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Kay Ryan's "Home to Roost"

Updated on January 12, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Kay Ryan


Introduction and Excerpt from "Home to Roost"

The old aphorism, chickens coming home to roost, is often employed by those who wish to castigate the behavior of others, for example after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Malcolm X remarked that the event was merely an example of "chickens coming home to roost."

Malcolm X believed that Kennedy had failed to stop racial violence and therefore he reaped the blighted harvest of that failure; chickens coming home to roost is an alternative metaphor for "you reap what you sow." Thus employing the expression "chickens coming home to roost" reflects the universal law of cause and effect, reaping and sowing, and karma.

Excerpt from "Home to Roost"

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit "Home to Roost" at Poetry Foundation.

Ryan reading her poem, "Home to Roost"


Kay Ryan's clever, little ditty offers a distinctive reading experience, after the poet has reformed the cliché.

Even Though Chickens Can't Fly

Ryan's speaker in "Home to Roost" has a clever take on that old saw. The opening image has the chickens overhead "circling and / blotting out the / day." Chickens, of course, are not capable of such a flight. Their wings allow them only a modicum of flying ability. In fact, their wings do little more than help them jump from one place to another. But the fantasy flight of these chickens works marvelously here.

They are, of course, metaphorical chickens that represent all of the mistakes and missteps of the speaker. On this day when "[t]he sun is bright / but the / chicken are in / the way," she is forced to realize that her life's errors are clouding her mental skies. And they are so thick that "the sky is dark / with chickens"; thus, she is finding thinking about anything pleasant very difficult because of the intrusion of the thoughts of all of her past errors.

Mental Sky Dense with Past Mistakes

The speaker's mind is the metaphorical sky which is dense with those chickens on their way to her mental roost. The thoughts keep twisting and moving in her mind, as those birds would "turn and / then they turn / again."

The speaker then remarks that they are those very mistakes that she committed in the past; she made each mistake one at a time. She admits to making numerous errors but asserts that they all were small yet varied. After having experienced a number of years since having made all kinds of mistakes, she reports that, "Now they have / come home / to roost." And now they are all the same, and they are arriving with the "same speed."

Although they were small errors when she first committed them, they have matured and returned to her all grown up and all at once. They are now approaching so thickly that they continue to blot out her mental sky. The speaker cannot see any present joy because of all of those dark chickens arriving. Once they hit the roost, she will then have another stage of her life to contend with, no doubt hoping she can avoid sending forth any more baby chicks that will indubitably have to return again at some time in the future.

Kay Ryan


Life Sketch of Kay Ryan

James H. Billington, then librarian of Congress, appointed California poet, Kay Ryan, to the position of U. S. Poet Laureate for 2008-2009, replacing Charles Simic.

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 September 27, 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 October 16, 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 former 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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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