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Monday, February 28, 2011

Number 82: Kay Ryan "Flamingo Watching"

Flamingo Watching

Wherever the flamingo goes,
she brings a city’s worth
of furbelows. She seems
unnatural by nature—
too vivid and peculiar
a structure to be pretty,
and flexible to the point
of oddity. Perched on
those legs, anything she does
seems like an act. Descending
on her egg or draping her head
along her back, she’s
too exact and sinuous
to convince an audience
she’s serious. The natural elect,
they think, would be less pink,
less able to relax their necks,
less flamboyant in general.
They privately expect that it’s some
poorly jointed bland grey animal
with mitts for hands
whom God protects.

-- Kay Ryan

Hap Notes: I love Kay Ryan's (born 1945) phrase "unnatural by nature." Ryan was the Poetry Consultant (see? I said it- hate the term but I'll use it instead of laureate if that's what I have to call it) for the U.S. just last year. She was a bit of an outsider poet, no-one was more surprised than she was when she was named laureate. Her several books of verses are certainly worth the position, though. Her poetry is vividly and often eccentrically phrased and is full of surprises (as most good poetry should be.)

One of the reasons I like Ryan is because she went to a "community" or "junior" college and I find them admirable for their abilities to give you the basic requirements for a college degree without the crippling expense. If you're going to have to take English 101, how much better to take it in a small class at a community college than in one of those "teaching theaters" full of a couple hundred students. I always hated those big lecture classes- nobody knows anyone and your papers are graded by grad students you've never met. It's not at all what one hopes college is about.

Ryan was born in San Jose, California and went to Antelope Valley College and later, the University of California in Los Angeles. She lives somewhere in Marin county, just like George Lucas. Her poetry flew under the radar until she was included in a few anthologies in the mid 1990s and, of course, it certainly didn't hurt that Dana Gioia has written several good pieces about her. If there's anyone in this country that you want to impress with your poetry, former chairman-of-the-NEA poet Gioia would be the guy. She worked with community college programs while she was laureate.

Ryan privately published her poetry by subscription and only one of her books had been backed by a New York publishing house. She's an object lesson in writing poetry; write it, publish it and let it go. Her poetry style is refreshing, usually fairly short, remarkably worded observations, as if she's some amalgam of Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore with a bit of Emily Dickenson in the mix. And remember what I always say; poets want to be published- it's hard and competitive and somewhat arbitrary.

A flamingo is an unusual creature, it has that reputation, like the puffin, for its odd and entertaining good looks. There are a great many analogies one could draw from this poem about people, writers, musicians and artists as well as animals. (And as a side note, I've always liked the British "grey" spelling better than the American "gray" spelling- it just seems right.) She has compression, the thing so undervalued in much contemporary poetry. It's a joy to read her thoughtful, densely packed verses with the often delightfully surprising conclusions or observations. She allows you to be a part of the poem as you read through it over and over. Her poems often strike me like some revelatory thing a stranger has said to you during the day- I keep coming back to it and pondering it.

Here's a good Ryan quote from her interview in the Paris Review: " I’d bought a tarot deck—this was the seventies—a standard one with a little accompanying book that explained how to read the cards, lay them out, shuffle them—all those things. But I’m not a student and was totally impatient with learning anything about the cards. I thought they were just interesting to look at. But I did use the book’s shuffling method, which was very elaborate, and in the morning I’d turn one card over and whatever that card was I would write a poem about it. The card might be Love, or it might be Death. My game, or project, was to write as many poems as there were cards in the deck. But since I couldn’t control which cards came up, I’d write some over and over again and some I’d never see. That gave me range. 
I always understood that to write poetry was to be totally exposed."

and another (and apply this to the poem, now): "I’ve always been sickened by the whole discussion of natural tone, natural voice. I think that’s ridiculous. Every tone, every voice is unnatural, and it is natural to be unnatural. So there’s nothing to talk about. It works or it doesn’t work. I don’t think that anybody ought to tolerate the tyranny of the idea of “natural” voice."

You can find a lot more Ryan here:

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