Kay Ryan on nonsense, poetry, and knowledge

Watch on Vimeo. The Lannan Foundation has also uploaded a video of the reading that directly preceded the conversation.

I usually share other people’s videos only on Facebook or (for poetry-related stuff) Moving Poems, but the length and via negativistic content of this conversation might make it a better fit here, I thought. I love what Kay Ryan has to say about poetry and knowing, and about knowing and making stuff up. You have to watch the video to really get a feel for how unseriously she takes herself, but I spent some time this morning making a transcript of a few of my favorite parts of this conversation, which occur somewhere near the middle. This helps me understand a little bit better what I do myself in my writing — especially the part about the need for coldness.


Kay Ryan: “I think nonsense is extremely close to poetry. Nonsense — I figured this out when I was fairly young — nonsense operates by rules. You cannot have nonsense outside the context of sense. It, uh — it’s in tension with sense.”

Atsuro Riley: “You like to make a statement in your poetry. You’re quite willing to do it, you like to do it, you seem insistent upon it — ”

Ryan: “A lot of them are bogus, though. They’re bogus. You know. I like the fake — I think you pointed this out! — the sort of, you know, the pedant, the mock polemic. Yeah. And they’re just ridiculous, you know. Like uh, oh, what’s the one about the, uh, extraordinary lengths… Oh yeah, right — I don’t know, uh, ‘Extraordinary lengths are always accompanied by extraordinary distances.’ And, you know, that’s just such a stupid thing to say! I just love to say something like that. I, uh —

“Well, let me explain that. I like to make — well, boy, I’m glad you brought that up. Because I, I think that I’m really interested in something that is so hard to perceive. Like light coming from the furthest star. It’s, it’s, it’s very frail when it gets here. Very frail. But looked at another way, it’s incredibly strong, ’cause it’s gotten all the way here from the furthest star. So it’s something incredible strong, but we’re getting just a little bit of it!

“So what I do, what I try to do with this thing that I can just barely perceive, is to jack up the intensity like crazy. Make a cartoon out of it? You know. Make a diorama, have puppets do it. You know — overdo it. I’ve gotta magnify it because it’s — and I have to sound more sure than I am. Because — because I don’t know. I only a teeny tiny bit know! Maybe. I’m trying to know. So I build up — I build something that I hope has a lot of, uh — well, as my step-daughter would say, flavor-punch. I like flavor-punch. I love Southwestern food! But I like to give a lot of color. And reality. Of course it’s all specious, but, uh, you know — ”

Riley: “But to help you think through the question.”

Ryan: “To help me think, yeah. It’s like setting up — and I think you said, too — ”

Riley: “Magnified conundra.”

Ryan: “Yeah. And little, uh, models. You know? Einstein — and I always like to connect myself with Einstein! — Einstein, you know, worked in the patent office. Before he was — before he thought his really great thoughts. And I think it shaped his mind to a certain degree. That business of seeing in terms of models. And I think that that’s what we do in poems. (I mean, not just me, but — ) We make a model, and it’s really a model for something different. I mean, this is the model, but it’s really trying to talk about that starlight somehow. That little thing we just know with some interior part of our brain, to which we have very little access.”

Riley: “Let’s talk about coldness. What is it in a poem — I’m not sure I exactly understand — and, um, why do you like it?”

Ryan: “Well, I mean I think it’s just constitutional. I think — I think one of the things that we do when we write, or one of the things I’ve done, is try to make a world I could live in. You know? I make in my poems a world that is, uh, congenial to me. ‘I like how she thinks!’ You know? It makes me feel at ease to articulate those things. It, uh — I can make a world that has the rules that I want. And I think that, as most people here [in the audience are], I am sensitive. I feel under… I am too stimulated. There’s too much coming in all the time. There’s too much heat. There’s too much closeness. There’s too much personal. There’s too much giving away of secrets. There’s not enough, ah, distance. There’s not enough chill. And if I can do my small part to add a little coldness and distance to the world, I will not have written in vain.”


Ryan: “I discovered a long time ago — and it seems so counter-intuitive, but I found that I had to start writing about things when I was just on the front edge of knowing about them. I mean, just — I hardly knew about them. If I waited, I would be paralyzed by knowing too much. And I, I couldn’t write. There always has to be a large sense of, ‘Oh, I’m just inventing this.’ But then later you can look back and say, ‘No actually I wasn’t inventing it. I still think that I, that there’s something there that I will stick with.’ But I always have to write it before. And if I’m overwhelmed by knowledge, or feeling, or something, it’s just no — I just can’t write.”

7 Replies to “Kay Ryan on nonsense, poetry, and knowledge”

  1. Oh, thanks for this! Fantastic. And thanks for the transcript. I had to quote a whole para in the comments at Mole just now. That thing about taking something you just barely know and blowing it up: I thought, that’s it, that’s exactly what I’m trying to talk about, precisely what religious practice is all about for me. Of course it’s bogus! But how else can you do it?

    1. Oh good. Yeah, this is something I think that most so-called shamanistic traditions knew, but got lost at some point in the transition to professional priestly classes. But the Mayan Popol Vuh, for example, is quite clear on the importance of sleight-of-hand and clowning, and that came out of a high priestly tradition, one presumes. And you probably remember my posts about the role of clowning in Zuni religon, from back in 2004 I think…

  2. I saw her read and “in conversation” (with Dana Gioia, was it?) at the last MLA. And she impressed me so much with her pragmatism and her creativity. Both–proof that you can be a daydreamer and a pragmatist simultaneously. Listening to her, I got the idea that she likes to entertain herself, she is accustomed to that. It’s how she grew up. Entertaining yourself with nonsense…that’s wonderful, and it results in things like art. So an off-rhyme is a small entertainment. Or a pun is entertaining. Rhythm. Etc…anyway, all things a reader can find in Ryan’s little poems.

    When people like Kay Ryan win MacArthur fellowships, there is hope for us all. Readers will wonder who the heck she is, and read her work, and find interviews like the one you’ve posted here, and learn about poems and how they relate to thinking and human-ness. Anyway, one can hope.

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