Assessing the new poet laureate.

Examining culture and the arts.
July 29 2008 12:26 PM

The Outsider Artist

Assessing Kay Ryan, our new poet laureate.

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The tone is both ironic and sincere; it is the case, I think, that repulsion is genuinely seen as a virtue, but there is a loss that the speaker skates over—namely, the loss of true intimacy, of the possibility of sustaining a genuine "private life" while also not withdrawing from the clamor and love and pain of the world around you.

The risk posed by radical compression is that the poems become merely whimsical. In the lesser work, the poem and reader meet cute ("Outsider Art": "Mostly it's too dreary/ and cherry red") but fail to develop much of a relationship. At other times, Ryan battles with her own highly developed armature. Sometimes her categorical imagination remains resolutely vague, and many poems invoke a "someone" about to do "something" while declining to name just what these forces are. This can make for unsatisfying poetry—sort of B-minus Frost, as in "New Clothes," a revisiting of the fable about the emperor's new clothes that fails to find firm footing:

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You will cast aside
something you cherish
when the tailors whisper,
"Only you could wear this."
It is almost never clothes
such as the emperor bought
but it is always something close
to something you've got.

Ryan's sly humor and elusive categorizing is intended in part to subvert the high earnestness of Modernism and Postmodernism. Indeed, her poems could be read as a retort to the sprawling complexities of "ellipticism" and Postmodernism, as well as to any post-Romantic nostalgia that poets may harbor for an age of Keatsian splendors. (As Ryan puts it in one poem, "Romantics are/ always fingering/ some discolored fabric or other/ feeling a deep nostalgia for sepia.") Her dramatic imagination is deeply pragmatic, stressing what is known over what is longed for and choosing diffidence over despair, even if she does so ironically.

It's these layers of complexity that make her best work more nuanced than the Library of Congress' descriptions of its "accessibility" might have you think. A pervasive darkness catapults her strongest poems beyond the more quotidian decrescendos into profundity. And every now and then—because Ryan prides herself on her intransigence—a touch of sublimity creeps into the usual irony. For example, in "Desert Reservoirs," which opens, "They are beachless basins, steep-edged/ catches, unnatural/ bodies of water wedged/ into canyons, stranded/ anti-mirages/ unable to vanish…./ Nothing/ here matches their gift."

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.