Kay Ryan sneaked up on us—she might prefer “snuck” as truer to her beloved vernacular and for the sake of the rhyme with “luck”—moving from obscure to inevitable with readers and critics hardly noticing, much as she says in an early poem (“After Zeno”): “There’s no sense / in past tense.” Her poems are timeless, floating in an aether of wit and playful logic, partaking of both light verse and the lessons in compactness of Dickinson and Frost. Her authoritative tone tempered with humor suddenly seems always to have been in our ears. Take a typical Ryan number, “Bestiary,” from Elephant Rocks (1996):
A bestiary catalogs
bests. The mediocres
both higher and lower
of the singularly savage
or clever, the spectacularly
pincered, the archest
of the arch deceivers
who pressed their advantage
without quarter even after
they’ve won, as of course they would.
Best is not to be confused with good—
a different creature altogether,
and treated of in the goodiary—
a text alas lost now for centuries.
My spell-check software, dependably humorless, fails to recognize “medicores,” “pincered” and “goodiary.” More than most contemporary poets, Ryan listens to words as seasoned concertgoers listen to Mozart (her musical counterpart, by the way: listen to the way she plays with rhyme, never passively). Who before her noticed the best in bestiary? Maybe Ogden Nash. As though it were just that easy, Ryan follows the logic of her giddy premise. Often her poems are fanciful syllogisms, plays on proverb and cliché (“Good is the enemy of best.”) and unafraid to draw a moral or conduct a lesson (in this she’s quintessentially old-fashioned American). She also likes animals and is as quirkily knowledgeable about them as another of her poetic forebears, Marianne Moore, that chronicler, yes, of jerboa, ostrich, and pangolin (“scale / lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity”), but also the less exotic toad, rat and grasshopper. In the first stanza of “Critics and Connoisseurs,” a poem about swans, ants and her aesthetic project, Moore writes:
There is a great amount of poetry in
fastidiousness. Certain Ming
products, imperial floor-coverings of coach-
wheel yellow, are well enough in their way
but I have seen something
that I like better—a
mere childish attempt to make an
imperfectly ballasted animal stand up
similar determination to make a pup
eat his meat from the plate.
In Ryan’s hands, this might almost stand as an autonomous poem, but made skinnier, with less connective tissue—no “but I have seen,” no “that,” no “mere,” but the rhymes would stay, even the quietest and funniest (“a”/”way”). Moore, like Ryan, blithely skirts preciousness and clever whimsy for the sake of a good resonant conceit. Their poems, at their best, are well if not perfectly balanced animals. Both feel kinship with animals but neither is a nature poet in the conventional sense, a mystic, pantheist or indiscriminate hugger. Both are cool. Both admire (and embody) toughness, adaptability, resourcefulness, self-reliance, technical aplomb and ingenuity—survival skills.
I would suggest that if you enjoy reading Ryan’s poems you might learn to love Moore’s. With Eliot, her junior by ten months and a fellow native of St. Louis, she is my reliable favorite among the first generation of High Modernist poets, the one I read most often, more even than Stevens, certainly more than Pound and Williams. In “Virginia Britannia” Moore writes “Beauty is everlasting / and dust is for a time,” and in a tub-thumping review of The Poems of Marianne Moore (edited by Grace Schulman, 2003), Ryan writes:
She aims to liberate the mind. It is an elegant paradox that close application to the physical somehow does release the mind from the physical. There is probably never a time when poetry couldn’t stand a good dose of Marianne Moore’s profound respect for the mind and her tonic view of the poet’s job. She will always represent a grease-cutting alternative to the poetry of self-occupation.
This is self-diagnosis in the guise of shrewd critical assessment. Moore and Ryan share a visceral distaste for the confessional, the default mode of most contemporary American verse. Both poets keep the world and words, more interesting concerns, squarely in front of them. Both are engaged in the truest nonpolitical sense. Both are brainy but only rarely pretentious. Consider Ryan’s “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” (from The Niagara River, 2006):
A life should leave
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
Her things should
keep her marks.
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space –
however small –
should be left scarred
by the grand and
be so hard.
The poem treats a familiar human yearning with farfetched literalness, a frequent Ryan strategy (the genteel Moore, too, is an extremist). We want the world to commemorate the lives of those we love who now are dead. We don’t want their passage (or ours) through life erased. To take literally another figure of speech: We want loved ones to leave their mark. The speaker longs for “ruts,” a word conventionally scorned, as in “stuck in a rut” (though ruts worn by chariots endure in Roman paving). In an interview Ryan, the least autobiographical of poets, reveals the poem is about her mother but we sense her embarrassment at revealing too much. Like Dickinson, her instinct is to conceal and at the same time reveal enough to let us know she’s concealing something. This tension, like the tease in striptease, drives the poems and keeps us coming back. In the interview she says:
A lot of the job that one has to do as a writer is to protect the thing that doesn’t match the world.
Moore is a famously self-protective writer who celebrates animals equipped with armor and spines, though seldom first-rank predators, just as she wore capes and tricorn hats and cunningly fooled us with her show of dottiness. A Moore poem is like a wonder box by Joseph Cornell, an assemblage of learning, wisdom and polished words set in their rightful places like tesserae. In a less deft poet’s hands it might turn into an insufferable box of junk. Take a good Moore animal poem, not a best—from 1942, “The Wood-Weasel,” the first words of which are the title:
emerges daintily, the skunk–
don’t laugh—in sylvan black and white chipmunk
regalia. The inky thing
adaptively whited with glistening
goat-fur is wood-warden. In his
ermined well-cuttlefish-inked wool, he is
determination’s totem. Out-
lawed? His sweet face and powerful feet go about
in chieftain’s coat of Chilcat cloth.
He is his own protection from the moth,
noble little warrior. That
otter-skin on it, the living pole-cat,
smothers anything that stings. Well,—
this same weasel’s playful and his weasel
associates are too. Only
wood-weasels shall associate with me.
At some point in their poems, Ryan and Moore seamlessly merge the literal and the imaginary. They hardly recognize the distinction. “Don’t laugh?” “Noble little warrior?” “Smothers anything that stings?” “Playful?” Not cuddly but always cunning, Ryan and Moore surely number among the wood-weasels.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Bellevue, Washington, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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