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Poet Kay Ryan among the geniuses

September 20, 2011 | 11:28 am


"Few poets know how to compress thought so elegantly, while simultaneously keeping their lines so seemingly loose and vernacular," John Freeman wrote in a review of "The Best of It: New and Selected Poems" by Kay Ryan, one of this year's brand-new recipients of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. Ryan told the media that the grant, which translates into $500,000 over the next five years, would provide her with something few writers ever completely have: the freedom to do what she wants.

Grants sometimes go to figures doing important work but who are otherwise unknown to the public at large. That hasn't applied, however, to Ryan in recent years. She has enjoyed attention as U.S. poet laureate and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize. She's also been celebrated in reviews, including Freeman's in the pages of The Times, for a clear style that puts her in the company of Robert Frost. In the poem "Shift" she declares:

It's hard for us

to imagine how small

a part we play in

holding up the tall

spires we believe

our minds erect.

Like Frost's verse, however, such seeming simplicity in Ryan's poetry doesn't preclude subtlety, as Freeman also noted. "Turning each corner of a Ryan poem," he wrote in that same review, "the eye drops to the next solid, well-planked surface, as she guides us closer to the point where collapsing complications are swiftly subverted."

--  Nick Owchar

Photo: Kay Ryan.  Credit: Christina Koci Hernandez/The Grove Press/Associated Press