Kay Ryan

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Kay Ryan
Born (1945-09-21) September 21, 1945 (age 78)
San Jose, California, U.S.
OccupationPoet, educator
EducationAntelope Valley College
University of California, Los Angeles (BA, MA)
Notable worksThe Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010)
Notable awardsGuggenheim Fellowship (2004)
Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2004)
United States Poet Laureate (2008–2010)
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2011)
MacArthur Fellowship (2011)
PartnerCarol Adair (1978–2009†)

Kay Ryan (born September 21, 1945)[1] is an American poet and educator. She has published seven volumes of poetry and an anthology of selected and new poems. From 2008 to 2010 she was the sixteenth United States Poet Laureate.[2] In 2011 she was named a MacArthur Fellow[3] and she won the Pulitzer Prize.[4]


Ryan was born in San Jose, California, and was raised in several areas of the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert.[5] After attending Antelope Valley College, she received bachelor's and master's degrees in English from University of California, Los Angeles.[6] Since 1971, she has lived in Marin County, California, and has taught English part-time at the College of Marin in Kentfield.[7] Carol Adair, who was also an instructor at the College of Marin, was Ryan's partner from 1978 until Adair's death in 2009.[8][9]

Her first collection, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, was privately published in 1983 with the help of friends.[10] While she found a commercial publisher for her second collection, Strangely Marked Metal (1985), her work went nearly unrecognized until the mid-1990s, when some of her poems were anthologized and the first reviews in national journals were published.[11] She became widely recognized following her receipt of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2004, and published her sixth collection of poetry, The Niagara River, in 2005.

In July 2008, the U.S. Library of Congress announced that Ryan would be the sixteenth United States Poet Laureate for a one-year term commencing in Autumn 2008. She succeeded Charles Simic.[2] In April 2009, the Library announced that Ryan would serve a second one-year term extending through May 2010.[12] She was succeeded by W.S. Merwin in June 2010.[13]

She is a lesbian, and was the first openly lesbian United States Poet Laureate.[14]


The Poetry Foundation's website characterizes Ryan's poems as follows: "Like Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore before her, Ryan delights in quirks of logic and language and teases poetry out of the most unlikely places. She regards the 'rehabilitation of clichés,' for instance, as part of the poet’s mission. Characterized by subtle, surprising rhymes and nimble rhythms, her compact poems are charged with sly wit and off-beat wisdom." J. D. McClatchy included Ryan in his 2003 anthology of contemporary American poetry.[15] He wrote in his introduction, "Her poems are compact, exhilarating, strange affairs, like Satie miniatures or Cornell boxes. … There are poets who start with lived life, still damp with sorrow or uncertainty, and lead it towards ideas about life. And there are poets who begin with ideas and draw life in towards their speculations. Marianne Moore and May Swenson were this latter sort of artist; so is Kay Ryan."[15]

Ryan's poems are often quite short. In one of the first essays on Ryan, Dana Gioia wrote about this aspect of her poetry. "Ryan reminds us of the suggestive power of poetry–how it elicits and rewards the reader’s intellect, imagination, and emotions. I like to think that Ryan’s magnificently compressed poetry – along with the emergence of other new masters of the short poem like Timothy Murphy and H.L. Hix and the veteran maestri like Ted Kooser and Dick Davis – signals a return to concision and intensity."[11] Ryan tends to avoid using the personal "I" in her poetry, claiming that she "didn’t want confession. [She] didn’t want to be Anne Sexton."[16] Though distanced, her work is often deeply introspective, analyzing both the nature of the mind[17] and the ability of language to mold reality.[18]

Many reviewers have noted an affinity between Ryan's poetry and Marianne Moore's.[19]

In addition to the oft-remarked affinity with Moore, affinities with poets May Swenson, Stevie Smith, Emily Dickinson, Wendy Cope, and Amy Clampitt have been noted by some critics. Thus, Katha Pollitt wrote that Ryan's fourth collection, Elephant Rocks (1997), is "Stevie Smith rewritten by William Blake" but that Say Uncle (2000) "is like a poetical offspring of George Herbert and the British comic poet Wendy Cope."[20] Another reviewer of Say Uncle (2000) wrote of Ryan, "Her casual manner and nods to the wisdom tradition might endear her to fans of A. R. Ammons or link her distantly to Emily Dickinson. But her tight structures, odd rhymes and ethical judgments place her more firmly in the tradition of Marianne Moore and, latterly, Amy Clampitt."[21]

Ryan's wit, quirkiness, and slyness are often noted by reviewers of her poetry, but Jack Foley emphasizes her essential seriousness. In his review of Say Uncle he writes, "There is, in short, far more darkness than 'light' in this brilliant, limited volume. Kay Ryan is a serious poet writing serious poems, and she resides on a serious planet (a word she rhymes with 'had it'). Ryan can certainly be funny, but it is rarely without a sting."[22] Some of these disjoint qualities in her work are illustrated by her poem "Outsider Art", which Harold Bloom selected for the anthology The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988–1997.

