The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, Kay Ryan
by Amit Majmudar
from The Threepenny Review, Summer 2011
1. Infinitude Disguised as the Sound Bite
EACH POEM runs no longer than a commercial. Brevity is the first mask. It fits over the other masks and makes what they hide seem smaller, more containable—much like the poem as it looks on the page, taken in whole at a single glance. Traditionally, poems that occupy this much space will reward you, at best, with either a memorable image or a witticism. Even that would come after padding, a little set-up before the spike. You're unlikely to get this much infinity out of it. This is why the similarity with Dickinson keeps coming up, even though their natures are so totally different, ecstasy and watchfulness. They are both metals (strangely marked indeed) of the same atomic weight and density. But they exist at totally different temperatures: Ryan cool to the touch, a surprise like steel; Dickinson, at her best, close to the melting point.
And yet how perfectly Ryan's sound bites subvert the nature of the sound bite. They don't reduce complexity to simplicity. However short and at times epigrammatic, they are surprisingly difficult to quote, and especially to quote from; no part is detachable. Rather, their brevity and irreducible simplicity are pinpoint apertures that focus on vastness—the viewfinder on a handheld camera fitted with a panoramic lens.
2. Irrationality Disguised as Logic
WHAT APPLIES to her poetry applies to metaphor generally, and to (the best) poetry by extension. Metaphor is the meaningful irrationality that sets apart poetic language. It's a tribute to poetry that the higher orders of physics and biology have required metaphor to make sense of their own ideas. (A nucleus has an electron cloud. Genetic code is read and transcribed.) Even the basic, near-universal identification of, say, desire and burning, a feeling and an element, is too sophisticated an operation for syllogism. At some point someone made that connection, and it stuck—not because it could be proven, but because it was right. The same applies to clichés. Ryan herself has professed an affection for clichés and uses them in her own poetry; she is not afraid to recognize them for their rightness. To originate that kind of rightness, to be the first to announce the connection of, say, intention and an edible cotyledon ("Intention"): that is metaphorical power, and as good a way as any of ranking poets. To my mind, Ryan has the greatest metaphorical power of any living poet. Her connections stick because they are right. But the finest touch is the rather unexcited way in which the sublime madness is conveyed. This is the second mask: the tone. It's the tone of detached observation, of a perfectly sane companion pointing out something interesting. But then you listen to the words, and it turns out to be a quite revelatory madness.
3. Individuality Disguised as the Impersonal
FOR DECADES now, poets have been trying to set themselves apart by talking about themselves. In her poems you will find no childhood traumas, no fond reminiscences about growing up, no messy breakups, no anecdotes about the students, no elegies for the dog. Late-twentieth-century memoirists, whether they wrote poems, novels, or autobiographies, are beginning to blend together. Their oppressive fathers are the same oppressive father. Their drinking problems are the same drinking problem. Suddenly, by some trick of harmonics, of peaks canceling troughs and wavelengths overlapping just so, that chorus has canceled itself out. (Because they were a chorus, weren't they? For all their "individuality.") One voice is still audible. It sounds distinctive, but it's coming from a face curiously devoid of any memorable mole. Actually, that's not a face at all; it's a mask: impersonality. It covers this totally individual voice and, like the mask in a Greek drama, amplifies it. That voice, incidentally, is talking about a flamingo ...
4. Subjectivity Disguised as Dissolution
DESCRIPTION IS not always futile. But it is always a waste of time. We are living through the heyday of the physical image. Thousand-wording birds, landscapes, cities, flowers, or any other choice picture of reality is the least profitable thing one can do in this situation. Any muggle with a digital camera can show you up, literally. There is only one way a poet can make an anglerfish more real than a marine photographer's: by getting inside the anglerfish and looking out ("To an Anglerfish"). The camera can get no deeper than the surface. This jump into other minds is the supreme form of subjectivity, yet it comes off as a kind of free-floating detachment. Such people are only loosely tethered to the ego. Or maybe it's the ego that isn't tethered, that can move in and start perceiving anywhere it's sent. This kind of subjectivity requires the self-abnegation that is so often praised in Shakespeare: the ability to identify at will with anything ("Turtle"). Mystical religious traditions ascribe a similar polyvalence to the enlightened. This is the mask of dissolution. Her air of detachment, her refusal to get worked up over her own observations, keeps the mask snug. Dissolving the self has freed her to indulge a subjective, lyrical delight in the smallest things of the world. And she does it without the behold-me-beholding-this, self-important "selflessness" of Rilke in his ding-gedichte.
