Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet Kay Ryan at UMass Lowell

Kay Ryan (photo courtesy of Kristina Coci Hernandez)

Sometimes I worry that we push too much poetry on the readers of this blog. After seeing more than 250 happy people listening to Kay Ryan read her poems last night at UMass Lowell’s O’Leary Library, I’m more encouraged than ever that poetry can fit as easily into people’s lives as the Red Sox, gardening, or movies. Following the reading she signed dozens of books for people who had bought them from the campus Barnes and Noble bookstore staff who had set up a table in the back of the auditorium.

I found this image of Kay Ryan smiling on the web, which sums up her appearance at UMass Lowell last night. Her standard publicity photo is a serious-poet portrait that is an exceptional photograph. After meeting her and listening to her yesterday, I think this image captures her “vibe” more accurately. She is an outstanding ambassador for poetry.

I didn’t know much about her until she was selected to be US Poet Laureate in 2008. She makes short, tight, smart, verbally clever, and often wry or humorous poems that look simple but are complex—not unlike who she is in person. She loves language and sound. She liked that one of the UMass Lowell students yesterday compared her to poets Gerard Manley Hopkins and Ogden Nash, a pairing I’ve never encountered.

She spent most of the day in Lowell yesterday and joined a small group from UMass Lowell for an early dinner at the Blue Taleh on East Merrimack Street. Earlier she had been exploring the city around Central and Gorham streets. She asked me about Danas’ market and luncheonette on Gorham Street, where she and a friend had peered in the windows after closing time. They wound up at Ray Robinson’s eating a sandwich and admiring the character of the place. Kay said she felt like she was really in New England, looking out her window in the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center at the massive Lower Locks canal complex—this week accented by all the flowering trees on the stone plaza around Middlesex Community College across the way. She had never been to our part of New England. Earlier Tuesday she’d been walking up Marlborough Street in Boston, which looked magnificent in the spring sunshine she said. She’s originally from California, the Mojave Desert, and now lives in Marin County north of San Francisco. 

Kay Ryan didn’t take today’s typical route to her poet’s station. She taught community college students for many years—courses in remedial writing—not university literature or creative writing classes. She doesn’t hold a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from one of the prestigious poetry workshops around the country. She kept her poem-making in a separate compartment in her life and gradually came to prominence on the strength of her compositions and ideas. She won awards, earned fellowships, and published books. Her appointment as US Poet Laureate surprised some people because she wasn’t well known by the public. In the poetry network she was greatly admired.

Kay Ryan is on a three-stop tour in our area: Boston University two nights ago, UMass Lowell last night, and Phillips Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, this afternoon. She’ll be back in California tomorrow. We were lucky to have her with us for a day. Special thanks to poet Maggie Dietz of the UMass Lowell Dept. of English and Dept. Chair Tony Szczesiul for inviting her to campus. The audience last night was probably 75 percent students, which was gratifying to see. Lots of community people in the crowd also. Walt Whitman wrote, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.” We had a great audience last night. Thanks to everyone who attended.