The Quiet Poet Laureate

Kay Ryan has lived in the same small house on a hill in Marin County, Calif., for 30 years. She shingled the exterior walls and covered the steps and walkways in bright tile scraps herself. The house suits her—filled with artwork by friends and with books, surrounded by mountain-biking trails, sheltered by plants. She likes being in this out-of-the-way place, keeping her distance. As she settles into a faded pink director's chair, chatting amiably, her hazel eyes are warm but a little guarded. This is what she had dreaded when she agreed to become the poet laureate of the United States—that a reporter would show up at her door and ask her to hold forth on the State of American Poetry for the Masses. But Ryan is a kind and generous person, and so she has sliced lime for this interloper's sparkling water, offered her cut cantaloupe, and invited her onto the tiny deck lined with low-hanging strawberries, a geranium, lemon verbena, cacti. The pots were planted by Carol Adair, Ryan's spouse and longtime partner, who died of cancer in January. Ryan is doing her best to keep the plants alive, to halt the geranium's browning.

Adair is the reason that Ryan is the poet laureate, she says. They returned home from a trip to Aspen last July to find a message on the answering machine from James Billington, the librarian of Congress, asking Ryan to call him at home. Ryan knew that there was only one reason Billington would call. She told Adair that she did not want to do it. "I feel it's hard enough to represent myself," she says. "The idea of representing capital-P Poetry … It was a horrible thought. I'm not an ambassador." But the next morning she accepted. "I did that because Carol was sick. I told her all my reasons why I didn't want to do it, and she said, 'I understand, so do it for me.' "

Ryan has long had an ambivalent relationship with exposure, and she has always resisted change. "I'm eager for stasis," she says, "because I can count on its being disrupted." While some poets thrive on the drama of their own experience and others want to capture the cacophonous world, Ryan probes the cracks and edges in her mind. Out of those crevices, the disruptions in a quiet life, come her poems.

Ryan was born in 1945, just after the end of World War II. Her father was an oil-well driller in the San Joaquin Valley. When he died, she wrote a poem that still surprises her with its power. His death "let out something from the core," she says. "It took me years to write something so pure again." She was 19 and a student at Antelope Valley College, a community college in the Mojave Desert. That is where she began reading poetry, when a stern teacher led her to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, John Donne (all poets who, not coincidentally, echo in her own work)—in part by demanding that their poetry be taken seriously or not at all. From community college Ryan made her way to UCLA, where she earned undergraduate and master's degrees, and then to a Ph.D. program at UC Irvine, which she soon quit. She read poetry for the "remote feeling of company," she said—the sense of being at once together and alone. ("It takes two points/to make a distance," one of her poems slyly puts it.) But she needed to get out of the classroom, to get lost, to find that feeling.

Ryan was not yet a poet. Though she felt drawn to writing, she resisted it. "I just didn't like the style that saying 'poet' meant," she says. "Anne Sexton was a poet. Robert Lowell was a poet. People who cut a dramatic swath. Lots of medication. I didn't want to be dramatic." But on a cross-country biking trip, she had what she calls an epiphany. (Always on guard for high drama, she adds that she considered it an epiphany "reluctantly.") "It was a real one," she says. It was also a complicated one. Writing poetry meant exposure, meant bearing herself to the public eye. She could have put her poems in a drawer and left them there, but she wanted her work to have an audience. "One of the elements of an art is the fact that it communicates," Ryan says. "The transaction isn't complete if you don't publish."

Ryan's road-to-Damascus moment galvanized her, but the way was lonely. She eschewed the more traditional avenues to success—M.F.A. programs, conferences. The carnivorous workshop crowd, with its demands and expectations, horrified her. To support herself, she taught remedial English part-time at the College of Marin, a community college near her home. Her reluctance (or inability) to participate in the more established circles, however, meant that she was in the same boat as thousands of hopeful amateurs—throwing a message in a bottle into the sea and hoping to be discovered. "I just felt hopeless about ever getting published," Ryan says.

She might have kept on feeling helpless had it not been for Adair. Ryan met Adair in 1977, around the time she started writing seriously. Adair was part of San Quentin State Prison's education department, where Ryan taught an English class. They fell in love. "A prison romance!" Ryan quips. Adair became more than just her partner, though. She was "my strongest advocate and my single companion in my poetry life," Ryan says. Adair didn't know any more about how to get a poem published than Ryan did, but she was determined. She had put herself through college as a single mother in order to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. Shortly before her death Adair mused, "I think what's at the bottom of me is optimism and will."

When I ask Ryan if there was a connection between her beginning to write poetry and her meeting Adair, she hesitates. "I can't know," she replies, her voice quiet. "I know that she took my work seriously; it was important to her. But really—if I had built barns, that might have been equally important to her." Adair's support was unconditional. "She just knew anything one wanted to do could be done," Ryan says.

Adair organized Ryan's work and helped her send it out. "She said, 'OK, we're going to send out 100 packets, and we're going to hope for one success.'?" Even those odds proved tough, so Adair got a group of friends together to self-publish Ryan's first book, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, in 1983. Finally, a year later Ryan published two poems in Poetry magazine, and the following year her first small-press book, Strangely Marked Metal.

Though sometimes overreaching, Ryan's early poems are recognizably hers. From the beginning she deployed short, fractured lines of wordplay and sharp, angular movement. She wasn't afraid to rhyme, or to stick the rhyme midline ("Babel is kinder/than this reminder, this"). She was more likely to find inspiration in Ripley's Believe It or Not! than in her own life.

