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  1. 29 of 30 people found this review helpful
     A delight 2 May, 2010 On
    Format:Kindle Edition
    I want to second everything John-Michael Albert says in his review and ask "Why just 3 stars, if you 'really like these poems'?"

    Ryan's word play is both a constant delight and a Trojan horse for her remarkable insights. Preview as many of the poems as Amazon allows, read them slowly, be on the lookout for both her gamesmanship and her meaning. If you enjoy the preview, the rest of the volume will not disappoint.
  2. 27 of 28 people found this review helpful
     Great intro to the pleasure of poetry 6 January, 2011 On
    I'm a graduate student who enjoys reading but was never interested in poetry. I discovered Kay Ryan after reading a New Yorker review which included a few lines that (unlike almost anything I had ever read before) really drew me in -- so much that, after reading a few more of Ryan's poems that I found online, I went out and bought this book.

    It's sort of hard to express how grateful I am to have discovered Ryan's poems. In english classes in high school and college, I was generally bored with poetry, I couldn't really get into it. But for some reason Ryan's poems were completely accessible to me -- I find them almost impossible not to enjoy. I think their brevity makes them approachable for an unseasoned poetry reader. More importantly, the sly use of language (lots of almost-rhymes), and the fertile ideas and deep wisdom that emerge with re-reading them is simply an absolute joy. I had no idea I could get this sort of satisfaction out of poetry, and since discovering Kay Ryan, I've branched out and discovered that I can get the same kind of enjoyment from other poetry as well.

    The poems are so short I've actually memorized some of them and have occasionally shared them with friends and family (when doing so didn't seem unbearably pretentious) and, in my experience, other poetic novices have been similarly hooked by the lure of Ryan's verse. As such, I would strongly recommend this book for anyone who might benefit from discovering for the first time the unique joy of reading poetry.
  3. 9 of 9 people found this review helpful
     pure pleasure 20 April, 2011 On
    Format:Kindle Edition
    I'm just half through with the book however I am enjoying it so much I feel compelled to post.

    As a reader I deeply want to develop critical skills for reading poetry, and to have the same experience that I've had with good books, which is to finish with some insight that I can apply to my life and some emotion that I remember long after the book is shelved (or filed, these days). Poetry has eluded me for the most part- I've been very happy with some poems, the majority of them confuse me or leave me nonplussed. This has been a life long struggle for me. It's annoying to feel as if you don't "get it", in any context.

    These poems are a literal representation of what the poet sees, amazingly devoid of emotion for the most part - the reader is invited to react from personal experience. I clearly understand what she is describing on every line, and in most poems I can relate and I am moved. When I have no personal basis to relate to the poem I am still happy to view clear expression of the language, rather like a painting of somewhere I've not been to yet.

