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.