Sunday 31 October 2010

Kay Ryan - Nothing to Add

'They will explain themselves,' says Keats of his poems, 'as all poems should do without any comment.' (He wasn't to know that future generations would have little or no knowledge of classical mythology.) One modern poet to whom his dictum can surely be applied is Kay Ryan. Her poems say what they have to say, do what they have to do, with such economy of means and simplicity of expression that there is little, if anything, to explain. Take a poem such as Carrying A Ladder (which I've mentioned before)...

We are always
really carrying
a ladder, but it’s
invisible. We
only know
the matter:
something precious
crashes; easy doors
prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there’s too much
swing or off-
center gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
and apology.

Is there really anything that can usefully be added?
Or to this one - Chinese Foot Chart

Every part of us
alerts another part.
Press a spot in
the tender arch and
feel the scalp
twitch. We are no
match for ourselves
but our own release.
Each touch
uncatches some
remote lock. Look,
boats of mercy
embark from
our heart at the
oddest knock.

All I can add to that is that, on me at least, it enacts itself - it 'touches' me, I feel it in my scalp, that tingle. And of course it's beautifully, artfully constructed, with all that fierce enjambment, those rhymes and half-rhymes, assonances, echoes. Try to work out the sound patterns in this equally short poem, Fake Spots, and they begin to seem endless...

Like air
in rock, fake
spots got here
really far back.
Everything is
part caulk.
Some apartments
in apartment blocks
are blanks;
some steeples
are shims. Also
in people: parts
are wedges: and,
to the parts they keep
apart, precious.

The language is always simple, homely even; Ryan's 'place' is clear enough, in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore; her imagery... Ah her imagery. Who but Kay Ryan would image silence in terms of Sharks' Teeth?

Everything contains some
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark's-tooth
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour
of city holds maybe
a minute of these
remnants of a time
when silence reigned,
compact and dangerous
as a shark. Sometimes
a bit of a tail
or fin can still
be sensed in parks.

Who else would come up with this image?

Tired Blood

Well, not tired
so much as freighted.
As though foreign objects
had invaded.
As though tiny offices
had dumped
their metal furniture
among the glossy lozenges
and platelets -
chairs that stick together,
painful cabinets.

Ryan's is a very singular imagination, full of odd angles and unexpected swerves, and it often works by a kind of reversal, as in Sharks' Teeth, as in this - The Material

Whatever is done
leaves a hole in the
possible, a snip in
the gauze, a marble
and thimble missing
from the immaterial.
The laws are cruel
on this point. The
undone can’t be
patched or stretched.
The wounds last.
The bundles of
nothing that are
our gift at birth, the
lavish trains we
trail into our span
like vans of seamless
promise, like fresh
sheets in baskets,
are our stock. We
must extract parts
to do work. As
time passes, the
promise is tattered
like a battle flag
above a war we
hope mattered.

She can be funny, as in Felix Crow

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.

And she can be strangely moving, as in Still Life, With Her Things

Today her things are quiet
and do not reproach,
each in its place,
washed in the light
that encouraged the Dutch
to paint objects as though
they were grace -
the bowl, the
goblet, the vase
from Delft - each
the reliquary
of itself.

Ryan is an exhilarating poet, offering intense and particular pleasures. Each poem feels as if it has been hewn down, drastically but with immense care, to the barest spine of essentials - but the essential is still there, intensely concentrated. There is nothing to add. Her poems do, as Keats would have it, 'explain themselves'.


  1. One hundred per cent with you on this one. I greatly appreciate The Niagara River. I won't say have read or will read it but am reading it because like the best of their kind, these poems are always with you. Always now and in the present. (Unlike Ye Olde Afterlife which, being always in the future, is something we will never experience because the present is all we have.)

  2. It is indeed Mark - and immensely enriched by the likes of Kay Ryan sharing it with us...

  3. Nige,

    I feel the same way when I read the (translated) poems of C.P. Cavafy. Many of them I see as parables that effortlessly convey profound meanings (the whole "Why didn't I think of that" effect). They, like those of Keats, often require a deep knowledge of classical mythology and history.

    One of my favorites, with its evocative language:

    Here's one with an unexpected twist:

    I am sure that these poems are even more wonderful in the original Greek (which often included rhymes that have been largely discarded in translations); unfortunately, one has to learn both the Demotic and the Katharevousa to fully appreciate the originals.

  4. Yes Parag, I know just what you mean about Cavafy - his poems seem very self-contained and sufficient, like small monuments of a bygone age, standing among rubble and ruin. Hard to know how (as you say) well they translate, but there's a resilience about them that seems (as far as we can tell) to survive translation remarkably well.

  5. "Ever since I was first introduced to his poetry by the late Professor R.M. Dawkins over thirty years ago, C.P. Cavafy has remained an influence on my own writing; that is to say, I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all. Yet I do not know a word of Modern Greek, so that my only access to Cavafy’s poetry has been through English and French translations.

    "This perplexes and a little disturbs me. Like everybody else, I think, who writes poetry, I have always believed the essential difference between prose and poetry to be that prose can be translated into another tongue but poetry cannot.

    "But if it is possible to be poetically influenced by work which one can read only in translation, this belief must be qualified."

    "What, then, is it in Cavafy’s poems that survives translation and excites?"
    --W. H. Auden.

    For Auden's answer see his "Introduction to Cavafy's poems":

  6. Thanks for that, Dave - I'm sure Auden's right, though there are surely many other poets whose unique tone of voice doesn't survive translation. I wonder if it's also because of some kind of 'universal' quality in Cavafy's poetic world, the deepness of his imaginative roots in the classical world that made us what we are and that we all to some extent share, and the relative shallowness of its roots in the modern Hellenic world, still less modern Egypt...