This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Brevity and wit: alumna Kay Ryan named poet laureate

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Poet Laureate Kay Ryan. Photo by Jennifer Loring.

With poetry's lofty reputation, the uninitiated might think that humor and poetry overlap only in dirty limericks, but for UCLA alumna Kay Ryan, who was named poet laureate of the United States on July 17, "much of the best poetry is funny."

In an essay for the Poetry Foundation, Ryan acknowledged that she sometimes plays for laughs at readings, saying that she "needs to know the audience is out there, and the quickest way to feel it is through their laughter." In the same essay, she referred to herself as two people: first ironically as "the godlike writer of poems" who writes for "the great masters ... the noble dead," and then self-deprecatingly as the godlike poet's cousin, who tidies and promotes the poems, seeks the acclaim of (living) readers and is ultimately "a spotlight hog."

With Ryan's new role of encouraging the country to appreciate poetry, the wit and brevity of her own poems will help make her appealing to a broader public, observed UCLA English Professor Stephen Yenser, adding that he thought very highly of her work.

"I think she is going to be a poet laureate who can engage and entertain the public," said Yenser, who met Ryan in 2006 when he invited her to appear at a poetry reading at the Hammer Museum. "I've known her poetry for a long time ... She's a charming and accessible poet and people respond to her quickly and like her a lot."

While at the Hammer, she read her poem "Home to Roost," Yenser said. It's a serious poem about the consequences of past actions catching up, but with the consequences represented in an offbeat way: as flying chickens. At another reading of the poem, she pointed out the deliberate absurdity of her metaphor.

"Somebody has written me a letter and told me, 'I love your poem … but you should know, we raise chickens, and you need to know, chickens don't really fly,'" Ryan said, eliciting chuckles from her audience.

Ryan received her bachelor's in English from UCLA in 1967, followed quickly by her master's in English in 1968, also at UCLA. Despite her gregarious nature in front of audiences, she considers herself a private person and prefers solitude.

"I have tried to live very quietly so I could be happy," Ryan said in a news release.

She lives quietly in Northern California's Marin County with her partner of 30 years, Carol Adair. Ryan has been a part-time, remedial English teacher at the College of Marin in Kentfield for three decades, leaving her free to take long mountain bike rides and focus on her poetry. She has written six books of poetry, and despite seeking a quiet life, she has won numerous highly prized literary awards, notably the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation in 2004. Ryan has also regularly appeared in the annual anthology, "The Best American Poetry."

The Laureateship — and the $35,000 stipend that comes with it — is awarded by the Library of Congress for "the highest quality of poetry," said Librarian of Congress James Billington.

"[Ryan] writes easily understandable short poems on improbable subjects," Billington said in a news release. "Within her compact compositions there are many surprises in rhyme and rhythm, and in sly wit pointing to subtle wisdom."

Her wit and wisdom were invoked in the nationally syndicated comic strip "The Boondocks," with the sage older brother teaching his younger brother a lesson by quoting from Ryan's poem Patience. Ryan gleefully describes discovering her presence in the comic strip while reading the funny pages in bed.

"It was just astonishing," she said. "He says, 'You know, a poet named Kay Ryan once said, "Who would have guessed it possible that waiting is sustainable, a place with its own harvests ... or that in time's fullness the diamonds of patience couldn't be distinguished from the genuine in brilliance or hardness." What do you think that means?' Huey asks Riley. Riley answers, 'It means you're a nerd and poetry is stupid.'"

Ryan's poems almost always promise a "joke or a profundity," said John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation.

"Typically it ends in both," Barr said in a news release. "Before we know it, the poem arrives at some unexpected, deep insight that likely will alter forever the way we see that thing." The Poetry Foundation's Web site praises Ryan's delight "in quirks of logic and language" and notes that "she regards the 'rehabilitations of clichs,' for instance, as part of the poet's mission."

Yenser also praised Ryan's wit, describing it as the kind of wit that is both humorous, and also clever and wise.

"The fact that she is accessible and witty and has a lot of charm does make her unusual," Yenser said. "A lot of poets are difficult for the general reader to get a hold of, and in that regard she is different."

Although Ryan is sometimes compared to Emily Dickinson, Yenser called the comparison "misleading."

"What she has in common with Dickinson is compression and wittiness, but where Dickinson is mysterious and difficult and riddling, Kay's poems are sometimes riddling too, but her riddles tend to answer themselves or be answerable."

As poet laureate, Ryan will select poets for the Library of Congress's annual poetry series and appear herself at the opening and closing of the series. Despite the library's efforts to keep each laureates' duties to a minimum so that they might focus on their own poetry, Ryan will also be "inundated with requests to speak elsewhere," noted library spokeswoman Donna Urshel.

Ironically, in another essay, Ryan did touch on the subject of the poet laureate while writing about the nature of poetry. A poem, she said, is not designed to fill a need — a poet is not concerned with supply and demand.

"No one wants a poem made … the creator is entertaining him or herself," Ryan wrote. "There is the occasional requirement of poets laureate to memorialize a bridge, but that hardly counts."

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