Archive for April 18th, 2011

Kay Ryan wins the Pulitzer Prize: “I would like my work to be weightless.”

Monday, April 18th, 2011
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In praise of lightness: Marin's self-sytled "Sheriff of Emptiness" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Kay Ryan has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.  I wrote about the Marin poet here during a recent visit to Stanford.  I blogged some outtakes from my interview with her eight years ago here. And I’ve written about her elsewhere, too – oh, for San Francisco Magazine, in an October 2004 article, “Let There Be Lightness,” which isn’t, alas, online.  (Postscript on 4/19:  It is online now – here.)

An excerpt from that piece, in honor of the occasion:

A bubble. The foam on a stein of beer. A tulip quivering on a slender stem. A feather, to counterpoise the world’s density, inertia, heaviness.

Lightness is a much underrated virtue, and a much misunderstood one. “Lightness” does not mean being vapid or intellectually shallow. It means looking at the world from a different perspective, with a different system of weights and measures. Marin County poet Kay Ryan—a very quiet writer who is suddenly creating a lot of noise—does exactly that in her poems.

It’s a pickle, this life.
Even shut down to a trickle
it carries every kind of particle
that causes strife on a grander scale….

The lightness of atoms inhabits Ryan’s fey, easy-on-the-ear poetry, which wins her instant fans at her occasional, low-key readings. She explains what she’s after this way: “It’s the object of my life to get things to float. Because I like it. Because it’s a relief. It is relief. It’s freedom. So I would like my work to be weightless.”

But in today’s grim and weighty world, she’s been rebuked with charges of insubstantiality, even frivolity. Library Journal gave Ryan’s 1994 book of poems, Flamingo Watching, a stern “not recommended,” commenting, “Ryan’s cramped syllabics have a monotonous density that too often mistakes sound for sense… these poems are derivative and lacking in substance.”

The winning book

There’s nothing frivolous, however, about the attention Ryan has been getting lately, finally, after decades of writing and six books of poetry, including 2000’s Say Uncle. Within a few months last spring, she won both a $40,000 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and the $100,000 Ruth Lilly prize from Chicago’s esteemed Poetry magazine.  The award, praising a “singularity and sustained integrity that are very, very rare,” establishes her in an enviably successful firmament that includes Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, Anthony Hecht, John Ashbery, and W.S. Merwin—heavyweights all.

One thinks of Ashbery’s avant-garde experimentalism. One thinks of the erudite Hecht’s dark and troubled formal verses. One thinks of Rich’s heavy-duty poems on poverty, racism, lesbianism, violence. Or of Levine’s obsessions with working-class life in Detroit, or Merwin’s dreamy, densely imagistic poems, with their long lines. One thinks of millions of poems everywhere, trying to impress you with their suffering and how very seriously they take themselves. Clearly, Ryan is hacking out a path of her own, but with a scalpel, not a machete.

She’s not so much treating serious things lightly as she is turning the world upside down—not being drawn into its heaviness, not letting its heaviness inhabit her. In a sense, she’s been keeping the darkness of the world from extending its territory, which is a signal act of defiance, perhaps more so than that of many “protest” poems. (Witness the leaden dullness of so much of the work in the Poets Against the War movement.) Ryan’s poems may shimmer on the surface— and how is that a bad thing?—but they are compelling in the quiet knowledge they bear.

You can read the rest here.

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Congratulations to Bruce Norris, whose Clybourne Park, won the Pulitzer for drama.  We had the pleasure – and it was indeed a pleasure – of seeing the smart, politically incorrect play a few months ago at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.  The San Francisco Chronicle‘s little man was out of his seat clapping, and Robert Hurwitt had this to say:

The jokes, lobbed like grenades, are more offensive than funny. The reactions to them are hilarious. And revealing. For us, as for the characters in Bruce Norris’ scathingly observed “Clybourne Park,” the only thing more cringe-inducing than a tiptoe around the taboo topic of race is confronting it.

As seen Thursday, “Clybourne” is the kind of trouble-making comedy of manners that tears the lid off good intentions and hypocrisies to amusing and salutary effect. And it’s being performed to discomforting perfection by the ACT cast in the pinpoint-precision stagings of California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone in his company debut.

Attitudes toward gender, patriotism, marriage, the touchy topic of real estate and various ethnicities come under fire, but race is the elephant in the room. That would be the spacious living room of the house in Chicago’s (fictional) Clybourne Park, which undergoes its own remarkable transformation …