Kay Ryan, America's new poet laureate (a post appointed annually by the Library of Congress), has been called an "outsider," despite the fact that she publishes in the New Yorker, won a Guggenheim fellowship and the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and was lauded by (ahem) this publication as far back as 1996. Yet it's true that Ryan doesn't quite fit. She's neither folksy and ultra-accessible like the popular Billy Collins nor mandarin and imperious like the critical darling Louise Glück. Her poems aren't personal or confessional, and it's hard to imagine anyone reading them aloud in that solemn, incantatory, singsong voice well known to the unfortunate attendees of poetry readings. Instead, Ryan's verse is short, brainy, wry and (most of the time) very funny. (I recommend "Elephant Rocks," but any of her books will do, including the most recent, "The Niagara River.")
Twice married (both times to the same woman, in accordance with California's ever-mutating marriage laws), the daughter of an oil driller and a veteran of many years of toiling in the flinty vineyard of verse, Ryan also has a knack for talking about her art that should come in handy for whatever duties she decides to take on in this new role. "Poetry is the most beautiful sport," she told me when I interviewed her over a decade ago. This week, she told the Washington Post that she aimed to write verse that seems to be "rising, entering the air. I want it to make us feel like we're taking in more oxygen when we breathe." Her mock-grandiose plans for her tenure as poet laureate (as reported to various news organizations) include issuing library cards to everyone and taking it upon herself to "prevent all bad poetry from being published during my reign." Now that would be a Herculean task, indeed.