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Less is More for This Poet

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

Kay Ryan Photograph of the East Corridor, Great Hall, Thomas Jefferson Building. 2007

In her poems Kay 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 above poem “Hide and Seek,” for instance, she describes the feelings of the person hiding without ever saying, “I am hiding.”

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.

For these reasons, she has been chosen 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 also talks about her appointment and poetry in this book festival podcast.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who made the appointment, 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, 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.”

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

You can find more information on Ryan on the Library’s Poetry site, which also includes a chronological list and biographical information of past laureates, a history of the position and poetry-related webcasts.

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. Increasingly in recent years, the incumbents have sought new ways to broaden the role of poetry in our national life. Simic provided tips on writing poetry, as well as a teaching a master class for accomplished poets at the Library of Congress. Maxine Kumin initiated a popular women’s series of poetry workshops at the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center. Collins instituted the Web site Poetry 180, which brought a poem a day into every high school classroom in all parts of the country via the central announcement system. In fact, three of Ryan’s poems are included: “Bad Day,” “Turtle,” and “Dutch.”

A. Kay Ryan. Jennifer Loring, photographer. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.

B. Photograph of the East Corridor, Great Hall, Thomas Jefferson Building. 2007. Prints and Photographs Division. SUMMARY: Poetry mosaic surrounded by painting, sculpture, architecture and music plaques. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-highsm-02025 (original digital file); Call No.: LOT 13860 [item] (ONLINE) [P&P]