Ryan is also known for her extensive use of internal rhyme. She refers to her specific methods of using internal rhyme as "recombinant rhyme." She claims that she had a hard time "tak[ing] end-rhyme seriously," and uses recombinant rhyme to bring structure and form to her work. As for other types of form, Ryan claims that she cannot use them, stating that it is "like wearing the wrong clothes."[23]

Honors and awards[edit]

Ryan's awards include a 1995 award from the Ingram Merrill Foundation,[2] the 2000 Union League Poetry Prize,[24] the 2001 Maurice English Poetry Award for her collection Say Uncle,[12] a fellowship in 2001 from the National Endowment for the Arts,[25] a 2004 Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2004 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Her poems have been included in three Pushcart Prize anthologies,[26][27][28] and have been selected four times for The Best American Poetry;[29][30][31] "Outsider Art" was selected by Harold Bloom for The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988–1997. Since 2006, Ryan has served as one of fourteen Chancellors of The Academy of American Poets.[32] On January 22, 2011, Ryan was listed as a finalist for a 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award.[33] On April 18, 2011, she won the annual Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, calling her collection The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press) "a body of work spanning 45 years, witty, rebellious and yet tender, a treasure trove of an iconoclastic and joyful mind."[4][34][35]

On September 20, 2011, Ryan was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, or "genius grant".[3][36]

In 2013, she received a 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.[37]

Poetry collections[edit]

  • 1983: Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, 64 pages, Fairfax, California: Taylor Street Press, ISBN 0-911407-00-6
  • 1985: Strangely Marked Metal, 50 pages, Providence, Rhode Island: Copper Beech Press, ISBN 0-914278-46-0
  • 1994: Flamingo Watching, 63 pages, Providence, Rhode Island: Copper Beech Press, ISBN 0-914278-64-9
  • 1996: Elephant Rocks, 84 pages, New York: Grove Press, ISBN 0-8021-1586-1
  • 2000: Say Uncle, New York: Grove Press, 80 pages, ISBN 0-8021-3717-2
  • 2005: The Niagara River, 72 pages, New York: Grove Press, ISBN 0-8021-4222-2
  • 2008: Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed, illustrated by Carl Dern. 40 pages, Red Berry Editions, ISBN 978-0-9815781-1-8
  • 2010: The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, 270 pages, Grove Press, ISBN 978-0-8021-1914-8
  • 2015: Erratic Facts, 128 pages, New York: Grove Press, ISBN 978-0-8021-2405-0

