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Bruin Kay Ryan Awarded National Humanities Medal


By Mary Daily

Published Jul 10, 2013 9:43 AM

The Pulitzer Prize winner served as 16th U.S. Poet Laureate.


UCLA alumna and Pulitzer Prize winner Kay Ryan ’67, MA ‘68 has received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. She was among two dozen writers, performers, artists and scholars honored with the National Medal of the Arts and National Humanities Medal at the White House on July 10. As the award was presented, she was praised for demonstrating the "power of language to evoke wisdom from the ordinary."

For Ryan, this national recognition is the latest in a collection of highly distinguished honors. In 2011, the English major who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book showcasing 45 years of work, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. The Pulitzer announcement described her poems as "witty, rebellious and yet tender, a treasure trove of an iconoclastic and joyful mind."

Ryan herself has said, “Much of the best poetry is funny.” In her writing, she uses irony and humor to unravel the idiosyncrasies of the human experience through "recombinant rhyme"—full and partially rhyming words that appear unexpectedly throughout her poems, rather than regularly at the ends of lines. In an essay for the Poetry Foundation, she acknowledged that she sometimes plays for laughs at readings, saying she "needs to know the audience is out there, and the quickest way to feel it is through their laughter."

In 2008, Ryan was named 16th Poet Laureate of the United States by the U.S. Library of Congress. In that role she encouraged people across the country to appreciate poetry, and she championed the vital role community colleges play in U.S. education, having herself attended Antelope Valley College before transferring to UCLA.

Ryan grew up in small towns in the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert, where her father dug oil wells. But her vision extended far beyond her rural home and deep into the heart of what it means to be alive. She has stayed close to her modest upbringing, teaching remedial English at a community college in Northern California for four decades. She has written six books of poetry, and despite seeking a quiet life, has won numerous highly prized literary awards, notably the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation in 2004. Her work has also regularly appeared in the annual anthology, The Best American Poetry.