5. Design Disguised as Accident
OR, FORMALITY disguised as informality. She takes care to eschew the clinching couplet and to have it too. The extra syllables and internal rhymes are often put there intentionally (according to her interviews) to obscure a fundamentally regular structure, the set-spike of introduction and finishing rhyme familiar to any reader of epigrams and Shakespearean sonnets. In English, "epigram" carries the wrong connotation of minor poetry, the "barb," light verse. And her verse is often funny, sometimes slight, but it is never light.
About that verse: our great-grandfathers probably would have called it "doggerel." They used that term pejoratively, but our ancestors never had their doggerel so good. Ryan herself calls it "recombinant rhyme," which is a rare slip for her; she is so able with metaphor, you would think she would spot, and evade, another easy, misleading analogy between science and art. Recombinant implies some sort of "advance" in rhyme, analogous to those in genetic engineering. Yet the discovery here doesn't strike me as a genuinely musical one. I have always thought it a typographical masterstroke, not a musical one (but a masterstroke nonetheless, her spoonful of irregularity helping the chime go down). Consider, for example:
of the advancing
years: They do
your ears. A touch
of deafness lightens
one of life's heaviest
Which was written by a certain Ogden Nash, albeit with different lineation. You can see how it comes off a lot like Ryan on the outside, if scissored up this way with line breaks, but it's empty of Ryan on the inside. (I say this not to fault Nash, who was pursuing a different kind of poetry in those lines.) This, by the way, is what we can expect, if Ryan's style succeeds Ashbery's as the next "period style." I suspect it has a good chance of doing so—like Ashbery's, Ryan's style is easy to parody seriously, allowing weaker poets to produce an echo stronger than their own voices. Personally, I would rather read Ryan's minor contemporary imitators than original Ashbery. Ryan would probably be horrified to imagine thousands of tiny writing-program goslings swimming in her wake, but I have had quite enough of the flippant, pop-cultural, and disjoint. I would love it if she became the coming generation's primary model. She would force them to listen to what they were saying, and, most radically of all, to say something—that is, like Frost and Dickinson before her, to arrive at ambiguities in the course of assertion.
6. Inclusiveness Disguised as Exclusion
I HAVE ALREADY mentioned (with delight, mind you) what her poems exclude. It was actually a description of her sixth mask. Exclusion, like all her other masks, hides its opposite; this mask, too, allows her to have it both ways. Style is defined as much by what it chooses to hide as what it chooses to present. The illuminating comparison is with Albert Goldbarth. He and Ryan were born within three years of each other. Publication and recognition came much earlier to one than to the other. On paper, they seem totally different, too. Yet Ryan's connections are as strangely appropriate, and pull together from as far apart, as any of Albert Goldbarth's; you can find Ryanesque gems buried in the messier stretches of Goldbarth. He has buried them a little too effectively, I suspect, having paid too much attention to voice, and not enough to sound. Ryan has streamlined herself, and just as her poems travel faster, being physically lighter and verbally tighter, they may also travel farther into the future. A poet gains substantiality by laying mask over mask, filter over filter, veil over veil, discipline over discipline, as many as possible. I call it Goldbarth's Folly: seeking inclusiveness through—inclusion.
7. Vision Disguised as Observations
EVERY PAIR of eyes gives a different retinal scan. It's more reliable than fingerprinting. But it's a rare pair of eyes that sees differently. Lenses can sharpen your vision, but they can't focus your gaze in the right place; they can't help you see under or through. I could discuss how she is the first human being to see what a zebra drinking water looks like to the zebra (and vividly enough to be justly terrified) —but what good would that do? It's the old problem of how to explain color to the blind. Her irreducibility extends here to the discussion of her irreducibility. Insert illustrative quotation: which is to say, insert full text. You have to see the world through her observations of it to understand her vision. That vision is singular, in both senses: both "unusual or striking," and "composed of one member, set, or kind." It is also multifarious, picking up any little thing and knowing it through. This last mask is the one mask that is all her own, as flush as the wet of the eye. Everything else—the tone, the slant rhymes and enjambment, the identification with things, the brevity—everything else can be taught and learned. Lift this mask off, and you find nothing behind it; or more accurately, you find the universe again, all things in heaven and earth, unfiltered. and hence unknowable. And so, one by one, you lay her masks back on. You never saw the universe so clearly as when you heard about it through her masks. What we want, after all, is not the whole universe. What we want is The Best of It.
About the Author
Amit Majmudar's first novel, Partitions, has just been published by Holt/Metropolitan. His first poetry collection, 0°,0° (Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books, 2009) was a finalist for the Norma Faber First Book Award. His second book, Heaven and Earth, won the 2011 Donald Justice Award, selected by A. E. Stallings. His first novella, Azazil, was serialized last year in The Kenyon Review. His poetry has been featured on Poetry Daily and has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry Magazine and The Best American Poetry anthology.
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