The Acid Tongue
More things wrong with American poetry
Selected By Cyril Wong
Rick Joines' article in the Contemporary Poetry Review is, at first sight, a review and celebration of Kay Ryan's poems, but I have chosen it here because it signals frequently, and also in a backhanded and not-quite-so-cursory way, to what the writer might really think is wrong with the American poetry scene.
"Kay Ryan's pulling-herself-up-by-her-own-muddied-Blundstone-bootstraps-story is already the stuff of legend," Joines writes, and proceeds to take a fleeting jab at people in general with little-to-no reading habits. "Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, she is popular and is a poetry 'best seller' like Mary Oliver…. Both are read by people who don't read much, or any, 'academic' poetry but giggle when Billy Collins is mentioned." The writer even relishes Ryan's harsh view of creative writing class students as being "THE SPAWN OF THE DEVIL" (caps are Ryan's doing from an interview) and as "deadly white threads of the great creative writing fungus". Joines elaborates:
They make sentimental, whiny noises about being "nourished" and "stimulated" by young poets and obsess about the "arc" of their newest book. Throughout her ethnographic adventures among the natives, Ryan maintains her "abstract contempt" for the tribe of creative writers and most all their luminaries.
Perhaps Joines' own contempt is not so "abstract" too. The reviewer cannot resist taking a dig at Ryan at the same time, as well as some critics who go too far in their praise:
Yet look at her now, vying with Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga on YouTube, being interviewed on PBS and NPR, reading at posh white-wine festivals, winning big prizes, and opining about all things poetical as the laurels rest heavily upon her head…. Dana Gioia reportedly called her "our Elizabeth Bishop," as if we were casting a new one, or as if the old one had dried up.
Joines' own praise is more critical yet no less profuse, and it is worth noting the personal opinions about contemporary American verse implicit in his commentary:
Even at her most ambitious, though, Ryan is subtle and her style is stoic: reserved, reasonable, simple, honest, lucid. She doesn't wander about in effluvial free-associative hedonistic confusion, reflexively qualifying and negating every claim, preferring instead aphoristic brevity. She doesn't ask her reader to be impressed by her range of imagination and depth of feelings and doubts, and we never hear the petulantly imperious I spotlighted in the contemporary, post-confessional lyric. Instead, her reader participates in a mature, moral experience of commenting on, assessing, and judging this foul and pestilent congregation of vapors….
The review ends with what American poetry today can learn from a quiet hero like Kay Ryan:
QLRS Vol. 11 No. 2 Apr 2012
Some have worried out loud about Kay Ryan's influence on the future practice of contemporary poetry. They shouldn't. American poetry could use a dose of restraint and humility, and Ryan would be a good tutor for young poets who care more about the "moral evaluation of human experience"… More worrisome is the influence of the schizophrenic strings of nonsense popular these days, and the rambling I-look-out-the-window-and-see-X-which-reminds-me-of-your-body style, which is much more easily imitated by the young than the seemingly simple, plain style poems of Kay Ryan…. "For that plainness of style seems easy to imitate at first thought," says Cicero, "but when attempted nothing is more difficult." Thus, the influence of her songs may be a salutary, sobering, and rectifying—if they can be heard over all the noise.