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fitzgerald, Adam (September 23, 2015). "As Though Larger Arrangements". Literary Hub. Retrieved September 19, 2020. Happy birthday to Kay Ryan who turned seventy this past Monday, September 21st
  2. ^ a b c Raymond, Matt; Urschel, Donna (July 17, 2008). "Librarian of Congress Appoints Kay Ryan Poet Laureate". The Library of Congress. Archived from the original on July 19, 2008.
  3. ^ a b "MacArthur Fellows Program: Meet the 2011 Fellows". John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. September 20, 2011. Retrieved September 20, 2011.
  4. ^ a b "The 2011 Pulitzer Prize Winners: Poetry". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved November 12, 2013. With biographical blurb and publisher description of the collection.
  5. ^ Kay Ryan (July 26, 2006). "Kay Ryan Discusses New Collection of Poems". Newshour with Jim Lehrer (Interview: Video/Transcript). PBS. Archived from the original on July 17, 2008. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  6. ^ Hewitt, Alison (July 17, 2008). "Kay Ryan, UCLA graduate in English, named 16th poet laureate of U.S." UCLA. Archived from the original on March 7, 2012. Retrieved September 12, 2008. Ryan received her B.A. in 1967 and her M.A. in 1968.
  7. ^ Cohen, Patricia (July 17, 2008). "Kay Ryan, Outsider With Sly Style, Named Poet Laureate". The New York Times. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  8. ^ Halstead, Richard (September 23, 2007). "Kay Ryan rises to the top despite her refusal to compromise". Marin Independent Journal. Archived from the original on August 4, 2008. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  9. ^ Ashley, Beth (January 7, 2009). "Carol Adair, College of Marin instructor, dies at 66". Marin Independent Journal. Archived from the original on June 26, 2014. Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  10. ^ Ryan told Richard Halstead (Marin Independent Journal, 2007) that, "There is a certain onus on publishing one's own book. So, I wasn't terribly proud to be doing that. It was the act of a desperate woman, and it did me not a shred of good."
  11. ^ a b Gioia, Dana (Winter 1998–99). "Review: Discovering Kay Ryan". The Dark Horse (7). Archived from the original on May 9, 2008. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  12. ^ a b "Library of Congress Appoints Kay Ryan to Second Term as U.S. Poet Laureate". The Library of Congress. April 13, 2009.
  13. ^ Kennicott, Philip (July 1, 2010). "W.S. Merwin, Hawaii-based poet, will serve as 17th U.S. laureate". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 1, 2010.
  14. ^ "The Elephant in the Room: Kay Ryan - Beltway Poetry Quarterly". www.beltwaypoetry.com.
  15. ^ a b McClatchy, J. D. (2003). "Kay Ryan". The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry:Second Edition. Vintage Books. p. 530. ISBN 978-1-4000-3093-4. McClatchy included the following poems in this anthology: "Paired Things", "Mirage Oases", "A Cat/A Future", "The Old Cosmologists", "That Will to Divest", and "Drops in the Bucket".
  16. ^ Ryan, Kay (March 2006). "Cooling the Surface, Tending the Cracks: An Interview with Kay Ryan". Drunken Boat. Retrieved October 28, 2013.
  17. ^ Ryan, Kay (1996). "How a Thought Thinks". Elephant Rocks. New York: Grove Press. pp. 20–21. ISBN 0-8021-3525-0.
  18. ^ Ryan, Kay (2010). "Bait Goat". The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. New York: Grove Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-8021-1914-8.
  19. ^ Muse, Charlotte (Autumn 1999). "Review: Elephant Rocks by Kay Ryan". The Able Muse. Archived from the original on September 1, 2000.
  20. ^ Pollitt, Katha (November 8, 2000). "Shaking New Meanings Out of Worn Phrases". Slate.com. Retrieved July 25, 2008.
  21. ^ PW staff writers (July 24, 2000). "Review: Say Uncle, Ryan, Kay (Author)". Publishers' Weekly. Archived from the original on March 11, 2007. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  22. ^ Foley, Jack. "Kay Ryan, Say Uncle". The Alsop Review. Archived from the original on October 19, 2006. Retrieved August 14, 2008.
  23. ^ Fay, Sarah. "Paris Review – The Art of Poetry No. 94, Kay Ryan". The Paris Review. Retrieved September 16, 2010.
  24. ^ "Poetry Prizes: The Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize". Poetry. 2008. Archived from the original on May 13, 2008. Retrieved July 18, 2008. See also the Union League article.
  25. ^ Mason, Eileen B. (2001). "2001 Annual Report: Individual Fellowships" (PDF). National Endowment for the Arts. p. 31. Archived from the original (.PDF) on June 26, 2008. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  26. ^ Ryan, Kay (1997). "Crib". In Henderson, Bill (ed.). The Pushcart Prize XXI: Best of the Small Presses, 1997 Edition. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press. p. 44. ISBN 0-916366-96-0. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  27. ^ Ryan, Kay (1998). "Living with Stripes". In Henderson, Bill (ed.). The Pushcart Prize XXII: Best of the Small Presses, 1998 Edition. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press. p. 152. ISBN 978-1-888889-07-9. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  28. ^ Ryan, Kay (2004). "Chinese Foot Chart". In Henderson, Bill (ed.). The Pushcart Prize XXIX: Best of the Small Presses, 2005 Edition. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press. ISBN 978-1-888889-39-0. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  29. ^ Ryan, Kay (1999). "That Will to Divest". In Lehman, David; Bly, Robert (eds.). The Best American Poetry 1999. Scribners.
  30. ^ Ryan, Kay (2005). "Home to Roost". In Lehman, David; Muldoon, Paul (eds.). The Best American Poetry 2005. Scribners.
  31. ^ Ryan, Kay (2006). "Thin". In Lehman, David; Collins, Billy (eds.). The Best American Poetry 2006. Scribners.
  32. ^ "Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved July 21, 2008.
  33. ^ "For Immediate Release: The National Book Critics Circle Finalists for 2010 Awards". Poetry. 2010. Archived from the original on January 26, 2011. Retrieved March 28, 2011.
  34. ^ "Pulitzer Winner Kay Ryan on Poetry, Rhyming, and Terminal Cancer". The Wall Street Journal. April 19, 2011.
  35. ^ Rob Rogers (April 18, 2011). "Fairfax's Kay Ryan awarded Pulitzer prize for poetry". Marin Independent Journal. Archived from the original on November 12, 2013. Retrieved April 19, 2011.
  36. ^ Krupnick, Matt (September 20, 2011). "Marin poet Kay Ryan awarded $500,000 'genius' grant" Archived November 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine. Marin News (marinij.com).
  37. ^ President Obama to Award 2012 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal Whitehouse.gov, retrieved June 30, 2013

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