When She is Good, She is Very Good: Leonard J. Cirino on US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan


Elephant Rocks; Say Uncle; The Niagara River, Kay Ryan, Grove Press



Recently, two poet friends in the San Francisco Bay Area recommended the work of Kay Ryan. Trusting both, I got three works by Ryan ranging from 1996 to 2006 (Elephant Rocks 1996, Say Uncle 2000, and the 2006 Ruth Lily Poetry Prize winner, The Niagara River). About forty percent of the first two books offer beautiful, short lyrics with the remaining sixty percent also being short and lyrical but not as meaningful. The first and last poems in Elephant Rocks are playful, and Ryan saves her finest language for them as in the title poem,


The ancient, implacable creature

comes ambling back, a bulge

reemerges, that sober, that

giveaway gray. The dirt

rubs away from a treasure

too patient and deep to be lost,

however we’ve hurt, whatever

we’ve done to the beasts,

whatever we say.


Some other fine poems in this book are,  “Relief,” “Surfaces,” “Apogee,” ”Witness,” and  “Distance,” with its first stanza, “The texts/are insistent:/it takes two points/to make a distance,” and the closing couplet, “Only distance/lets distance collapse.” I’m not sure what Ryan’s driving at much of the time, but I find these lines intriguing to say the least. At their best, these poems can be likened to the French poems of Rilke translated into English—dignified, elegant, and important pieces. The major problem with Ryan’s poems is that she works from a formula that although it has secured her a place in contemporary US poetry at a fundamental level fail simply because she uses the same tricks and masks with almost every poem. Ryan has found a niche that is comfortable, and she doesn’t vary from it.


Many of her poems use interior and end rhyme being original and well done. But, for the most part, they don’t add anything to the meaning of the poem but act much like an after dinner sherry without the kick. Often the rhymes end in ‘ed, ‘ly or ‘ing, which finish the line but not always with a satisfactory conclusion. Her poems could be described as “precious.” There are several poems devoted to animals that are among her best work, but she is devoid of emotion and almost any passion. She rarely makes reference to herself or any other person, which is comforting given the egomaniacal nature of so many poets. The poems of Sexton and Plath would probably offend her aesthetic for though technically intriguing their ‘rawness’ and ‘pain’ would revolt her.


In all three books, there are distant references to social or political ideas or causes but nothing overt. Either she is truly an enlightened Buddhist who has gained non-attachment from the world or she is playing word games to see how far she can stretch her limited experience and fool people. She certainly is not the same kind of Buddhist as those Vietnamese who immolated themselves in protest of the war. Yet, there is something enchanting about the absolute beauty of her poems that address situations and ideas in a more concrete fashion—without the pretense of riddle that she seems so fond of using. She may be trying to “say the unsayable” as Laura Riding Jackson expressed it, but often it feels like Ryan doesn’t say anything except in a personal jargon that ends in a muddle instead of a clear expression even with her lovely lyric voice.


Ryan’s style is a kind of minimalism—ten to thirty lines in each poem with a droning background and the repetition of the same melody with variations on the theme. This can be very pleasant and hypnotic but in poem after poem it becomes stifling. The first piece in her book Say Uncle addresses what could be a raw issue. It talks of another person in her life and uses the rhymes “knuckle” and “ankle.” The poem closes with the rhyme “say uncle.” To my mind, a knuckle in this context is a “knuckle sandwich,” but Ryan doesn’t speak of abuse or any other tragedy except “say uncle.” At one time “uncle” was the release word in a wrestling match or fight in which the person quit because they were in severe pain. This theme is not revisited so readers are left unsure if Ryan doesn’t want to come out and say “abuse” or if the mention of it in this non-emotional way is her condition of denial.


In her most recent collection, The Niagara River, Ryan emerges with her finest poems. Because she is working with the central theme of the river and all its surrounding areas (the animal and plant life) the place and thought cohere in her poetry. Some truly fine poems in The Niagara River work cohesively as a unit. Ryan is at her best in nature. Here is a lovely piece of understatement, Added Significance, that gives voice and importance to so-called insentient things:

In the wake of

horrible events

each act or word

is fortified with

added significance,

unabsorbable as

nutrients added

to the outside

of food: it can’t

do any good.

As if significance

weren’t burdensome

enough. Now

the wave-slapped

beach rocks not

just made to talk

but made to teach.


Unlike many of the elite US poets, Ryan didn’t attend a prestigious university nor is there much grit in her poems. For a poet who writes often of nature, there could be more earth and less air; there is no perspiration in her work. Ryan has been quoted saying of her poems, “Lightness can’t be pushy, it can’t be heavy, so how can it insist? Yet that is the only thing I want.” There are not many decisions in her work, only illusions. Yet I suppose, it is better to be taught how to think rather than what to think, and Ryan is better than 90 percent of the people who call themselves poets in the US today. When she is good she is very good, but the lapses between her meaningful poems are tedious.

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