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Hall-Kenyon poetry prize goes to Kay Ryan

Last modified: 4/18/2011 12:00:00 AM
A needle floating on water without piercing the surface. The tiny point where a ball meets the green earth below it. The images in Kay Ryan's poems are often small in scope, but the meanings she puts behind them, the feelings she evokes with them, have turned that microscopic view into an award-winning career spanning almost 30 years.

The latest honor bestowed on her is the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry, an award given by the Concord Monitor and the New Hampshire Writers' Project. The $5,000 prize was established last year in the name of renowned Granite State poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon.

Ryan, who was traveling last week and could not be reached for comment, is a "poet of speculation," according to Wesley McNair, a fellow poet and New Hampshire native who chose her for the award.

"Robert Frost once called a poem a 'think,' by which he meant a thought in motion. Her poems are thinks," McNair said. "Her poems are small and they're made of details from the familiar world, but the startling way that she recombines the details gives us this fresh view of the world that is hers alone."

Ryan grew up in the Mojave Desert in California and is often called a poetry outsider, despite receiving some of the highest accolades, including a two-year appointment as U.S. poet laureate in 2008.

As a student at UCLA, the poetry club denied her application, and her first two collections of poems - one self-published - made little impression on the literary world.

But that didn't deter her. She chose poetry as a vocation while on a cross-country bicycle trip in 1976. She had been writing for many years, but on that trip, she told the Christian-Science Monitor, the vocation chose her.

"I really found that poetry was taking over my mind." One night, as she read a book of prose, "everything seemed to rhyme."

Since then, she built a life that would allow her to write, spending the past 30 years teaching remedial English two days a week at the College of Marin in northern California.

Her lack of fame and glory in her early career didn't faze her, she told The Paris Review.

"I just didn't know how badly I was doing," she said. "That was a blessing. I don't know how I would have survived if I hadn't thought that everybody was stupid not to think that it was as good as I thought it was."

Long narrative poems were in vogue at the time and rhyme was passe, but Ryan's work is short, often featuring clipped lines of just a few words or syllables. She revisits metaphors and familiar cliches, plays with the sound of words and letters to rhyme in unexpected places. When national publications - Poetry magazine, The New Yorker and The Atlantic - began printing her work, she stood out, McNair said.

"When you first encounter somebody who's different, it's a little bit like picking up a moon rock. You study it, you think, 'What is this rock doing on Earth? Where did it come from?' "

But in her difference from her contemporaries, Ryan recalls America's rich poetic tradition, especially Emily Dickinson, to whom she is often compared.

When asked what she thinks of the comparison, Ryan demurred: "That question is like asking, 'Do you think you're much like God?' " she told The Paris Review. "How would you like to be compared to God?"

McNair said Ryan's work evokes "Dickinson's compression, Dickinson's interest in the song of a poem, the music of a poem and that streak of speculation that you find in Dickinson's work."

But, he said, "she is her own creature."

Ryan will travel to New Hampshire in October to receive the award and read her work.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)


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