Many of Ryan’s poems follow a similar formula: the lines are short, there are few of them, and they are held together by frequent internal rhyming and unusual, powerful imagery. Small and mighty, one might say, they pull you closer to the page. ‘A Ball Rolls On a Point’ follows a “ball/ of who we are” as it rolls through a “fibrous jungle”. The jungle, like life, is full of unforeseen, unprovoked dangers. The poem is just 21 lines, and has a rhythm that carries you along to the end: “The whole ball/ of who we are”, “An aural/ track of crackle”, “the pressure is/ intense, and the/ sense”.
‘Cut Out For It’ sounds like a comment on the poet's famous, unapologetic independence within the industry: “Cut out/ as a horse/ is cut/ from the/ pack”. ‘Repetition’ creates a tie between a life of habits and a high-wire walk, where “each step/ not exactly/ as before/ risks chasms/ of flatness”. Each line of ‘Cloud’ contains just a few words. The cloud creeping above the forest of evergreens is “a blue stain” that haunts the passive trees, which are compared to “soldiers or/ brave people/ getting older.” No, it isn’t Ryan’s style to indulge in emotional sentiments when it comes to writing about aging. With the tired creatures in ‘The Late Worm’, who have lost their natural plump and “stick/ against the path” as they attempt to move onward, Ryan delivers a stark yet altogether appropriate metaphor for life and the passage of time, with an ease that characterises so much of her work.
Born in California in 1945, Kay Ryan is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005) and Say Uncle (2000). Her unique brand of tightly compressed brilliance has earned her the status of one of the great living American poets, and led to her appointment as US Poet Laureate in 2008.
Ryan has said that her poems do not start with imagery or sound, but rather develop “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation”. Critic Meghan O’Rourke has written of her work: “Each poem twists around and back upon its argument like a river retracing its path; they are didactic in spirit, but a bedrock wit supports them.” ‘Sharks’ Teeth’ displays that meandering approach to her subject matter, which, Ryan says, “gives my poems a coolness. I can touch things that are very hot because I’ve given them some distance.”
Maintaining a career outside the mainstream poetry circuit, Ryan teaches remedial English in California’s Marin County, where she has lived for the last 30 years.
Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, Taylor Street Press, Fairfax, 1983
Strangely Marked Metal, Copper Beech Press, Providence, 1985
Flamingo Watching, Copper Beech Press, Providence, 1994
Elephant Rocks, Grove Press, New York, 1996
Say Uncle, Grove Press, New York, 2000
The Niagara River, Grove Press, New York, 2005
Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed, Red Berry Editions, Kensington, 2008
The Best of It, Grove Press, New York, 2010
Ingram Merrill Foundation, 1995
Union League Poetry Prize, 2000
Maurice English Poetry Award, 2001
Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, 2001
Guggenheim Fellowship, 2004
Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, 2004
Gold Medal for poetry, San Francisco Commonwealth Club, 2005