In 1936, the Library of Congress received a large endowment for the "maintenance of a chair of Poetry of the English language". The following year, the Library made its first appointment to the position of "Consultant in Poetry". The position soon became informally known as the United States Poet Laureate. In 1985, Congress passed a law explicitly designating the Consultant position as America's Poet Laureate. It is valuable for the United States to have a position of Poet Laureate to recognize the importance of poetry and literature to American life. A recent book, The Poets Laureate Anthology" published in association with the Library of Congress offers an excellent overview of and selection from America's Poet Laureates. The Poets Laureate Anthology
The American poet Kay Ryan (b. 1945), a long-term resident of California, served two terms as Poet Laureate from 2008 -- 2010. During her tenure, she prepared this anthology of her work, "The Best of It" (2010), which consists of poems she selected from four earlier books of poetry together with a substantial group of new poems. The volume includes well over 200 poems. In the book, Ryan presents her newest poems first followed by a selection in chronological order, beginning with the earliest works, from her previous books. In 2011, Ryan was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for "The Best of It".
Ryan writes largely apart from academic writers of poetry, and she has developed a distinctive style. Here are some of the things I found in my reading. Ryan's poems are almost always short. They consist of short lines of few syllables. Ryan is best-known for her use of rhyme. Many of her poems use rhymes, half-rhymes or alliteration. Her rhymes appear at the end of lines but she also uses hidden rhymes with the rhymed words appearing at the end of a line and at the middle of another line or with both words in the middle of a line. Frequently the rhymes are not exact.
Another distinctive quality of the poems is their lack of self-reference. Many poets write about themselves and their intimate feelings and experiences, and readers tend to expect this type of self-revelation from poetry. The pronoun "I" appears infrequently in Ryan's poetry. She speaks more often in terms of "we" or "you" when she uses pronouns at all. This gives the poems a meditative character as opposed to a character that overtly expresses strong individual feeling. Ryan is not a confessional poet; and her writing seems generally directed outside herself.
Ryan's poems have immediacy, accessibility and are easy to read. They are also quirky with odd word choices and rhythms and unusual word choices in places which will make the reader pause. The poems tend toward irony and whimsy. Ryan's work has been described as a "poetics of play" and she has written that "[t]here's always a smidegen of laughter in it, however lonely or lost. If you feel worse after you've read it, then I have failed." There is also a serious tone not far from the surface in most of Ryan's poems. The poems and the volume both encourgage quick reading followed by a return and thought about selected poems. The poems have a broad range of themes. The titles are important and tend to be developed with a twist in many of the poems. Many poems begin with a short important epigraph or quotation. The most frequently recurring subject appears to be animals, as Ryan writes about flamingos, crustaceans, crows, ospreys, cats, sharks, horses, snakes, herring, elephants, and many other animals. These poems have a quality of fable similar to the poems of Marianne Moore, who appears to be an important influence on Ryan.
The title of the volume, "The Best of It" is taken from a poem Ryan published in a volume called "The Niagra River" in 2005. The tone is quiet, and, it seems to me both celebratory and ironic about the qualities of persistence and making do with little. Here it is:
"However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn't matter that
our acre's down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we'd rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean could nourish us."
One of the many animal poems also deserves to be quoted. Here is a poem called "Turtle" derived from a 1994 collection, "Flamingo Watching". Note the many rhymes and half-rhymes.
"Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
she's often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. She lives
below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
The sport of truly chastened things."
Readers who want to explore contemporary American poetry will enjoy this collection of poems by Kay Ryan.