    Another reviewer here suggested taking advantage of the preview before purchasing - I took the advice, and will take this opportunity to affirm the suggestion, and heartily recommend this book, even for poetry novices.
  4. 7 of 7 people found this review helpful
     The Best of It :Selected Poems by Kay Ryan 26 March, 2011 On
    I fell in love with this book....and I don't usually find much poetry that interests me. I could hardly put the book down...the poems are beautifully expressed, with humor and intelligence. The rhyme is unusual and cleverly done. Iwant to go back and reread every one.
  5. 26 of 34 people found this review helpful
     Each a Slice of Poppy Seed Cake. Just that. 21 April, 2010 On
    In the episode on Emily Dickinson, the PBS Series Voices and Visions took great pains to make three points about her background. Dickinson lived in an age when everyone lived in the constant company of Death, and she lived in an age when all youths were encouraged to be voraciously curious about nature. Add the omnipresence of Protestant hymnody in the lives of everyone in New England with its implicit poetic form and, like flour, milk and eggs to a cake, you have the three main ingredients of Dickinson's poetry. [P] It wasn't until I made this connection (thanks to a jacket note by J. D. McClatchy in the current volume) that I felt I was ready to enter the kitchen with Kay Ryan. I think she is a poet who, deliberately or not, has reincarnated the spirit of Dickinson in the late 20th century and, to make sure I don't go too far with the comparison, summoned that spirit on the opposite coast. No great preachments here. Personal observations, usually brightened with the presence of a birdy, a bunny, or a bivalve but especially birds (particular birds as well as wings, feathers, eggs an eggshells, flight, nest etc.). [P] And all peppered with an appreciation for the shimmering verbal effect of internal rhymes and off-rhymes. All the poems in this collection are a page long or less, which focuses my attention on form, which seems to be the focus of Ryan at her most playful. Take, for instance, her drive-by sonnet, "Full Measure," a sonnet in the progress of its argument, a sonnet in its fourteen-line length. Imitating the `jangling sack-full-of-keys' relentless rhymes of a sonnet, she scatters off rhymes throughout, like tart bits of lemon zest in a poppy seed cake: measure, favors, another, water, flavor, butter, pressure, shatter and nature. Only at the end, in what suggests the Shakespearian apotheosis-couplet, does she change the rhyme to break and -take. Otherwise, it isn't anything as historically full-of-itself as a sonnet. It's a fully realized human being sharing a moment of unselfconscious fun. [P] I read a collection of Ryan's poetry, Say Uncle, on her ascendancy to the Poet Laureateship and was completely befuddled. To my poor eyes, her poems certainly had nothing in common with the work of Simic, Hall, Kooser, Gluck, Collins or Kunitz, her immediate Poet-Laureate predecessors. Lines were unrelated to meaning. She placed line breaks on conjunctions and articles. Lines were one to five (usually two to four) words long--again, regardless to meaning. Potential end-rhymes in the poems were scattered here and there by the irrational line breaks suggesting the hand of a really bad typesetter. Sense was there, but made hard to abstract because of the way the poems were presented. [P] Reading this belated collection (belated because her term as PL is almost over and I think they've lost out on a lot of sales), The Best of It, New and Selected Poems (which is in reverse chronological order of composition), I think I have a better idea of what's going on in Ryan's poetry. Ryan's poems are not about conversation or communication; they're about unvarnished observation, with the interjection of a droll sense of humor, that poppy seed cake (again) the moment you slice it and slide the first piece out. Just that. I may be wrong about her inspiration and her intentions, and I certainly missed the point when I read her before, but I really like these poems all the same. Mind you, I don't think it would have made any difference to Dickinson if I told her I liked her verse (unless my last name were Higginson, of course), and I get the same impression when I'm reading Ryan.
  6. 4 of 4 people found this review helpful
     A Recent United States Poet Laureate 14 September, 2011 On
    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.

    Robin Friedman
  7. 3 of 3 people found this review helpful
     The Pleasure of Kay Ryan 27 September, 2011 On
    The Best of It: New and Collected Poems of Kay Ryan is a must on any poet lover's bookstand. I am reading it slowly as I want to savor every word. I close my eyes after each and pretend I have just finished an exotic chocolate bar.
    This incredible writer has been Poet Laureate of the United States for a reason. No,for many many reasons. The brevity and clarity of her poems become miniature masterpieces of thought and narrative. How does one manage to write so much in such few lines? Ah, there is the magic. And the skill. I have two hopes: One that she never stops writing and Two, that someday I can craft a poem where someone says that it reminds him of something Kay Ryan would write.
  8. 3 of 3 people found this review helpful
     Admirable Craft 4 June, 2011 On
    Before buying this book, I had never read poetry by Kay Ryan. Being introduced to her poetry was a good experience. Some poems, such as "Spiderweb," strike me as exquisite in design and craft as well as in meaning and intent. Others I can't even remember -- though I think that I can now recognize a Kay Ryan poem when I see one, because she's a distinctive writer with her own style and slant on the world. While I appreciate being introduced to the craft of Ryan's poetry, I think the collection is too large: these poems might make more of an impression if there were fewer of them. And while I admire the craft and thought that goes into these poems, I at the same time wish for more weighty subject matter.
  9. 1 of 1 people found this review helpful
     Tinkling platitudes 30 May, 2013 On
    Philosophy for infants ('Where is is/when is is was?'), this is both cutesy and prosaic. Take away the line breaks and what do you get? 'She seems unnatural by nature - too vivid and peculiar a structure to be pretty, and flexible to the point of oddity.' (That's six lines in the original.) 'No unguent can soothe the chap of abandonment' - why three lines? But portentous however you slice it. But I guess she's stuck with her shtick - a bit Williams, a bit Moore, more than a bit Dickinson. She's read - but has the woman lived? What she thinks musicality reeks of preciousness and shrieks constriction. (I'm even picking up her tinkling mid-line rhyme tic, which manages to trip you up while rendering bland*. Some feat.) '[W]ild horses.. are stretched by hills.' How so, ma'm? Only at page 37 still - and I'm gagging for Billy Collins. Sentimental to set your teeth on edge ('A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall'; some goddamn animal 'whom God protects'), Victorian without irony ('The idle are shackled/to their oars'). Our collective death-wish is impossible to survive without irony. Is that perhaps her trouble? The ones accepted by Poetry (Chicago) that gave Ryan cred in the first place are not included here. Curious..

