Kay Ryan (born 1945)
U.S. Poet Laureate (2008-2010)
Kay Ryan

Stanford Poetry Reading
The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series

Cubberley Auditorium, Stanford University
Tuesday, February 23, 2010, 8:00 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: Cubberley Auditorium was filled to capacity for Kay Ryan's Poetry Reading. Eavan Boland introduction: — "Kay Ryan is the 9th Mohr Visiting Poet to Stanford which included Robert Hass, Li Young Lee, Robert Pinksy, Robert Bly, and Mark Doty. We're just delighted to have her here. I've transcribed Kay Ryan's Stanford Reading to share with poetry lovers. Web links and reference denoted in [brackets] are my additions.

Kay Ryan: Richard Powell wrote a long story (?) that's a meaningful segue with my students. The qualities important to me is the quality of lightness. I'll start with a poem on "lightness".

(1) IF A FAIRY (web)

"If a fairy makes a fist
who's impressed?
How can lightness insist?

National Endowment for the Arts, Writer's Corner
     (Author's Statement on "lightness")

(2) DEW (web)

As neatly as peas
in their green canoe,
as discreetly as beads
strung in a row,
sit drops of dew
along a blade of grass.
But unattached and
subject to their weight,
they slip if they accumulate.
Down the green tongue
out of the morning sun
into the general damp,
they're gone.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 3
     from Elephant Rocks (1996)

Kay Ryan: In drama of comedy and tragedy, lightness leans toward comedy.
Lightness can't accumulate. Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday [1953]
is a comedy film that could be put in any order.


The only justification
for extraordinary lengths
is extraordinary distances.
Yet you don1t find this
in the majority of instances.
No, rather you see lengths
swagged from balconies,
ribbons of lengths rippling
languidly, lengths spooling
from enchanted cavities and
grots. Actually there is
hardly a spot of sky or pool
of water uncolored by some
extraordinary length or other.
Brothers fling bolts of gossamer
off buildings with spectacular
results. Birds negotiate an
aerial spaghetti, sure-footed
goats find themselves unsteady.
Poor people in brightly
lacquered boats just help
themselves to lengths
that tangle up and float
as pleasantly as kelp.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 35
     from Flamingo Watching (1994)
     Farewell Reading at Library of Congress (May 20, 2010)


The presence of real objects is a nightmare for me.
I have always overturned objectws. A chair or a table
turned upside down gives me peace and satisfaction.
— Chagall

A companionable flood can
make things wobble. The
sober table at last enjoys
the bubbles locked in her
grain, straining together
good as Egyptians to shift
the predictable plane.
Dense plates and books
slide off and dive or bloat
but she floats, a legged
boat nosing the helpless
stationeries, the bolted
basin, the metal reliquaries—
in short, the nouns. All over
town tables are bumping
out of doors, negotiating
streets and beginning to
meet at water corners
like packs of mustangs,
blue, red, yellow, stenciled,
enlivened by swells as
wild horses are stretched
liquid and elegant by hills.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 37
     from Flamingo Watching (1994)


Wherever the eye lingers
it finds a hunger.
The things of the world
want us for dinner.
Inside each pebble or leaf
or puddle is a hook.
the appetites of the world
compete to catch a look.
What does this mean
and how does it work?
Why aren't rocks complete?
Why isn't green adequate
to green? We aren't gods
whose gaze could save,
but that's how the things
of the world behave.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 42
     from Flamingo Watching (1994)


For E.B.

I thought you were
born to privilege,
some inherited advantage—
like an estate framed
in privet hedge,
or a better-feathered
shuttlecock for badinage,
or other French pretensions.
I never though you knew about exhaustion—
how we have to leap in the morning
as early as high as possible,
we are so fastened, we are so dutiful.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 45
     from Flamingo Watching (1994)


"Your husband is very lucky," observed Smithers,
"to have ornithology to fall back upon when fishing fails."

— Cyril Hare, Death Is No Sportsman

When fishing fails, when no bait avails,
and nothing speaks in liquid hints
of where the fishes went for weeks,
and dimpled ponds and silver creeks
go flat and tarnish, it's nice if
you can finish up your sandwich,
pack your thermos, and ford
this small hiatus towards
a second mild and absorbing purpose.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 50
     from Flamingo Watching (1994)

Kay Ryan: When I took poetry seriously, most poems
published were personal. Bible story of shellfish (?)


The working kabbalist
resists the lure of
the personal. She
suspends interest
in the biblical list
of interdicted shellfish,
say, in order to
read the text another way.
It might seem to some
superficial to convert
letters to numerals
or in general refuse plot
in favor of dots or half circles;
it might easily seem
comical, how she
ignores an obviously
erotic tale except for
every third word,
rising for her like braille
for something vivid
as only the impersonal
can be— a crescent
bright as the moon,
a glimpse of a symmetry,
a message so vast
in its passage that
she must be utterly open
to an alien idea of person.

The Best Of It (2010), pp. 62-63
     from Flamingo Watching (1994)


The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

I marvel at how generally
I am aided, how frequently
the availability of help
is demonstrated. I've had
unbridgeable distances collapse
and opposite objects coalesce
enough to think duress itself
may be a prayer. Perhaps not chance,
but need, selects; and desperation
works upon giraffes until their necks
can reach the necessary branch.
If so, help alters; makes seven vertebrae
go farther in the living generation;
help coming to us, not from the fathers,
not to the children.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 61
     from Flamingo Watching (1994)


The jackrabbit is a mild herbivore
grazing the desert floor,
quietly abridging spring,
eating the color off everything
rampant-height or lower.

