NEA Literature Fellowships

Kay Ryan

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(2001 - Poetry)


If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth's
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.


Not even waste
is inviolate.
The day misspent,
the love misplaced,
has inside it
the seed of redemption.
Nothing is exempt
from resurrection.
It is tiresome
how the grass
re-ripens, greening
all along the punched
and mucked horizon
once the bison
have moved on,
leaning into hunger
and hard luck.

Real Audio"Blandeur" and "Waste" read by the author

Kay Ryan, a lifetime Californian, was born in 1945 and grew up in various small towns of the San Juaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert. After studying at UCLA and UC Irvine, she fetched up in Marin County in l971 and began teaching basic English skills part-time at the local community college where she remains to this day in the same capacity. She has published five books, the first, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, in 1983, financed through a subsription of friends; the next two, Strangely Marked Metal (1985) and Flamingo Watching (l994) published by Copper Beech Press of Brown University; and the two most recent, Elephant Rock (1996) and Say Uncle (2000) published by Grove Press. She has received an Ingram Merrill award as well as the NEA fellowship. Her poems have been included in two Pushcart Prize anthologies, in two The Best American Poetry anthologies, and also in The Best of the Best American Poetry. Her work has appeared in many magazines, among them The New Yorker, Atlantic, and Paris Review.

Author's Statement

Years ago I wrote a poem that went on too long but started well; it began, "If a fairy makes a fist/ who's impressed?/ How can lightness insist?" And that is what I would still like to know: how can lightness insist? In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera writes wistfully of the eponymous substance, describing how Beethoven once converted a perfectly inconsequential joke into a "serious quartet." Kundera contemplates how much more remarkable it would have been if Beethoven had achieved the reverse, making "heavy go light."I don't know why lightness isn't more talked about, more valued, more pursued in poetry. I suspect it is out of the fear that one will be"taken lightly." But I ask, is there a sensation more exquisite than the feeling of having the burden of oneself borne off by a poem? The burden only, note; not the self. One's atoms are mysteriously distanced from one another. That is to say, one still has all one's own atoms, but for the moment they are not the trouble they were.


Kay Ryan

Poet (U.S. Poet Laureate, NEA Literature Fellow)


Audio Tabs

U.S. Poet Laureate talks about her teaching career, her reaction to that initial phone call from the Library of Congress, and, of course, poetry. [21:52]

Download podcast: 

Kay Ryan reads "I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-" by Emily Dickinson [:59]


Audio Tabs

In honor of the late great Emily Dickinson's birthday on December 10th, we're featuring this classic from Dickinson read by poet Kay Ryan. To hear more from the former Poet Laureate, please tune in to this podcast.