“Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” — Osip Mandelstam
There must be something in Marin’s air that seeds poetry. How many among the other 3,143 counties or their equivalents have produced not one, but two poet laureates of the United States? Kay Ryan, a Fairfax resident, is the most recent one and has served two annual terms. There may be no higher national distinction for an American poet, unless it is to win a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship or a National Humanities Medal. Ryan has won these as well.
Marin poets are obviously respected, and do not suffer the hazards of which Osip Mandelstam spoke, and to which he fell prey. Ryan remembers him in “Poetry is a Kind of Money”:
Poetry is a kind of money/ whose value depends upon reserves./ It’s not the paper it’s written on/ or its self-announced denomination,/ but the bullion, sweated from the earth/ and hidden, which preserves it worth./ Nobody knows how this works,/ and how can it? Why does something/ stacked in some secret bank or cabinet,/ some misers trove, far back, lambent,/ and gloated over by its golem, make us/ so solemnly convinced of the transaction/ when Mandelstam says gold, even/ in translation?
Just what does a poet laureate do, and how does one achieve this accomplishment? The holder of the title “The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” is appointed by the Librarian of Congress and serves as the nation’s official poet for a one-year term. During this time, it is the poet’s job to help raise the national consciousness about the reading and writing of poetry.
It is not hard to understand why Ryan was chosen. Not only is she a well-recognized poet whose work has appeared in popular journals like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly; her poetry is also easy to comprehend. The poems are often about everyday concerns, such as “Vacation” and “Turtle,” or simple observations, as in a poem that begins: “Who hasn’t seen/ a plain ordinary/ steel needle float serene/ on water as if lying on a pillow? / The water cuddles up like Jell-O… It seems so simple … we almost forget the oddity/ of that.”
It is not only the ideas that make her work accessible, but also her form and style. Each line has just a few words, and the poems are frequently funny; however, she can occasionally be tricky and introduce a more complex idea through what seems to be a straightforward exposition. She also makes literary references to other poets, so it is a good idea to have Google and Wikipedia handy to trace them down; the discoveries can make her work even more interesting.
One poem, “Bait Goat,” offers a good idea of how she treats language. In part of it she declares “…there is a distance where/ words attract./ Set one out/ like a bait goat/ and wait and/ seven others/ will approach./ But watch out:/ roving packs can/ pull your word/ away. You/ find your stake/ yanked and some/ rough bunch to thank.”
Ryan’s career offers another important demonstration of her commitment to making language and writing accessible.
For over 30 years she has taught remedial English part-time at the College of Marin. As many college professors will attest, the lack of adequate writing skills is a plague that infects many, if not most, college and graduate school students. Her facile use of language can be an inspiration to students, even those who struggle to write. Her poem, “Hope,” reflects an understanding of this struggle: “What’s the use/ of something/ as unstable/and diffuse as hope—/ the almost-twin/ of making do,/ the isotope of going on:/ what isn’t in/ the envelope / just before/ it isn’t:/ the always tabled/ righting of the present.”
Jane Hirshfield, another poet with strong local ties, may not have the same notoriety as Ryan, but she is well known in literary circles and has an extensive popular following. A very simple poem that West Marin and other coastal California residents might relate to is “Tree”:
It is foolish/ to let a young redwood/ grow next to a house./ Even in this/ one lifetime,/ you will have to choose./ That great calm being,/ this clutter of soup pots and books—/ Already the first branch-tips brush/ at the window./ Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.
Like Ryan’s work, Hirshfield’s poems are often about ordinary subjects and are deceptively simple in form. As the Polish Nobel Prize Poet Czeslaw Milosz has said in praise of Hirshfield: “The subject of her poetry is our ordinary life among other people and our continuing encounter with everything Earth brings us: trees, flowers and birds… in its highly sensuous detail, her poetry illuminates the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness.”
Hirshfield has been interviewed several times on Bill Moyers’s PBS programs, and her work has appeared on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac radio program. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has taught at a number of colleges, including Bennington, Duke and the University of California, Berkeley. She was given a fellowship for distinguished achievement by the Academy of American Poets, a recognition she shares with Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Bishop.
In addition to books of her own poetry and books of essays about how to understand poetry, she has co-translated and published several anthologies, including The Ink of the Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan. Another fascinating compilation of poems is Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women.
If this does not keep her busy enough, because of her long-standing interest in science, this year she was selected as the Hellman Visiting Artist in the Neuroscience at U.C. San Francisco, where she will help “foster dialogue between scientists, caregivers, patients and the public concerning creativity and the brain.”
Like Ryan, Hirshfield has also evoked the image of a goat to explain the significance of words in her poems. In “After Long Silence,” she writes “… Distinctions matter. Whether a goat’s/ quiet face should be called noble/ or indifferent. The difference between a right rigor and pride…/ The untranslatable thought must be the most precise./ Yet words are not the end of a thought, they are where it begins….”
The two poets will convene at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15 at the Dance Palace Community and Cultural Center in an event sponsored by Point Reyes Books to benefit the West Marin Review. A supper with the poets at a private residence will follow. Tickets for the conversation only are $20; $75 tickets include dinner. Advance tickets are available at ptreyesbooks.com.
One may reliably predict that the sum of their discussion will be greater than the contributions of each of these formidable writers. There will be no poets murdered in Marin; here, there is only praise for poetry.
Herb Kutchins, an Inverness Park resident, has been a college professor for more than 30 years and is a struggling writer—with hope!