Rabbits are one of the things
coyotes are for. One quick scream,
a few quick thumps,
and a whole little area
shoots up blue and orange clumps.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 69
     from Flamingo Watching (1994)


Poetry is a kind of money
whose value depends upon reserves.
It's not the paper it's written on
or its self-announced denomination,
but the bullion, sweated from the earth
and hidden, which preserves its worth.
Nobody knows how this works,
and how can it? Why does something
stacked in some secret bank or cabinet,
some miser's trove, far back, lambent,
and gloated over by its golem, make us
so solemnly convinced of the transaction
when Mandelstam says gold, even
in translation?

The Best Of It (2010), p. 74
     from Flamingo Watching (1994)

Kay Ryan: Here's a poem to test whether I had too much to drink.
Osprey lives not just in Scotland. I got all my nature info from television.

(12) OSPREY (web)

The great taloned osprey
nests in Scotland.
Her next's the biggest
thing around, a spiked basket
with hungry ugly osprey offspring
in it. For months she sits on it.
He fishes, riding four-pound salmon
home like rockets. They get
all the way there before they die,
so muscular and brilliant
swimming through the sky.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 80
     from Flamingo Watching (1994)


A bestiary catalogs
bests. The mediocres
both higher and lower
are suppressed in favor
of the singularly savage
or clever, the spectacularly
pincered, the archest
of the arch deceivers
who press their advantage
without quarter even after
they've won, as of course they would.
Best is not to be confused with good
a different creature altogether,
and treated of in the goodiary—
a text alas lost now for centuries.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 99
     from Elephant Rocks (1996)


Whatever must be learned
is always on the bottom,
as with the law of drawers
and the necessary item.
It isn't pleasant,
whatever they tell children,
to turn out on the floor
the folded things in them.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 117
     from Elephant Rocks (1996)


— (The Little Jams)

These three pieces
in Satie's elegant notation
were just discovered
at the Metro station
where he rolled them
in a Figaro of April twenty-second,
nineteen twenty-seven,
and put them in a pipe
two inches in diameter, the type
then commonly used for banisters.
They are three sticky pieces
for piano or banjo—
each instrument to be played
so as to sound like the other.
That is really the hub
of the amusement. Each piece
lasts about a minute.
When they were first tried
after being in the pipe,
they kept rolling back up.
Really, keeping them flat
was half the banjo-piano
man's work.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 113
     from Elephant Rocks (1996)

(16) AGE (web)

As some people age
the kinden.
The apertures
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;
I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it,
like letting in heaven.
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 122
     from Elephant Rocks (1996)


All but saints
and hermits
mean to paint
toward an exit

leaving a
pleasant ocean
of azure or jonquil
ending neatly
at the doorsill.

But sometimes
something happens:

a minor dislocation
by which the doors
and windows
undergo a
small rotation
to the left a little

—but repeatedly.
It isn't
obvius immediately.

Only toward evening
and from the
farthest corners
of the houses
of the painters

comes a chorus
of individual keening
as of kenneled dogs
someone's is mistreating.

The Best Of It (2010), pp. 150-151
     from Say Uncle (2000)


Is it just winter
or is this worse.
Is this the year
when outer damp
obscures a deeper curse
that spring can't fix,
when gears that
turn the earth
won't shift the view,
when clouds won't lift
though all the skies
go blue.

The Best Of It (2010), pp. 150-151
     from Say Uncle (2000)


Sometimes the
green pasture
of the mind
tilts abruptly.
The grazing horses
struggle crazily
for purchase
on the frictionless
nearly vertical
surface. Their
legs buckle
on the incline,
unhorsed by slant
they weren't
designed to climb
and can't.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 166
     from Say Uncle (2000)

(20) HELP (web)

Imagine help
as a syllable,
awkward but utterable.

How would it work
and in which distress?
How would one gauge
the level of duress
at which to pitch
the plea? How bad
would something
have to be?

It's hard,
coming from a planet
where if we needed something
we had it.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 173
     from Say Uncle (2000)

(21) CROWN (web)

Too much rain
loosens trees.
In the hills giant oaks
fall upon their knees.
You can touch parts
you have no right to—
places only birds
should fly to.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 187
     from Say Uncle (2000)

(22) THE BEST OF IT (web)

However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn't matter that
our acre's down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we'd rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 216
     from The Niagara River (2005)


Imagine a
train-track figure
made of sliver
over sliver of
vision, each
slice too brief
to add detail
or deepen: that
could be a hat
if it's a person
if it's a person
if it's a person.
Just the same
scant information
timed to supplant
the same scant

The Best Of It (2010), p. 6
     from New Poems

(24) LEDGE(web)

Birds that love
high trees
and winds
and riding
flailing branches
hat ledges
as gripless
and narrow,
so that a tail
is not just
no advantage
but ridiculous,
mashed vertical
against the wall.
You will have
seen the way
a bird who falls
on skimpy places
lifts into the air
again in seconds—
a gift denied
the rest of us
when our portion
isn't generous.

The Best Of It (2010), p. 11
     from New Poems


It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been
dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,
apparently coming
from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
racket of claims now,
as time flattens. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgent
as fish when seas

The Best Of It (2010), p. 4
     from New Poems

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