The Niagara River
by Kay Ryan
Grove, 97 pp., $14
Kay Ryan writes fine, thoughtful, accessible poetry. A master of emotional juxtapositions, clever shifts, and genuine insight, Ryan has earned her place among the better American poets writing today. Although her work didn't find a major publisher until 1997, and although she still makes a living teaching at a community college, Ryan's skill has earned her the ($100,000) Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and an appointment as Poet Laureate (Consultant in Poetry) to the Library of Congress. She'll hold that position through May.
In her newest collection, Ryan offers short, stimulating, well-crafted poems. Almost always, her poems do exactly what good poetry does: condense emotion and thought in resonant, metrical, surprising language. The title poem, for example, begins with a simple metaphor comparing home life to a river, and then follows it with the insight that We / do know, we do / know this is the / Niagara River, but / it is hard to remember / what that means. Sometimes her work requires real thought. One of the best poems here, "Repulsive
Theory," shifts from a discussion of physical magnetism to geography and then back to emotion, with Ryan calling on readers to Praise . . . the whole / swirl set up by fending off and concluding that unpressing us against / each other lends the necessary never / to never-ending.
It takes a few readings to follow all her leaps, but she certainly provides the necessary intellectual rewards for readers who do. Yet even when she lacks for emotional insight--yes, a hailstorm is hard to believe / once it's past--Ryan still offers good images. In "Hailstorm" she nicely describes the little white planets / [that] layer and relayer / as they whip around. The alliteration of white/whip and the repetition of layer/relayer gives a sense of the hailstorm's relentlessness.
For all her genuine skill, however, does Ryan really qualify to be poet laureate? The Library of Congress has appointed poetry consultants almost continuously since 1937. (The position went on hiatus for four years between 1952 and 1956 after William Carlos Williams enraged just about every literary figure in the country, lost the job, and checked himself into a mental hospital.) In 1985 Congress added the words "Poet Laureate" to the consultant's title, but did nothing to change the job itself. A private endowment funds the position's $35,000 stipend for an October-May stint, and American poet laureates--unlike those in Canada, England, and Scotland--aren't expected to produce verse for state occasions---or, indeed, have any particular responsibilities at all. The job is what its holders make of it: Recent laureates have handed out poetry at train stations (Joseph Brodsky), taught at elementary schools (Gwendolyn Brooks), and organized conferences (Robert Haas).
Moreover, ever since Williams's time, the Library of Congress has played it safe. The great majority of poet laureates get the appointment after winning the Pulitzer or some other major award. Poets like the smart, profane A.R. Ammons and the hard-drinking Charles Bukowski never got the call, while intellectually slight but accessible metrical stylists like Ted Kooser did.
Ultimately, the perch has become little more than a government-sanctioned award for distinguished poets who don't arouse too much controversy or confuse too many readers. The brilliant but mind-numbingly difficult John Ashbery probably won't ever get the appointment, and by virtue of her strident leftist (but hardly radical) political verse, it's unlikely that a poet as fine, perceptive, and popular as Mary Oliver will, either.
Stated simply, the laureate's perch is a sinecure with little real purpose, and asking the laureate to turn out verse for state occasions wouldn't make things better. While a few laureates--Richard Wilbur (who wrote probing, inspiring lyrics about the Statue of Liberty) and Anthony Hecht (who wrote movingly about World War II)--have produced poetry that common readers might admire, most have not. And some of the better stylists to hold the job--Stanley Kunitz, for example--have produced excellent poetry that gently questions key American assumptions and values. It would be unfair to rule them out of consideration, and equally unfair to ask them to churn out celebratory lyrics.
Rather than the current free-form job description, the poet laureate might benefit from a clear mission of promoting public reading and listening. More Americans write poetry than read it, and a strong, single voice with a national platform could, conceivably, bring more poetry into American daily life. The laureate should also serve a continuous 24-month term--that is, long enough to undertake major projects--and earn a larger stipend. Those who take to the position with vigor--Haas and Rita Dove are good recent examples--might also qualify for a second consecutive term.
Kay Ryan has shown up at public readings, read from her own work a few times, announced plans for a "best of" collection, and done little else. Since she describes herself as a "modern hermit," such behavior isn't surprising; but hermits usually don't make good salesmen. If we want a poet laureate worthy of the title, Congress ought to think of the post a little expansively, broaden its reach, and give the American people a true national poet.
Eli Lehrer is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.