library’s Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Joseph Brodsky initiated the idea of providing poetry in public places–supermarkets, hotels, airports and hospitals.

Rita Dove brought a program of poetry and jazz to the Library’s literary series, along with a reading by young Crow Indian poets and a two-day conference titled "Oil on the Waters: The Black Diaspora," featuring panel discussions, readings and music.

Robert Hass sponsored a major conference on nature writing called "Watershed," which continues today as a national poetry competition for elementary and high school students, titled "River of Words." Robert Pinsky initiated his Favorite Poem Project, which energized a nation of poetry readers to share their favorite poems in readings across the country and in audio and video recordings. Billy Collins instituted the Web site Poetry180 (www.loc.gov/poetry/180), which brought a poem a day into every high school classroom in all parts of the country via the central announcement system.

More recently, Ted Kooser created a free weekly newspaper column (www.americanlifeinpoetry.org) that features a brief poem by a contemporary American poet and an introduction to the poem by Kooser. Donald Hall participated in the first-ever joint poetry readings of the U.S. Poet Laureate and British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion in a program called "Poetry Across the Atlantic," also sponsored by the Poetry Foundation. Charles Simic provided tips on writing at www.loc.gov/poetry as well as a teaching a master class for accomplished poets at the Library of Congress.

Consultants in Poetry and Poets Laureate Consultants in Poetry and their terms of service are listed below.

  • Joseph Auslander, 1937-1941
  • Allen Tate, 1943-1944
  • Robert Penn Warren, 1944-1945
  • Louise Bogan, 1945-1946
  • Karl Shapiro, 1946-1947
  • Robert Lowell, 1947-1948
  • Leonie Adams, 1948-1949
  • Elizabeth Bishop, 1949-1950
  • Conrad Aiken, 1950-1952, the first to serve two terms
  • William Carlos Williams, appointed in 1952 but did not serve
  • Randall Jarrell, 1956-1958
  • Robert Frost, 1958-1959
  • Richard Eberhart, 1959-1961
  • Louis Untermeyer, 1961-1963
  • Howard Nemerov, 1963-1964
  • Reed Whittemore, 1964-1965
  • Stephen Spender, 1965-1966
  • James Dickey, 1966-1968
  • William Jay Smith, 1968-1970
  • William Stafford, 1970-1971
  • Josephine Jacobsen, 1971-1973
  • Daniel Hoffman, 1973-1974
  • Stanley Kunitz, 1974-1976
  • Robert Hayden, 1976-1978
  • William Meredith, 1978-1980
  • Maxine Kumin, 1981-1982
  • Anthony Hecht, 1982-1984
  • Robert Fitzgerald, 1984-1985, appointed and served in a health-limited capacity, but did not come to the Library of Congress
  • Reed Whittemore, 1984-1985, Interim Consultant in Poetry
  • Gwendolyn Brooks, 1985-1986
  • Robert Penn Warren, 1986-1987, first to be Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry
  • Richard Wilbur, 1987-1988
  • Howard Nemerov, 1988-1990
  • Mark Strand, 1990-1991
  • Joseph Brodsky, 1991-1992
  • Mona Van Duyn, 1992-1993
  • Rita Dove, 1993-1995
  • Robert Hass, 1995-1997
  • Robert Pinsky, 1997-2000
  • Stanley Kunitz, 2000-2001
  • Billy Collins, 2001-2003
  • Louise Glück, 2003-2004
  • Ted Kooser, 2004-2006
  • Donald Hall, 2006-2007
  • Charles Simic, 2007-2008

The annual poetry and literature reading series at the Library of Congress is the oldest in the Washington area and among the oldest in the United States. These readings, lectures, symposia and occasional dramatic performances began in the 1940s and were designed to bring good literature to a larger audience. The events are free and have been supported since 1951 by a gift from the late Gertrude Clarke Whittall and the Archer M. Huntington Fund.

The Poetry and Literature Center administers the series and is the home of the Poet Laureate Consultant, a position that has existed since 1936, when Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library of Congress. Since then, many of the nation’s most eminent poets have served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and, after the passage of Public Law 99-194 (Dec. 20, 1985), as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. The Poet Laureate suggests authors to read in the literary series and plans other special literary events during the literary season.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. It seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections, programs and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its Web site at www.loc.gov and via interactive exhibitions on a new, personalized Web site at www.myLOC.gov.

More information on the Poet Laureate and the Poetry and Literature Center can be found at www.loc.gov/poetry/.

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PR 08-127
07/17/08
ISSN 0731-3527

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