In 2015, Kay Ryan wrote in her private journal that “I don’t feel that my poems have really been enjoyed yet, although they have been rewarded” (May 3, 2015 6:29 AM). This essay uses Ryan’s papers, acquired by the Beinecke Library in 2018, to develop an understanding of the poetics of this much-rewarded, but underappreciated two-term poet laureate, MacArthur fellow, and Pulitzer Prize winner. This essay is the first to use Ryan’s archives to analyze her poetic work.
Two poles of the Beinecke’s Kay Ryan Papers ground my discussion: her self-published 1983 debut collection, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, few copies of which were ever printed; and the private journals she began keeping after the death of her wife, Carol Adair, in 2009. Together, Dragon Acts and Ryan’s more recent journals reveal her career-spanning interest in the cognitive workings of poetry, shedding new light on her underexplored poetics.
Ryan’s papers offer the writer’s own perspective on her distinct poetic voice and intricate aesthetic aims. In particular, Ryan’s journals record an ongoing act of poetic self-formation at the height of her career, as she recreates in their pages the literary conversations she had shared with Adair. Reading her poetry alongside her papers builds a critical approach to her work congruous with her own conviction that “it is not in isolation that a thing is most eloquent”—that an understanding of a poet’s thinking and preoccupations puts pieces across their career in illuminating conversation (September 20, 2016 6:49).
Gannett, Sarah, "“A Cascade of Shifts in the Brain”: Kay Ryan’s Poetics" (2022). Kaplan Senior Essay Prize for Use of Library Special Collections. 24.