As it is officially spring one turns towards poetry, much as Moe of the Stooges turned towards slapstick:

‘Niagara Falls! … Slowly I turned … and step by step, inch by inch I walked up to him and I smashed him, I *&% him, I $#@ him, I ±@* him, and I knocked him down!’

Niagara Falls! Or, in this case, Niagara River: Poems, by Kay Ryan, the US Poet Laureate as of last year. She is a recessive one, Kay, as is the way her compact poems are so unlike the overflowing “hullabaloo” of current American poetry, which tends towards the garrulous – like so many poems published in that yardstick, The New Yorker: Bruce Smith’s rambling The Game, or vaguely incomprehensible, as in the famous Anne Carson’s Epithalamium NYC (admittedly one of her more translucent pieces), or both windy and wooly as in the even more famous John Ashberry’s Pernilla:

Please don’t apologize for pissing me off, you were
probably right, and I was halfway out the door
anyway, the living-room door, leading to the hall
and all it contains. How is it that things can get
shiny and be peeling simultaneously? Seriously, Pa,
we would have come over if we’d knowed
the combination for long, and then folks’d have pointed
toward us, miming birdsong and the like.

which goes on like that for 39 lines.

niagarariver11But no, lucky us, Kay Ryan is tight and sharp. The NYT turned it neatly in a 2005 review of Niagara River: ‘A Kay Ryan poem is maybe an inch wide, rarely wanders onto a second page, and works in one or two muted colors at most … a Ryan poem sticks the reader with a little jab of smarts and then pulls back as fast as a doctor’s hypodermic.’

When Ryan was made Poet Laureate middle of last year, I looked up her work and delighted by its brevity and precision (and sense), I scuttled off to the poetry shop (there is such a thing) and failing to find any of her books asked at the counter. Alas, the woman had never heard of Ryan and I was cast back into Amazon. Many months later I’m still reading Niagara River. Or rather, re-leafing through it. Here are a couple of favourites. Note, these are the complete poems:

On the Difficulty of Drawing Oneself Up

One does not stack.
It would be like
a mouse on the back
of a mouse
on a mouse’s back.
Courses of mice,
layers of shivers
and whiskers,
a wobbling tower
with nothing more
than a mouse inside.


Backward Miracle

Every once in a while
we need a
backward miracle
that will strip language,
make it hold for
a minute: just the
vessel with the
wine in it —
a sacramental
refusal to multiply,
reclaiming the
single loaf
and the single
fish thereby.

Every once in a while we need a backward miracle … What a thought! The ironically long title of this post comes from the poem Carrying a Ladder. See it and other Ryan gems at Poetry Foundation. And do get Niagara River – Niagara River! Slowly I turned…

Happily we can report that Ryan’s Laureateship has been extended for another year to mid-2010. It is a great pity she wasn’t asked to do the inauguration poem for Obama. Elizabeth Alexander was a mistake: see her longish earnestish drearyish effort. But here is Kay Ryan, amusingly introducing and reading Home to Roost, and talking about finding her poetry in a comic strip:


Image at top is from the University of Washington blog on a three day poetry event held last month.


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Griffith Review: sexier ideas
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