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America's Poet

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By Alison Hewitt

Published Oct 1, 2008 8:10 AM


art

Bruin poet Kay Ryan, America's 16th poet
laureate, is going to "engage and entertain the
public," predicts UCLA English Professor Stephen
Yenser.

With poetry's lofty reputation, the uninitiated might think that humor and poetry overlap only in dirty limericks, but for Kay Ryan '67, M.A. '68, who was named the 16th poet laureate of the United States in July, "much of the best poetry is funny."

Indeed, how many poets make it into a comic strip? Ryan, who begins her two-year tenure this month, did when she was invoked in the nationally syndicated strip "The Boondocks," with the sage older brother teaching his younger brother a lesson by quoting from Ryan's poem "Patience." In a profile that ran on poets.org, Ryan gleefully described discovering her presence in the comic strip while reading the funny pages in bed.

"It was just astonishing," she says. "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 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 won numerous literary awards. She also has regularly appeared in the annual anthology, The Best American Poetry.

The wit and brevity of Ryan's poems will help make her appealing to a broader public, observes UCLA English Professor Stephen Yenser. "I think she is going to be a poet laureate who can engage and entertain the public ... She's a charming and accessible poet and people respond to her quickly and like her a lot."

During a reading at the Hammer in 2006, she read her poem "Home to Roost," he recalls. 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, she noted that "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.

As poet laureate for 2008-2009, Ryan will select poets for the Library of Congress' annual poetry series and appear herself at the opening and closing of the series. Ironically, she touched on the subject of the poet laureate while writing about the nature of poetry in an essay. "The creator is entertaining him or herself," she wrote. "There is the occasional requirement of poets laureate to memorialize a bridge, but that hardly counts."

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