Afterwords, Commentary

Afterwords // Kay Ryan: All Your Flamingos

By Jack Chelgren | Special Projects Intern


When Tree Swenson, the executive director of Hugo House, introduced Kay Ryan for a lecture on rhyme last week, she noted the delightful sense of “hidden treasure” lurking in Ryan’s work. That treasure, Swenson said, was rhyme: glowing little ingots of resonance between words. It’s an apt observation. Take these lines from “All Your Horses,” published recently in Poetry:

Say when rain
cannot make
you more wet
or a certain
thought can’t
deepen and yet
you think it again:
you have lost
count. A larger
amount is
no longer a
larger amount.

Certain rhymes have an X-marks-the-spot salience here. While “count” and “amount” aren’t end-rhymes, their proximity and loud, throat-stretching “ou”s make them stick out. Similarly, one would be hard-pressed to miss “wet” and “yet” when reading with an eye for form. Other correspondences aren’t so immediate: “longer” and “larger” could be argued into a slant rhyme, while the triangle of “Say,” “rain,” and “make” tinkles with an assonance some might say rhymes. It’s buried plunder like this that gives Ryan’s work special richness, affecting “your brain stem in pleasant ways,” as she put it. The aural candy of sounds surfacing and resurfacing in a text combines with the intellectual icing of picking out patterns to give rhyme its distinctive succulence.

But if Ryan’s poems are studded with half-submerged thrills, her lecture kept little subterranean or reserved, zipping from topic to topic with all the inconspicuousness of a pink flamingo. Blithe, bemused, and David Sedaris-like in her humor, she poked around in her poems for examples of different classes of rhyme—not the categories we’re used to hearing, though, but names she invented on her own. “Now, here I’m just showing off. It’s a show-off rhyme,” she said of the opening lines of “Flamingo Watching,” which pit the lurid “flamingo goes” against “furbelows.” Other memorable Ryanisms include “orphan rhyme,” “dyslexic rhyme,” and “wedge rhyme,” each coined with both tongue-in-cheek playfulness and coin-under-tongue seriousness to fathom the astonishing variety, nuance, and expressive potential of sound in verse.

Kay Ryan Word WorksNear the end of her talk, Ryan mentioned that she writes for the page, for readers “alone in a quiet room.” The statement was striking in a number of regards. In today’s post-Six Gallery, spoken-word world where the most famous lyric poets are Iggy Azalea and Kendrick Lamar and the main pages from which people read verse are webpages like AZLyrics and RapGenius, saying one writes for the page risks anachronism, even snobbishness. As far as many are concerned, the Ivory Tower is wallpapered with “page poetry”; it’s the brand and banner of writers who don’t worry about communicating or being understood, crusaders for difficulty and postmodern opacity. But Ryan is not that kind of poet. She’s no Billy Collins, but she often approaches her subject matter with a bold transparency and sentimentality. “After Zeno,” an elegy for her father and the first poem she ever wrote, ends with the (dare I say it) audaciously nostalgic “There’s no sense / in past tense.” And even when she steps onto more ambiguous poetic ground, Ryan’s style exhibits more of a Frostian focus and rumination than an Ashberyian elusiveness. Her writing is perfectly situated at the border of difficulty to demand we think about it as it slides by out loud, just puzzling enough to intrigue but not dense enough to frustrate.

So why, then, prefer the page? It likely has something to do with the carefulness of silent reading, the opportunity to dwell with a poem for as long as one likes; to skip around and revisit things; to let one’s own mind do the performing, place emphases, define rhythms. As Derrida argued a half-century ago, speech feigns immediacy; the unique power of the written word is revealing how language always points away from itself to something else, and from there to the fact that our thoughts, our discourse, and our very selves are mediated and constituted by things other than ourselves. Silent reading focuses our attention on the mechanics of language, much as, in Ryan’s work, rhyme does—tickling our brain stems, prodding us to wonder why words are arranged as they are. Encountering poetry with our eyes and not with our ears allows us to prolong our tickling, and to luxuriate in pondering these questions. It permits an attentiveness to texts that recitation can only strive to imitate.

Really, though, it’s a trade-off: witnessing Ryan read and talk about her work is so immensely entertaining and satisfying that it might merit the losses of spoken delivery. She is a charming and careful performer, effortlessly commanding attention, reeling off wisecrack after well-timed wisecrack. We’re fortunate, then, that in the end we don’t have to choose: we can go out for the night to hear Kay Ryan recite her poems and riff about rhymes, and then return home to our quiet rooms to comb through those same poems again—scouring them feverishly, like preening flamingos.

Ryan’s discussion of rhyme was part of Word Works, an ongoing series of lectures on craft put on by the Hugo House.