Strangely Marked Metal received no attention. "It was just disheartening," Ryan says. She tried to get a more prominent publisher, but without luck. Finally she published another small-press book, assuming that it too would be lost to obscurity. It did get a little more attention, and she published her third collection with a major trade house, but she was still dispirited. She closed her third book, Flamingo Watching, with a telling poem, "Turtle." It ends:

All the time, though, her poems were becoming stronger, lighter, and more cunning, like spider webs. And reviewers, in fact, were starting to notice. In the late '90s, Dana Gioia, who later became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote that "over the past five years no new poet has so deeply impressed me with her imaginative flair or originality as Kay Ryan." (He noted that Ryan had been writing for too long to be considered really "new," but she was new to the mainstream.) She published Elephant Rocks, Say Uncle, and The Niagara River in quicker succession, and her new and selected poems, The Best of It, comes out next spring. She has been laureled with awards and grants, including the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation. Now, as the 16th laureate—a position previously held by Robert Penn Warren, Joseph Brodsky, Louise Glück, and others—the poet whose first work was self-published commands poetry's biggest platform.

Her poems, though, remain surprising and fresh, keeping the reader slightly off-kilter. Ryan writes by taking a thread of thought—usually the title—and then unspooling it. "I have no idea where it's really going to go," she says. "I have some ambition. But I have to hope that ambition will be ambushed." She likes to play with puns and idioms ("quid pro crow," say); to invert expectations ("I enjoy an accumulating/faith in weak forces"); to stitch together science, high and low diction, whatever flits across her mind. Even her rhyme is "recombinant." The effect is delightful and weird, like language playing a game of telephone with itself. As the poems swerve between images and ideas, meaning and sound, white space and the black ink of a line—between surface action and metaphorical depths—the attentive reader will see a glimmer of secret life. At one point Ryan described the words in a poem as a loose net around a swimming fish, invisible except in the flash of its turn. The fish—the secret life—is at once caught and free. "You have to feel that you haven't solved" a poem, she explains. "It refreshes you to return to it. That's a very strange thing about a poem." It can be frustrating, of course, to finish reading and realize you've just begun. Poetry is resistant. In a culture in which the "take-away" is paramount, poetry gives nothing away. You have to look past whatever the poem seems "about" to see what it is. "It's what we can't/know that interests/us," Ryan writes in "Absences and Breaks."

Take "No Names." It is a tiny poem, but there are deep plate tectonics at work. The poem describes a mountainous landscape beyond human reach, so remote that it resists even the human compulsion to conquer it on a map. But Ryan's images always operate on multiple levels. Here the "high places" are also the unknow-able regions of the human psyche—places beyond the reach of our understanding, "slick escarpments" that resist exploration. Every stressed word is like an ice ax, trying to gain purchase, while the alliterated "sh"—"sharp shapes, glacier-/scraped faces"—enacts the horrible sound of an object sliding down sheer ice. And yet it would be a mistake to see the poem only as an evocation of the struggling mind. The images are too powerful not to have some material reality. The poem itself is an invitation into those high places, the low-oxygen atmosphere above our understanding. To accept the invitation and really enter the poem is to make a demanding ascent—but a thrilling one, too.

"To read a poem is to be, I don't know, relieved of oneself to some degree," Ryan says. "One of the main things that poetry does is make you feel looser and larger … It does offer us a kind of mental freedom." No sooner has she said this, though, than she catches herself expounding on capital-P Poetry and begins to laugh. Mentioning an article in which the poet Philip Larkin discussed the "importance" of poetry, she cites his response: "My answer is no more valuable than if you asked a beaver about dams." As a friend noted on the back of her self-published volume: writing poetry is just what she does.

The poet laureate—officially called the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—has few prescribed duties. Some laureates stay for two terms, often to implement a project to revive interest in the art. Ryan's predecessor, Charles Simic, who thinks that the "death of poetry" refrain is exaggerated, decided against a second yearlong term. When he explained to The Believer magazine that the travel demands were too much, the interviewer asked, "So the post has an august reputation, but to actually be sitting in the office is a kind of harried, exhausting and distracting experience?" "Exactly," Simic answered.

Ryan, to her surprise, accepted an offer to take the position for a second term. Mostly, she says, she's doing it because Carol died. "I have to do something," she says. "I have to do something to keep me busy." She may not want to be Ambassador of Poetry, but she has another project in mind: promoting community colleges. "There's no glamour attached to attending one or being an instructor in one," Ryan says. "But the quality of education and the commitment to education in community colleges is remarkable."

It's clear that Ryan actually cares about the state of poetry, and that she wants to advance the general cause and enlarge the readership. But it's also clear that she has other things on her mind: Adair's garden, mountain biking. After so many years of vacillating between wanting attention and spurning it—wanting to write but resisting it, wanting to publish but fearing exposure, wanting a bigger audience but refusing to compromise—she is ambivalent about her success. Her audience has grown, and that is nice, but Adair is gone—and Adair was the audience that mattered. In the end, poetry needs only two caring people: one to write, and one to read.

"You write on the front edge of an experience, not in the midst of it," Ryan says to me at one point. A few years ago, before Adair was sick, Ryan wrote what now reads as an elegy. It is the rare poem of hers that features not animals or ideas or objects but people—or one person. (An elegy for her mother is another.) Ryan's "Ideal Audience," she wrote, isn't the world, "not scattered legions,/not a dozen from/a single region … "