Kay Ryan has been compared to Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore, sharing a delight in the quirks of logic and language. Because she keeps a low profile, she has been called an ‘outsider’ poet, a term she dismisses. “I think every poet is an outsider. I don’t think you could possibly write if you felt adjusted to your surroundings.” In 2004, she was awarded the prestigious Ruth Lilley Prize.

Ryan was born in San Jose, California and was raised in several areas of the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert. She received both a BA and an MA in Literature from UCLA. Ryan has never attended nor has she taught a creative writing class, and has spent more than 30 years teaching remedial college English

At 29, Kay Ryan undertook a 4,000 mile cross-country bicycle trip, to give herself time to consider whether to devote herself to poetry as a vocation. As she pedalled through Colorado, the repetitive, rhythmic exercise gave her a sense of oneness with her surroundings, as if “I could pass through the pine trees and they through me.” She suddenly felt as if she “knew everything,” she says. “I wasn’t bound by the ordinary structures of ego.”

Poet and critic Dana Gioia is a long-standing champion of Ryan. He says, referring to her concise, thickly textured poems, that “a genuinely original poet requires some recalibration of our ear and eye – both inner and outer. Ryan’s work may not seem difficult, but it is. She challenges the reader in unusual ways. She is not obscure but sly, dense, elliptical, and suggestive. She plays with her readers – not maliciously or gratuitously but to rouse them from conventional response and expectation.”

Formally, Ryan’s poems are constructed of short lines, sometimes only two words long. This allows for the interruption of words by the silence of the white page. Ryan talks about her relationship with silence as a tangible thing “I’ve learned to distinguish a great number of forms of silence. My poems talk about a palpable silence, that creamy, latexy kind of silence that we know, even when we’re experiencing it as a giant luxury, like a dream luxury. There is an angry silence, which is a very different and unpleasant form of silence.”

In her introduction, Ryan describes ‘A Hundred Bolts of Satin’ as a “terrifying poem” where the idea of a “mind coming apart” is presented metaphorically as a train uncoupling carriage by carriage. The disjointedness of the lines here enact the theme of the poem. One of the joys of listening to this recording, along with hearing Ryan’s illuminating introductions, is noticing the hidden rhymes and metrical patterns which only become fully apparent when the poems are spoken aloud. Here too, each short line is like a pebble thrown into a pool of the different silences Ryan talks about.

This recording was produced by the Poetry Foundation on 11th September, 2007, San Francisco, California.

Poems by Kay Ryan

Books by Kay Ryan



Ruth Lilley Prize

Prize website

United States Poet Laureate

Prize website

MacArther Fellow

Prize website

Pulitzer Prize

Prize website

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