Correction to This Article
This article on poet Kay Ryan misstated the elevation of Hoosier Pass in Colorado. It is 11,542 feet, not 3,500 feet.

Verse of the Turtle

Poet laureate Kay Ryan reads one of her works.Audio courtesy of The Academy of American PoetsPhotos by Christina Koci Hernandez for The Washington Post
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

More than a decade and a half ago, despairing that her poems would ever find an audience, Kay Ryan found herself writing one about a turtle. It was about as personal as a Kay Ryan poem ever gets.

Ryan's appointment as the nation's new poet laureate, to be announced today by Librarian of Congress James Billington, will cap one of the most unusual careers in American letters. Hers is "a very original poetic voice," Billington says, "almost the antithesis of the things you hear booming at you every day."

Yet when she wrote the concluding lines of "Turtle," Ryan evoked a deeply pessimistic vision of her life's work:

. . . She lives

Below luck level, never imagining some lottery

Will change her load of pottery to wings.

Her only levity is patience,

The sport of truly chastened things.

Still a bit stunned to have risen so far above luck level, Ryan can't resist joking about her newly exalted status.

"I thought I might take it upon myself to prevent all bad poetry from being published during my reign," she says, speaking by phone from her home north of San Francisco, when asked if there is any special project she plans to undertake in her new role.

Then she tries to explain how a poet laureateship could happen to a 62-year-old woman who grew up in the small towns of central California ("the glamour-free zone"), learned to hide behind the role of class clown, got rejected by her college's poetry club, committed to writing poetry as a vocation only after she'd turned 30, refused to have anything to do with creative writing classes and has lived a deliberately quiet life in which she didn't cultivate connections within the literary establishment.

Her father was an oil well driller who died reading a get-rich-quick book when she was 19. Her mother did some elementary school teaching, but you couldn't describe the household as literary. Asked about the origin of her poetic impulse, Ryan talks about learning, as a child, that language "could have a powerful effect on others."

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