So many awards are bestowed on celebrities renowned only for their celebrity that the idea of excellence seems reduced to a sleazy walk on the red carpet in search of glitz and glam. But recently, Kay Ryan, a former U.S. poet laureate, received an award that is meaningful and well-deserved.
Last week, Ryan, who in California married her partner of 30 years, the late Carol Adair, received a $500,000 “genius award” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The award will be paid to Ryan in yearly installments of $100,000 for five years. Ryan will be free to use the award money as she pleases. At a time when mediocrity is too often the norm and the arts are frequently undervalued, this is great news not only for Ryan, poets, the culture at large, but the LGBT community as well.
Why am I so excited about this? Because the “genius” award honors the work of not only a great poet, but an openly lesbian poet, who has brought poetry to people in all walks of life.
As a poet, I can tell you that there are as many stereotypes of poets (and other creative artists) as there are breeds of dogs. The popular image of poets is often that of the eccentric, other-worldly “dreamer” who, like the hapless bard in Sylvia Plath’s novel “The Bell Jar” eats lettuce with his or her fingers. Sometimes it’s thought that poetry (or other forms of art) is therapy or a hobby. I’ve been asked when I’m going to “get over” writing poems — as if poetry were an illness like the flu. Most every poet I know has been told, “anybody can write poetry.”
As the truism says, some grain of truth lurks within many stereotypes. Poets themselves, we who are in the “po biz,” far too frequently erect barriers between the Mount Olympus of M.F.A. programs, conferences and prizes and less privileged readers and writers of poetry.
Kay Ryan defies these stereotypes. Ryan has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (worth $100,000), the Pulitzer Prize for her collection “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems,” a Guggenheim Fellowship and other prestigious awards. Yet, she’s no Ivory Tower goddess in MFA Land. Though Ryan has a bachelor’s and master’s in English from the University of California in Los Angeles, she has taught remedial reading for more than three decades at the College of Marin, a community college in Kentfield, Calif.
“You have to make yourself worthy of [poetry],” Ryan told The Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I want it to be hard.”
Yet while pushing herself and her students toward excellence, Ryan has opened the door to poetry for prisoners and others who can’t afford MFA programs or other trappings of the “po biz.”
Though Ryan came to the poetry establishment as an outsider (it took years for her poetry to be widely recognized), she isn’t a proponent of “outsider art.” I doubt if she’d say that anyone could write poetry. “Most of it’s too dreary,/or too cherry red,” Ryan writes in her poem “Outsider Art.”
Ryan’s spare, witty, yet poignant poetry is often compared to the work of Emily Dickinson. “How can she fit paradox, argument, mystery, philosophy and story into that space?” Grace Cavalieri, host of the public radio show “The Poet and the Poem,” e-mailed the Blade. “But she does. I don’t think poetry has ever seen anything like it.”
A friend, pointing out that Ryan’s work is “universal, not overtly lesbian,” asked me why it matters that Ryan is queer.
It’s true. You won’t find much sapphic lust in Ryan’s poetry. Ryan isn’t a confessional poet. “Only distance/lets distance collapse,” she writes in the poem “Distance.”
But until recently no poet, not even a poet laureate, could be openly queer. Let’s celebrate that one of our own has received the recognition she so richly deserves.