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Kay Ryan: U.S. Poet Laureate, 2008-2010

Updated on November 6, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Kay Ryan


Widely Published Poet

Kay Ryan's poetry has been featured in Parnassus, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The American Scholar, The Yale Review, Paris Review, and The Threepenny Review.

Ryan has published several collections of poems, including The Niagara River, Flamingo Watching, Say Uncle, and Elephant Rocks.

Ryan's first duty, as poet laureate, included her attendance on 27 September 2008 at the National Book Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. At the Library of Congress, she read form her own poems on 16 October 2008 at a more formal ceremony.

Ryan's Laureate Project

Poets Laureate bring their own ideas and style to the position, and they usually initiate projects to encourage a wider audience for poetry. Ryan's project as laureate was called, "Poetry for the Mind's Joy," which featured a poetry-writing contest, and a videoconference with community college students.

Under the auspices of Ryan's project, April 1 became designated as "Community College Poetry Day."


Ryan considers herself an outsider vis-à-vis the poetry establishment. As a student at UCLA, she could not join the poetry club; she applied, but her application was turned down. She thinks they turned her down because she was a loner. She also admits that she did not particularly want to be a poet.

Ryan believed in keeping her feelings to herself, instead of broadcasting them in poems. But during a cross-country bike trip, in Colorado, she finally realized that her impulse to write was stronger than her fear of exposure. So after returning home, she began in earnest to concentrate on her poetry.

A Life of Poetry

Unlike most poets involved with academe, Ryan has never taken creative writing courses, and she does not teach them. She earned her BA and MA degrees in English from UCLA. Since the late 1970s, Ryan has supported herself by teaching remedial English at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California.

In 2004, Ryan was awarded the esteemed Ruth Lilly Prize from the Poetry Foundation. About her poetry, poet and critic J. D. McClatchy says, "She is an anomaly in today's literary culture: as intense and elliptical as Dickinson, as buoyant and rueful as Frost."

Ryan believes that part of the poet's job is to "rehabilitate cliches." Dana Gioia, important poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, says, her " . . . depth of perception, joyful invention, and stylistic authority never failed to fascinate and delight me."

Ryan's Poem: "Houdini"

Former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, featured Ryan's poem "Houdini" in his American Life in Poetry column and offered this commentary about the poem:

Houdini never gets far from the news. There’s always a movie coming out, or a book, and every other magician has to face comparison to the legendary master. Here the California poet, Kay Ryan, encapsulates the man and says something wise about celebrity.

The following are the first seven lines from Ryan's "Houdini":

Each escape
involved some art,
some hokum, and
at least a brief
exchange between
the man and metal

To read the rest of the poem, please visit, "Houdini" at American Life in Poetry.

Ryan poetry reading

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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