Reading US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan

Blackberries. Source: Wikipedia Commons

It takes me time to get to know poets. I read and re-read, turn a poem over in my mind, roll it around in my mouth, taste it again and again. Yesterday as I sat on a bench, reading Kay Ryan, I felt sped-up, somehow. Hungry, eager for each new poem as I turned the page.

My friend Will rode up on his bicycle and told me about the small blackberries he’s found and gathers in Stanley Park. “Perfect for jam,” he says. He won’t tell me where they are. He’s afraid others will get there before he does, and there won’t be any good ones left.

Not so with poems. I show him the volume I’m reading—265 pages, and everybody is welcome to pick. And pick again. The good ones stay right where they are.

Still, they’re a bit like Will’s blackberries, these poems, growing in secret underbrush—even published. Who thinks to search for them?

Everyone knows poetry. If only as something forced on us in school, like lima beans or liver. Something grown-ups said was good for us, though we couldn’t imagine why or how. For others, it was a balm, a magic potion. Secret, like that blackberry patch in Stanley Park.

Anyone can know where the park is and enter. The paths are clearly marked.

But not the blackberries.

You have to know where to look. Someone has to show you. It’s an initiation. Or you may stumble upon them yourself, but you have to be willing to leave the public pathway, step into the branches and brambles. You have to bend, and reach your hands down into what you cannot see, searching stalks with tender fingertips, underneath what’s visible, to touch, then pluck and taste for sweetness or tartness. 

Savoured. Gathered. Shared, perhaps. 

Kay Ryan says:

“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?”

(*Osip Mandelshtam, Russian poet, imprisoned for "counter-revolutionary activities," who once said: "Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed.”)

Kay Ryan describes an “Ideal Audience”—

“Not scattered legions,

not a dozen from

a single region

for whom accent

matters, not a seven-

member coven,

not five shirttail

cousins; just 

one free citizen—

maybe not alive

now even—who

will know with

exquisite gloom

that only we two

ever found this room.”

Kay Ryan
is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. The above poems are taken from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press, NY, 2010), available at or through your local independent bookstore.

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