I do read poetry publications and websites, but before Ryan was named Poet Laureate in 2008, I had never heard of her. She served as Poet Laureate until 2010 and also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Anyone who gets this much recognition, I like to at least read a bit of his/her work, so I put Ryan's book on my reading list for 2011.
I've spent the last three days reading her book cover to cover. It is 265 pages of poems that were selected from her previous books as well as a handful of new poems. I started with an open mind, but as I read I became more and more frustrated and confused by the praise Ryan has received.
I don't typically write negative reviews on my blog, but I think Ryan can handle a little criticism from my little blog. To be blunt, her work is boring. Honestly, these are some of the most boring poems I've ever read and I've read a lot of poems. Her work mostly focuses on nature and has some philosophical observation that I guess should delight or surprise the reader. These observations or points are sometimes interesting, but are so quick and non-complicated that they don't stay with you very long. Reading these poems is sort of like sitting with a wise old woman who makes short quips that sometimes make you go "uhm." I keep saying short, because most of the poems are between 14 and 20 lines long and most of the lines are only 2 to 4 words long (and don't even get me started on the titles). These are pretty small poems.
What surprised me the most was how much her work hasn't changed in her career. The fun part of reading a selected or collected book is often seeing the changes and experiments of the poet. You can see their work grow and move in various directions. Ryan's work has stayed exactly the same. You could take one of her oldest poems and one of her latest and you would see no difference. This book contained poems from 1994 up to 2010, but the only reason I knew this is because the book told me with its section breaks.
When I got done with the book, I couldn't help but think that this is exactly why people hate poetry. If I gave someone, who doesn't read much poetry, this book, it would confirm all the things most people already think about poetry. The average person doesn't read poetry because they assume it's all boring, about nature or love, and that it has nothing to do with themselves or real life. If they read Ryan's book, they would be right. Her poems give you little polished gems or nuggets of wisdom or advice or perspective, but they don't get at your core.
As an instructor who has taught poetry, my first goal is always to breakdown the stereotypes and misconceptions students have about poetry. I get them to see that poetry is so much broader and more interesting than they ever expected. As instructors we have to fight this so much, because the majority of poetry people are exposed to is not really going to blow the mind of an 18-year-old college kid. It important to get people engaged and then you can expose them to all kinds of poetry (Ryan's included).
It is frustrating that often the most interesting and engaging poets are not the ones that get mainstream press. I'm sure lots of non-poetry readers picked up Ryan's book because they heard something about it and I bet a large portion of them were disappointed or they felt the need to pretend to be impressed because it is "Poetry" with a capital "P" and she is critically acclaimed.
I'm not saying Ryan is a terrible poet. I'm sure many genuinely like her work and connect with it. I don't, however, see her as a worthy contender for a big prize or Poet Laureate. To me, Poet Laureate should go to someone who is going to excite the country about poetry. A poet who is writing about the current world and exploring what it means to be a poet in the 21st century, but I don't make the rules.
There were a few poems I did mark to come back to later, but in a book with well over 200 poems, I should like more than 15 of them, especially if the book is called "the best of it."