I first heard about Kay Ryan when she was recommended by my friend Emily. Here’s is an introduction, with one of her poems:
This page links to two more poems (upper right of page):
Comparisons to Emily Dickinson are always suspect–Dickinson is really only like herself, and not always even that–and when Sappho turns up, one starts to smell praise-of-lesbian-poet boilerplate. But, though I think that praising Dickinson’s ‘craftsmanship’ is like praising Michael Jordan’s jump shot, she and Ryan have a few things in common.
They have both been loners in their very different literary worlds, and I would be surprised if both didn’t take a certain pride in their independence of coteries and institutions, though Dickinson lived in harder times for a woman artist and responded with a uniquely fierce brilliance. As poets, they also share a fondness for the abstract; both frequently take on an enormous abstraction like time or patience or death and kick its ass.
It seems to me that the regular procedure is for the poet to creep up on their philosophical prey by starting with the concrete details and gradually making associations or letting the reader infer them…’no ideas but in things’is a widely revered dictum, and I suppose even Ryan might be said to follow it in that her poems eventually literalize the imagination and give us concrete images, but the direction of motion is the opposite of what we’re used to. She starts right off with the big idea attached to some characterization that has a Borgesian quality of almost making sense:
wider than one
Nothing exists as a block
and cannot be parceled up.
It is at the edges that time thins.
By the end of the last poems we have fish struggling in the receding tide, though even so the poem retains a certain rigor–the part about events competing to happen reminds me of the way people talk about the role of probability in modern physics.
By the way, I can’t help thinking that the ‘Nothing’ poem is a commentary on Stevens’ “Snow Man.”
[Update: OK, so at first I was going to say that praising Dickinson’s craftsmanship was like praising Johan Santana’s fastball, because Johan throws a decent fastball but that’s not what makes him great, it’s his changeup and slider and overall elegance that make him great. But I thought this might be kinda obscure for the non-Minnesotans, so I changed it to Michael Jordan, who of course was famous (in his prime) mainly for his acrobatic drives and leaping dunks, not for his outside shot. But it turns out nobody got this either, so never mind. The point is that craftsmanship is not what makes Dickinson great–actually, I generally think of craftsmanship as the mastery of an art that already exists, so I’m not sure I’d apply it to someone who largely invents her own craft. Does anybody talk about Whitman’s craftsmanship?]