Now with No Added Significance
Kay Ryan looked relaxed, confident, self-delighted, more successful than anyone else in the room, a little bit royal. She wore black jeans, a tan jacket, and a masculine haircut. It was fitting that the stage was basically empty, since the poetry series that Seattle Arts & Lectures has been producing every spring now for several years is a model of plainness. (The point of every event in the series is always: Here is a famous poet, he or she is going to read some poetry.) And Ryan herself has never been big on bigness, at least not in her poems. If she has a point, the point is often avoidant, funny, and small. One of the poems she read was "Blandeur." (It's a hard word to think you've heard correctly, so she explained: "You think about the word grandeur, but you put a bl in it instead. That's about it. It's one of my cries for a less interesting world.") "Blandeur" begins: "If it please God/let less happen."
The idea most people have of poets is that their job is to identify and distill the meaning of human experience or the heaviness of being alive or whatever. "I loathe the idea of the poet," Ryan said. Which is why it's hard to find heavy poetic intent in Ryan's poems. "I hate significance and I really hate added significance," she said, talking about "Home to Roost," a poem she'd submitted to a magazine before 9/11 that, after 9/11, seemed stupidly rich with importance: "The chickens / are circling and / blotting out the / day. The sun is / bright, but the / chickens are in / the way. Yes, / the sky is dark / with chickens, / dense with them. / They turn and / then they turn / again. These / are the chickens / you let loose / one at a time / and small-- / various breeds. / Now they have / come home / to roost--all / the same kind / at the same speed." She pulled the poem from consideration for publication because, at the time, you couldn't publish a poem about chickens in the clear sky coming back to get you without everyone thinking you were obviously aiming at a Big Point.
Small is almost always better. And, you know, meaningful. ("I really can do what I want to do in only a few lines.") Her poems can be over-attuned to nature or cuter than they need to be, but they're also almost always smarter than they seem, and strangely poised, like strange people. Sometimes they seem cosmically embarrassed. "I think rhyme by its very nature is funny," she said. "And I think end rhyme is hysterical. So I try to bury it."
The next poet in the series is Ted Kooser, the current U.S. poet laureate, on March 16, followed by W. S. Merwin on March 28 and Maxine Kumin on April 11. The events take place at 7:30 pm at Intiman Theatre (201 W Mercer St, at Seattle Center), 621-2230 for tickets, $7.50 students, $15 general admission.