"Prose is practical language. Conversation is practical language. Let them handle the usefulness jobs. But of course, poetry has its balms. It makes us less lonely by one. It makes us have more room inside ourselves. But it’s paralyzing to think of usefulness and poetry in the same breath."
And yet, I find it amusing that when I read Kay Ryan's poetry, she seems to be playing with this idea of usefulness. Her poems are often skirmishes with well-worn phrases---she calls herself "a rehabilitator of clichés"---and she deploys flatly-voiced "advice" so wryly you have to read her poems over to see where the joke is. It's like she's saying: why, here's a good (useful) idea---whatever the haha hell that is.
In the same interview, in fact, she says:
"what interests me is so remote and fine that I have to blow it way up cartoonishly just to get it up to visible range."
Yes. I see that. And I found reading the entire Paris Review interview a pleasure and a learning experience and very welcoming. Climbing inside a poem of hers, in order to "echo" it, however, was damn hard.
I chose "We're Building the Ship As We Sail It," which opens:
The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
There is slant, internal rhyme there---unflatten and happen---and repetition of words---first fear, first shape---and of course, that arresting phrase "the first fear being drowning." Okay, I could work with that. Or so I thought.
To begin, I tried to riff off that opening phrase, and immediately foundered on the rocks of "drowning." Every kind of "-ing" that meant death seemed to already be a form of drowning---asphyxiating, choking, strangling---because breathing is the foundation of life, and anything that stops it is death. So...drowning seemed the plainest, most Ryan-like word to use, and death, obviously was the "first fear" and I had no interest in writing about second or third ones, and yet---I couldn't use her opening exactly, could I? She had laid her planks so precisely that if I did, I didn't know where I would stop copying and start riffing, and I might just end up with the same poem, word for word. Upon reading---and re-reading---her poem, it just didn't seem like it could be written any other way. (Read it here, now, and see if you agree.)
Then, thank goodness, I recalled the part of the interview in which Ryan talks about her time working with prisoners at San Quentin. She says:
"I’m rather shocked to look back at the way I thought of the prisoners at that time—as people with a lot of experience. Just because they’re killers and robbers and whatnot doesn’t mean they’ve had a lot of experience. It doesn’t take very long to kill somebody."
Well, I thought, the same could be true of my foundering effort: it doesn't take very long to kill a draft, either. Especially when the well-experienced Ryan has drowned every word you could possibly use. Haha.
That did it. I decided to go another way to echo this poem: fear of emotional death, or to put it plainly, shame, or fear of failing.
This is a very long lead up to a very short poem. But echoing Kay Ryan will do that to you. No wonder she chooses to only write poetry. It is usefully sharp and murderous.
"It doesn't take very long to kill somebody"
The first fear
the poet’s first line
was a circle, which
was hard to deflate
after that didn’t
take. It’s cumbersome
to have to scrub one’s blood
from words, so hard to
drubbing one’s thumb
into a nose—
---Sara Lewis Holmes, all rights reserved
My Poetry Sisters each chose other Kay Ryan poems to "echo"---and pulled the challenge off much better than I did. Go see:
Poetry Friday is hosted today by Tabatha Yeatts.