Friday, June 18, 2010

working for it can be fun

Today (behind the times as always) Kay Ryan is my hero. The poem below is what made me go looking for more; it's one of those included in Poetry Speaks to Children. When I included it in a collection for my first-graders--whom I thought would appreciate the bear-forest-wolf-stick fairy-tale flavor--they were generally baffled, and a couple even said they found it creepy. And it's true that when I went looking for another of Ryan's poems that might speak to younger children, I couldn't find what I was looking for.

Bear Song

If I were a bear
with a bear sort of belly

that made it hard
to get up after sitting

and if I had paws
with pads on the ends

and a kind of a tab
where a tail might begin

and a button eye
on each side of my nose

I’d button the flap
of the forest closed.

And when you came
with your wolf and your stick

to the place that once was
the place to get in

you’d simply be
at the edge of the town

and your wolf wouldn’t know
a bear was around.

But there's something about her style that we who write for children can learn from. Her poems are compact; they look tame and accessible on the page, written in complete sentences and in a conversational register. Read "The Fabric of Life," though, and see how dense and challenging it is, and how she encourages engagement with the big ideas by skillfully passing them through a prism of humor, and how that bent light opens our eyes.

The Fabric of Life

It is very stretchy.
We know that, even if
many details remain
sketchy. It is complexly
woven. That much too
has pretty well been
proven. We are loath
to continue our lessons
which consist of slaps
as sharp and dispersed
as bee stings from
a smashed nest
when any strand snaps—

hurts working far past
the locus of rupture,
attacking threads
far beyond anything
we would have said

From the biographical note at "Ryan has said that her poems do not start with imagery or sound, but rather develop “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation.” " They may not start with imagery or sound, but listen to this irregular gorgeous turtle music:


Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing-case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
she's often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. 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.

I'm all inspired, not least to think that this Poet Laureate taught "remedial English" for 30 years. Can't you tell that she's a brilliant teacher? "I know great," Ryan said. "I do not know where great comes from." We could all use some of this remediation.


  1. Heidi, very informative about Kay. Thanks!

    Laura Evans

  2. Ahhh...Kay Ryan. One of my top 10 all-time favorites. And especially her poem, "Turtle." I heard her say once that the rhyme of "four-oared" and "afford" is one of her best ever.


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