U.S. Poet Laureate to Visit UT Knoxville

 
Kay Ryan by Christina Koci Hernandez

Kay Ryan by Christina Koci Hernandez

The nation’s most highly regarded poet will visit the University of Tennessee, Knoxville this month for a poetry reading and book-signing event.

Kay Ryan, the 2008-2009 U.S. Poet Laureate, will read and talk about her poetry at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, in the University Center auditorium. A book-signing event will follow. The event is free and open to the public.

In her poems, Ryan enjoys re-examining the beauty of everyday phrases and describes poetry as an intensely personal experience for both the writer and the reader.

“Poems are transmissions from the depths of whoever wrote them to the depths of the reader. To a greater extent than with any other kind of reading, the reader of a poem is making that poem, is inhabiting those words in the most personal sort of way. That doesn’t mean that you read a poem and make it whatever you want it to be, but that it’s operating so deeply in you, that it is the most special kind of reading,” she said.

As the 16th U.S. Poet Laureate, Ryan succeeds Charles Simic and joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served in the position, including the likes of Robert Frost.

The Poet Laureate, also known as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry. In making the appointment, the Librarian of Congress consults with former appointees, the current Laureate and distinguished poetry critics. The Laureate gives an annual lecture and reading of his or her poetry and usually introduces poets in the Library’s annual poetry series, the oldest in the Washington area, and among the oldest in the U.S.

“Kay Ryan is a distinctive and original voice within the rich variety of contemporary American poetry,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “She writes easily understandable short poems on improbable subjects. Within her compact compositions there are many surprises in rhyme and rhythm and in sly wit pointing to subtle wisdom.”

Ryan has written six books of poetry, plus a limited edition artist’s book, along with a number of essays. She received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. She lives a quiet life in Marin County, California.

Ryan’s visit is sponsored by the Chancellor’s Office, Ready for the World, the Department of English, the Commission for Women, the Commission for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People, the Office of Equity and Diversity and UT Libraries.

To print the flier for the event, visit http://cfw.utk.edu/ryan.html.

About Kay Ryan

Ryan was born in 1945 in San Jose, Calif., and grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert. Her father was an oil well driller and sometime-prospector. She received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 1971, Ryan has lived in Marin County.

For more than 30 years, Ryan limited her professional responsibilities to the part-time teaching of remedial English at the College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif., thus leaving much of her life free for “a lot of mountain bike riding plus the idle maunderings poets feed upon.” She said at one point that she has never taken a creative writing class, and in a 2004 interview in The Christian Science Monitor, she noted, “I have tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy.”

In her poems Ryan enjoys re-examining the beauty of everyday phrases and mining the cracks in common human experience. Unlike many poets writing today, she seldom writes in the first person. She has said, “I don’t use ‘I’ because the personal is too hot and sticky for me to work with. I like the cooling properties of the impersonal.” In her poem “Hide and Seek,” for instance, she describes the feelings of the person hiding without ever saying, “I am hiding”:

It’s hard not
to jump out
instead of
waiting to be
found. It’s
hard to be
alone so long
and then hear
someone come
around. It’s
like some form
of skin’s developed
in the air
that, rather
than have torn,
you tear.

She describes poetry as an intensely personal experience for both the writer and the reader: “Poems are transmissions from the depths of whoever wrote them to the depths of the reader. To a greater extent than with any other kind of reading, the reader of a poem is making that poem, is inhabiting those words in the most personal sort of way. That doesn’t mean that you read a poem and make it whatever you want it to be, but that it’s operating so deeply in you, that it is the most special kind of reading.”

Ryan’s poems are characterized by the deft use of unusual kinds of slant and internal rhyming — which she has referred to as “recombinant rhyme” — in combination with strong, exact rhymes and even puns. The poems are peppered with wit and philosophical questioning and rely on short lines, often no more than two to three words each. She has said of her ascetic preferences, “An almost empty suitcase — that’s what I want my poems to be. A few things. The reader starts taking them out, but they keep multiplying.” Because her craft is both exacting and playfully elastic, it is possible for both readers who like formal poems and readers who like free verse to find her work rewarding.

John Barr, president of The Poetry Foundation, said: “Halfway into a Ryan poem, one is ready for either a joke or a profundity; typically it ends in both. Before we know it the poem arrives at some unexpected, deep insight that likely will alter forever the way we see that thing.”

Ryan has written six books of poetry, plus a limited edition artist’s book, along with a number of essays. Her books are: “Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends” (1983), “Strangely Marked Metal” (Copper Beech, 1985), “Flamingo Watching” (Copper Beech, 1994), “Elephant Rocks” (Grove Press,1996), “Say Uncle” (Grove Press, 2000), “Believe It or Not!” (2002, Jungle Garden Press, edition of 125 copies), and “The Niagara River” (Grove Press, 2005).

Her awards include the Gold Medal for poetry, 2005, from the San Francisco Commonwealth Club; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from The Poetry Foundation in 2004; a Guggenheim fellowship the same year; a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship as well as the Maurice English Poetry Award in 2001; the Union League Poetry Prize in 2000; and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in 1995. She has won four Pushcart Prizes and has been selected four different years for the annual volumes of the Best American Poetry. Her poems have been widely reprinted and internationally anthologized. Since 2006, she has been a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

What does it mean to be the U.S. Poet Laureate?

The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans. During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.

The Poet Laureate is appointed annually by the Librarian of Congress and serves from October to May. In making the appointment, the Librarian consults with former appointees, the current Laureate and distinguished poetry critics. The position has existed under two separate titles: from 1937 to 1986 as “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” and from 1986 forward as “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” The name was changed by an act of Congress in 1985.

The Library keeps to a minimum the specific duties in order to afford incumbents maximum freedom to work on their own projects while at the Library. The Laureate gives an annual lecture and reading of his or her poetry and usually introduces poets in the Library’s annual poetry series, the oldest in the Washington area, and among the oldest in the United States. This annual series of public poetry and fiction readings, lectures, symposia, and occasional dramatic performances began in the 1940s. Collectively the Laureates have brought more than 2,000 poets and authors to the Library to read for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature.

Those interested in reading a more detailed history of the poetry consultantship at the Library of Congress should refer to William McGuire’s Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1988. LC Call No.: Z733.U6M38 1988).

Each Laureate brings a different emphasis to the position. Joseph Brodsky initiated the idea of providing poetry in airports, supermarkets and hotel rooms. Maxine Kumin started a popular series of poetry workshops for women at the Library of Congress. Gwendolyn Brooks met with elementary school students to encourage them to write poetry. Rita Dove brought together writers to explore the African diaspora through the eyes of its artists. She also championed children’s poetry and jazz with poetry events. Robert Hass organized the “Watershed” conference that brought together noted novelists, poets and storytellers to talk about writing, nature and community.

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