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It isn't ever delicate to be reviewed

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I think Kay Ryan and her poetry are magnificent.  Uncompromising and wise, Ryan seems to wear her later-life success (Guggenheim fellowship, Poet Laureate of the United States, etc.) very easily.  Perhaps her mastery of fame derives from having her priorities in order.  Her poetry, at least, always jolts my priorities into place: "Turtle" brings me succor on my worst days, reaches me when more personal entreaties can't or won't.

With such feelings, I am not an objective reader of reviews of Ryan's work.  Indeed, I am possibly a mite overprotective of her, the way fans of Jane Austen, with their "peculiar affection," won't tolerate an unkind word against her.  Disclaimers out of the way, I can now say that Helen Vendler's New York Review of Books review of Ryan's new collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, pissed me off.

Some of the offense arose from Vendler's distinctively condescending tone, insistent refusal to like Ryan's poems, and begrudging praise:

And what sort of poetry has issued from this unusual personal trajectory?
. . . .
But such [rhymes], aside from being defensible, should by their sound please or alert or warn the ear, and these, to my mind, don't always succeed in doing so.
. . . .
Over the past fifteen years, Ryan's poems, resolutely impersonal versions of the personal, have varied in quality.
. . . .
Her departure leaves only "the chap of/abandonment."  And if nothing clever, in Ryan's earlier manner, can be said about that, something better than cleverness takes its place, a "polish and balm" in the simplicity of the poet's lines.
These remarks are all of scant bearing on Ryan's new collection.  That her personal trajectory is, in Vendler's opinion, "unusual" is either obvious or irrelevant; any interesting personal trajectory is unusual, yet plenty of fine poems have emerged from dull lives (pace Wallace Stevens).  That Ryan doesn't always succeed (in her rhymes or anything else) is a readily-grasped observation about humankind and, situated in nothing sturdier than Vendler's personal taste, the comment sounds simply bitchy.  All artists' work varies over a decade and a half, but Vendler doesn't clarify that the variance is reflected in Ryan's new collection.  And the toss-off insult about Ryan's lack of cleverness is so gratuitous as to appear mean. 

But my biggest gripe pertains to Vendler's insistence on casting Ryan as an uncultivated outsider who, late in life, was embraced by the inside - a sort of Grandma Moses of poetry:

Ryan's work might be considered outside the mainstream, and she (as someone who began outside the realm of privilege) feels she ought to stand up, as a matter of principle, for "outsider art."
. . . .
Ryan occupies the uneasy, and frequent, rank of the self-made American writer, growing up with no "background" that could help with the rise to mastery of language, with no money to buy select education from kindergarten on, doing an ill-paid job not offering much public recognition. . . . From a life that has not been easy, she has mined nuggets that add to American poetic wealth.
This narrative of Vendler's is sheer idiocy.  What can she possibly mean by calling Ryan's work outside the "mainstream"?  What's the "mainstream" of poetry?  Ryan's style is more accessible than that of poetry paragon, John Ashbery, and every bit as accessible as the "popular" work of Billy Collins and Mary Oliver.  And in any event, isn't the point of poetry to eviscerate a "mainstream"?

Moreover, what the hell is the "uneasy, and frequent, rank of the self-made American writer"?  What else is there?  Writers, unlike lawyers (and I should know, I'm both), don't come out of cookie cutters.  Law can be taught; writing cannot.  Lawyers pass the bar and are licensed to practice; no test exists that can certify a writer's quality.  A writer can attempt to fool him or herself with MFA degrees and fellowships, with creative writing professorships and publishing contracts, but all those credentials will make you a writer as much as a regime of regular colonics will protect you from mortality.  All writers (and artists) are self-made.  Otherwise they're hacks.

As for mining a difficult life for nuggets to contribute to the wealth of American poetry, snooze.  What poet doesn't have a difficult life?  Byron was born with a club foot; Coleridge had issues with opium.  Hart Crane was an openly-gay alcoholic, at a time when the former was socially unacceptable.  Robert Lowell was a manic-depressive.  Anne Sexton: suicide.  Jack Gilbert has dementia.    

Does Helen Vendler have something to say?  What's with all the useless, irrelevant, obvious, general statements?  Is she hiding something?  Or merely without anything to contribute?

If The New York Review of Books decides to send a third rate critical capacity to assess a first rate poet, the error reflects only on it.  But Kay Ryan deserves better, although she knows better than to expect what she's owed.  As Ryan wrote in concluding her poem, "Spiderweb": "It/isn't ever/delicate/to live."

(Image of Kay Ryan from Library of Congress website)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Spiderweb category.

Sonnet XX is the previous category.

Spiritual Chickens is the next category.



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