    * or 'blandening' - Ryan's coinage
  10. 11 of 16 people found this review helpful
     The Best American Poetry Gets? 26 November, 2010 On
    The New York Times Book Review just came out with its 100 Notable Books for 2010, and three Times book reviewers also listed their own top 10 for 2010. One of these reviewers, Dwight Garner, chose a book of poems to include in his list. His choice is Kay Ryan's "The Best of It: New and Selected Poems" which Garner says is "about as good as American poetry gets [right now]."

    On the one hand, I am very pleased to see a book of poems make one of the Times top ten lists; I've never seen it happen before. Poetry often makes the top 100 but never the top 10. And while Kay Ryan's book is a respectable choice, I'm going to have to disagree with Mr. Garner; Ryan's work is definitely not "as good as American poetry gets." Don't get me wrong. I actually like some of Ryan's poems. Her poems are clipped, cute, and often clever, but they rarely have much meat on them.

    I'll try to explain what I mean by this last comment: reading one or two of her best poems in one of the literary magazines can be enjoyable, but when you're reading an entire book of her work, you realize just how slight her poetry really is. That's not to say that her poems are bad; they aren't bad, they're just not "great." She certainly enjoys playing with language, and this can lead her to some really amusing bits; for instance, in some of her best (and most characteristic) poems, she toys with the logic of idioms in ways that are sometimes poignant and funny.

    But you never get blown away by any of her poems because Ryan eschews serious poetic ambition, never really challenging herself or her readers. Writing about language can be fun, but after two or three poems, it starts to get old and even a little boring. To put it another way, Emily Dickinson once said something to the effect that she knew she'd read a good poem if she felt like her head was just knocked off. Unfortunately, none of Ryan's poems will knock your head off.

    I also don't like the way Kay Ryan employs rhyme in her poems. She likes to have these random rhymes, scattered throughout her poems haphazardly. It's like she's trying to hide them, as if using rhyme were an embarassment--which it shouldn't be (if it's used with care and skill).

    My vote for the best book of poems this year is Lynn Emanuel's " Noose and Hook (Pitt Poetry Series) " instead. Emanuel's book might not have been reviewed by the NY Times Book Section this year, but I think it's more deserving of the Times' top ten list than Ryan's more modest achievement.

    NOTE: Since I originally posted this review, this book won the 2011 Pulitzer for Poetry! It's probable that the high praise Ryan's book received from the NY Times might have had something to do with Ryan's win. And although I'm sure that Ryan's diehard fans will disagree with me on this one, I don't think her "Best of It" (or any of Ryan's individual volumes) was deserving of a Pulitzer. Ryan is a minor American poet. And this is not necessarily a knock. Being a minor poet in America is actually quite an accomplishment(especially since poetry here is so marginalized). But looking through this volume, I think that Ryan will be lucky if more than one or two of her poems last the test of time. I would like to be able to make greater claims for Ryan's poetry, but I just don't think those kinds of claims would be justified.
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