Kay Ryan

National Humanities Medal


Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow Kay Ryan—the Library of Congress’s sixteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, from 2008 to 2010—is, for all that, a literary outsider who taught remedial English skills for more than thirty years at a community college in California. Her work is accessible and witty, marked by mordant humor and word play, but with serious intent and long-lasting impact on readers. “I want something to get done in a poem,” she said recently in a telephone interview. “I want to know something I didn’t know.”

Her use of what she has termed recombinant rhyme is one of her defining characteristics. Her tightly woven verse (lines are sometimes no more than two or three syllables) can ponder a philosophical conundrum, crystallize an irony, or hold up for brief yet piercing examination the opposing poles of a contradiction. Poet and editor J. D. McClatchy has said of Ryan’s work, “Her poems are compact, exhilarating, strange affairs, like Satie miniatures or Cornell boxes.” Among Ryan’s awards and prizes are a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2004; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, also in 2004, honoring a “living U.S. poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition”; and anIngram Merrill Award, which was founded by American poet James Merrill in 1956.


Ryan, born in San Jose, California, in 1945, grew up in towns in the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert, where she was something of a class clown and from childhood had a “rapaciousness for language.” Her father worked as a ranch hand, an oil driller, and a prospector on a chromium claim. He died when Ryan was nineteen, prompting “After Zeno,” an unsentimental meditation on lives that overlap until the day when suddenly, they no longer do. The four-stanza poem begins, “When he was / I was. / But I still am / And he is still.” After positing questions about time and plurality, the poem—her first—concludes, “There’s no sense / In past tense.” After two years at Antelope Valley College, she went on to earn a BA and an MA in English at UCLA.

In 1977, she met her partner, Carol Adair, who was always the first reader of her poems. Adair, who taught for twenty-some years as well at the College of Marin, died of cancer in 2009, while Ryan was serving as poetry consultant. Ryan honored Adair and community college teachers in general as part of her official functions at the Library of Congress. After having two books published by the small press Copper Beech, Ryan took advantage of a favorable review by Yale Younger Poet George Bradley to put together, at his suggestion, a manuscript for Grove Press, which she did from a backlog of poems she had been trying to get published by a New York house for decades. Grove has published all of her books since.

In the poem “Chop,” Ryan’s deft use of unlikely comparisons, recombinant rhyme, and strong image conspire to achieve maximum effect. “The bird / walks down / the beach along / the glazed edge / the last wave / reached,” it begins, with a scene, Ryan knows, every reader can easily imagine. “Beach,” in a near rhyme with “reached,” binds the image together through sounds but not in the expected end-rhyme pattern. “His / each step,” the poem continues, “makes / a perfect stamp— / smallish, but as / sharp as an / emperor ’s chop.” The originality of the comparison and the powerful image it creates set up what for the imperious bird is the sad irony of the conclusion: “Stride, Stride, / goes the emperor / down his wide / mirrored promenade / the sea bows / to repolish.”

Surprisingly, Ryan says she reads little poetry, fiction, or history, opting instead for the “belle lettrists,”—essays on literature by Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Joseph Brodsky. She prefers not to read fellow poets because, as she slyly puts it, “Like eucalyptus trees, they poison the soil beneath them so nothing else can grow there.” Ryan has other reading tics. She doesn’t like electronic reading devices, she chuckles, because she feels compelled to physically deface a book by taking notes in the margins.

And the future of poetry? “It will change platforms maybe, but I don’t worry about poetry or people reading poetry. It will survive because it’s pleasurable and is the most expedient method for certain kinds of exchange.”

— by Steve Moyer

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.