The title poem of Kay Ryan’s New and Selected Poems celebrates the “pared down” and simple experiences of life, positing that if we can “rejoice” the “one bean” that “flourishes” in “our garden,” then maybe we can will that one bean to “nourish us” (216). It’s a fitting metaphor for the experience of spending every morning for the past month, as I did, reading the concise and intricate poems collected here by our current United States Poet Laureate, an experience I highly recommend for both veteran poetry readers and novices to the genre. For Ms. Ryan’s particular genius, one she’s been honing for over forty years now (the earliest poem is dated 1965), is to point her laser-sharp intellect to a single word, image or concept and concentrate on it, even tease it a little bit if needed, until its resonance for humanity is apparent, an attribute that is becoming rarer and rarer in our increasingly fragmented world, even in the hallowed grounds of literature.
One of the many gifts for readers in her genius is how accessible and transparent she makes this meaning by giving concrete images to abstract thoughts and concepts, as if any of us could stare at “the suction cups/on the octopus” and see a metaphor for the “attention” we all seek from others and how it can either leave “welts/and pink rings” when it drifts or “can unstick/unfelt” from our lives (198). And by leaving the reader with that dichotomy, she lets us ponder the moments when we’ve felt both these reactions, and upon further reflection, that it is our choice which outcome we feel.
It’s this openness and space in Ms. Ryan’s poems that rewards multiple readings and assures me that I will return to many of them for their layers of wisdom. But, I don’t mean to give the impression that her writing is too cerebral or didactic. As you may have noticed from the few examples so far, her language is playful and a joy to read aloud. Her use of all types of rhyme will be a comfort to readers of more traditional verse or whose experience with poetry ended in childhood. In fact, she’s so adventurous in this area that one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Blandeur” (158), is an examination of a made-up word, where she calls for the opposite of grandeur, to “let less happen” in the world.
Yet, what is most heartening about Ms. Ryan is that she’s not an idealist and she’s unafraid to acknowledge when our humanity interferes with our ability to savor the simple. At these moments, she doesn’t condemn herself or others, but turns her intellect into wit and laughs with us at the absurdity of such seriousness, as when she advises in one of the excellent new poems that a “bitter pill/doesn’t need/to be swallowed/to work,” but instead just “reading your name/on the bottle/does the trick,” giving us a chuckle before reminding us how “eager/to be wrecked” we often are (18). It’s this benevolence towards humanity that remains consistent throughout this collection and is its final gift, for it trains us to look at the world with the attention and scrutiny she gives every moment, every word, every gesture, and I guarantee that if you spend a few minutes each morning with these poems, you will notice at least one thing differently in your day, and that single new perception could make you see “The Best of It” in much more.
THE BEST OF IT
by Kay Ryan
Hardcover, $24, 288p