Yesterday's announcement from the Library of Congress that Kay Ryan will be the country's next poet laureate is a cause for celebration. In part, this is because Ms. Ryan is an excellent poet, and in poetry it is rarer than it should be for merit and recognition to find one another. But it is also because Ms. Ryan has advanced to the top rank of American poets while keeping a principled distance from the institutions of the poetry world. In 2005, she filed a hilariously skeptical report, for Poetry Magazine, on the annual conference of AWP, the Association of Writing Programs, which began: "I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers conferences. It's been a point of honor: the whole cooperative workshopping thing, not for me. I have never taken a creative writing class, I have never taught a creative writing class, and I have never gone, and will never go, to anything like AWP, I have often said."
One of the sections in that essay was titled "A Lifetime of Preferring Not To," and while Ms. Ryan is not quite as hermit-like as Bartleby the Scrivener her work appears regularly in the New Yorker, and she has received some of the country's leading literary awards, including the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize she has always refused to join the interlocking directorate of MFA programs, conferences, and workshops. It is true that Ms. Ryan, like many American poets, makes her living as a teacher. But instead of teaching seminars on the sestina at Iowa or Bennington, she teaches remedial reading at a community college in Marin County, where she has lived since 1971.
Ms. Ryan is, in fact, a lifelong Californian. She was born in 1945 in the San Joaquin Valley, the daughter of an oil driller, and she graduated from UCLA. And her reputation took a long time to spread nationwide. Her first book, "Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends" (1983), was privately printed and went unreviewed. Not until her fourth, "Elephant Rocks" (1996), was she published by a major trade house, Grove Press. And only in the last decade or so has she become really well known to poetry readers, thanks in part to the advocacy of the poet and critic Dana Gioia. (Indeed, since he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003, Mr. Gioia has had a perceptible influence on the poet laureateship: Ted Kooser, who served in the post from 2004-06, is another poet Mr. Gioia has warmly praised.)
In her diffidence and self-sufficiency, as in her dark vision and metaphysical scope, Ms. Ryan is oddly reminiscent of another California poet, Robinson Jeffers. Not that their poetry sounds at all similar: Jeffers's craggy free verse looks positively monumental next to Ms. Ryan's dexterous, compressed lyrics. Ms. Ryan's poems have, in fact, been widely admired for their accessibility and apparent modesty. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, announced her appointment as Poet Laureate by saying, "She writes easily understandable short poems on improbable subjects." But this kind of tepid, reductive praise misses the strengths that raise Ms. Ryan above superficially similar poets like Billy Collins and Ted Kooser.
In fact, like Jeffers who wrote with grim satisfaction about the end of civilization, in poems like "Shine, Perishing Republic" Ms. Ryan sees both out far and in deep. Take the poem "Chop," from her most recent collection, "The Niagara River" (2005):
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
each step makes
a perfect stamp--
smallish, but as
sharp as an
goes the emperor
down his wide
the sea bows
Here are the short lines, plain diction, and buried assonances "sharp/chop," "step/stamp" that define Ms. Ryan's verse. But once you ponder the miniature allegory of "Chop," that homely music starts to look desperately ironic. For Ms. Ryan's bird is an emblem of man in his arrogant mortality. The emperor's imperative gesture, the "chop" that commands obedience or the chopping off of heads is reduced to the prim stepping of a bird. And like the emperor and his deeds, all memory of the bird's passage is instantly erased by waves which, in a further twist of Ms. Ryan's metaphor, are deceptive "bows," gestures of obeisance that are actually acts of oblivion.
"Chop," then, is a less accessible poem than it looks, and less comforting than it is accessible. Like Robert Frost, Ms. Ryan tends to lay out her metaphors like traps, coaxing the reader into them before springing all their dark implications. In "Grazing Horses," an initially comic image the horses are thoughts, grazing "the green pasture of the mind" turns terrible when "the mind tilts abruptly": "Their / furniture-fine / legs buckle / on the incline, / unhorsed by slant / they weren't / designed to climb / and can't." The simplicity and finality of that last line turns the poem into a evocation of despair.
Yet such a statement of despair, when made by a true poet, is more consoling than any amount of official uplift and exhortation. That is because the mutual recognition of poet and reader, the sharing of experience that a poem makes possible, is poetry's most trustworthy gift. As Ms. Ryan writes in "Lighthouse Keeping":
a light for
those left out.
It is intimate
and remote both
for the keeper
and those afloat.