/ 17 July 2008

‘Modern hermit’ is new US poet laureate

Kay Ryan, an award-winning poet, mountain-bike rider and self-described ”modern hermit”, has been named the next United States poet laureate.

The Library of Congress announced on Thursday that the life-long Californian, whose compressed, metaphysical poetry has been compared to Emily Dickinson’s, will succeed Charles Simic as the 16th US poet laureate, starting in the fall.

The appointment lasts for one year and comes with a $35 000 salary, plus $5 000 for travel and a ”splendid office”, according to Librarian of Congress James H Billington.

”In a society full of rhetorical overstatement and a kind of zigging in and out of all kinds of pontifical disguises, she’s got this marvellous, understated depth,” Billington said during a recent interview.

Ryan (62) lives in Fairfax, California, with her long-time partner, Carol Adair. The poet acknowledged that being named the nation’s laureate was hardly on her mind during the past 30 years as she quietly completed six volumes of poetry, taught part-time at the local College of Marin and otherwise enjoyed the woods and hills of northern California.

She says that she was ”delighted and surprised” to receive the job. Upon hearing that the Library of Congress had called, she thought to herself: ”I can’t have that many overdue books.” But she was also ”hip enough to the world of possible glories for the poet” to know who chose the laureate.

The daughter of an oil-well digger, Ryan was born in San Jose, California, in 1945. She is a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles.

Her books include Elephant Rocks, Say Uncle and, most recently, The Niagara River, released by Grove Press in 2005. She has won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and four Pushcart Prizes, and received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Describing her work, she says she likes ”to squeeze things until they explode”.

Her poems are brief, reflective, profoundly and humorously aware of both the limitless cosmos and our limited lives, as illustrated in The Best of It, in which she writes, ”However carved up/or pared down we get/ we keep on making/ the best of it.”

Ryan cites William Carlos Williams, Philip Larkin and John Donne as among her favourite poets. She praises Robert Frost as the ”master”, denies her talent even approaches Dickinson’s (”like comparing Michelangelo to a local artist”) but does list their similarities: ”short poems, aphoristic, highly metaphoric, peculiar but intense in the rhymes”.

Billington notes that the only credential for the job is to write great poetry, and laureates over the years have ranged from the politically active Stanley Kunitz and the commercially successful Billy Collins to the more introspective Louise Glueck.

Both Billington and Ryan referred to parallel traditions of American poets — the expansiveness of Walt Whitman, and the reclusiveness of Dickinson. Both place Ryan in Dickinson’s column.

”I pride myself on having a brief biography,” Ryan says with a laugh.

The laureate’s salary is modest, but so are the requirements, little beyond ”raising the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry”.

Once largely ceremonial, the office has become an unofficial poetry pulpit, whether Robert Pinsky compiling the public’s favourite verse or Collins advocating daily broadcasts of poetry in the nation’s schools.

”We’ve been very heartened to see so many of the recent poets take up so many projects,” says Billington, who praised Ryan as a ”quiet evangelist for poetry”. Ryan has no definite plans for her new job, but says she is ”crazy about libraries” and expects to take on some kind of project involving them, ”right down to the bookmobile”.

The public life can wear down a laureate; Simic announced in the spring that he didn’t want a second term because he wanted more time to write. Ryan, about halfway through a new collection of poems, has granted her muse a sabbatical.

”It’s kind of a thrill to go from nothing to this,” she says. ”This is probably going to keep me so occupied that it will discourage any contact with the deeper mind. But my deeper mind needs a break.” — Sapa-AP