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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Kay Ryan's The Best of It and How Poetry is Like Birds Looking for Dates

Ledge
Birds that love
high trees
and winds
and riding
flailing branches
hate ledges
as gripless
and narrow,
so that a tail
is not just
no advantage
but ridiculous,
mashed vertical
against the wall.
You will have
seen the way
a bird who falls
on skimpy places
lifts into the air
again in seconds --
a gift denied
the rest of us
when our portion
isn't generous.”

― Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems


So this is a new one. This is, by my accounts, the first time I've written about a book of poetry. That's because it's maybe the third book of poetry I've read in my whole life that wasn't A: written by Shel Silverstein or B: actually maybe that's the only other poetry I've read. The other two are The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins (whose title apparently inspired an A.F.I. album? citation needed) and You Come Too, which is just a lovely, lovely book of Robert Frost poems meant to be read to kids.

Oh, there's also The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories by Tim Burton which I read a lot as a brooding teen who liked things that were dark as long as the extent of that darkness was PG-13 AT MAX. That book you read in like 20 minutes and there's some funny stuff in it.

What I'm saying is that I'm not really your one-stop source of what is good or bad in the poetry world. I am the cliched man standing in an art museum admiring a tasteful nude and saying, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like, and what I like is tasteful nudes." In this scenario, the tasteful nudes are poems by Kay Ryan. And let me tell you, I like these tasteful nudes a lot. That is a sentence I very much hope to see quoted out of context one day in a highly embarrassing situation, by the way. I'm thinking funeral.

Anyway, I picked up this book because I consider myself a literate man, and yet I've eschewed an entire genre of literature basically because of formatting. That's a bad reason. Way different from the other genre of literature (fantasy) I've completely eschewed because of better reasons (dragons are dumb and character names ending with "-anarius" or "-agorn" give me hives). Also, I thumbed through it at the library and I thought, Heck, I can read this in a day and then I'll have something to write about for Howie's Book Club Dot Com: The Blog that will keep the ravenous fans at bay. Like zombies outside of the ramshackle cabin that is my website, they tear at the boarded windows that are my pleas for patience when I miss a week, eager to devour the brains that are my hastily and poorly-constructed ideas (and mangled metaphors).

Long-time poetry readers are probably highly amused at this assumption. In fact, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, took me way longer to read than a novel of equal page length ever would. It's not because I kept bouncing off of it, or because I rarely picked it up, it's because somehow in those handful of words on each deceptively sparse page there was just so much to digest. I reread them over and over, not because I didn't get them, but because each reading gave another layer.

Like, after reading this book, I totally get poetry. When every word is slaved over like they are in this book, and the rhythm of the words are consistently perfect, these things explode with meaning. When I read great prose, I do stop to reread sometimes just to revel in it, but that's rare. I get caught up in stories and read fast and only rarely do I sit back and think that a sentence was perfectly constructed. Yet when I'm given so few words to handle such big ideas, I'm forced to do only that.

Here's a thing I do sometimes for work: I listen to birds pick up on each other. The world is their singles bar, and like stereotypical construction workers in movies about New York City, they have no shame. They just actively flirt with each other in broad daylight, saying what I assume are just the most disgusting things. Like, all I hear are their songs, but these songs are just loaded with context about which I am blissfully oblivious. What a pretty song, I think.

It reminds me of a nice Mormon mom I met as a missionary in Mexico who wore a t-shirt that said, "Love Sees No Gender," to a church party. I was delighted by the sentiment, though when I asked if she knew what her shirt said, she admitted that she had no idea. I imagine there are further messages in there but my brain is too tired from all of that poetry. 

Back to birds. I have a love/hate relationship with birdsong, and it's probably for a different reason than you think. It's not the singing in the morning that gets me. What I hate is hearing a song or call that I can't identify. It drives me seven kinds of bonkers. I can't relax, hold a conversation, or even breathe normally if some stupid bird is singing his heart out and I don't know immediately what kind it is. It makes me feel inadequate on just the deepest level. If you ever see me looking like I'm going to rattle into pieces it's (probably) not because what you're saying is annoying me; it's (probably) because I'm hearing a bird and I don't know what it is.

This is triply so when it's for work. These bird surveys take place with strict time limits, because most birds only sing in the morning. I always have very little time at each point to identify every bird I hear. It's overwhelming and I rarely get a chance to step back and realize what a cool and fun thing it is that I'm doing because those birds are just so randy! You guys. They are singing to beat the band, and my guess is that it's not like the subtle innuendo they use with country music so that your Young Women's leader doesn't know. I think it's some of that real Nicki Minaj stuff.


These lil rappers I can see 'em in my dash cam
I know dey grouchy like Oscar up out da trash can

Birdsong is great. If I lived in a world without it, it would be a diminished life for sure. That being said, when my job depends on my being able to turn that birdsong into data on a piece of paper, sometimes I just want a few of them to shut up for just a second while I think. Can I just think for a minute you guys? You, I've got you. Listen. I know that you're very proud of yourself. Just. Stop singing so I can get that guy.

That's like a page of prose sometimes. Too many words. Like I want to find the symbolism and the themes and the underlying metaphors, but also I want to find out who the villain is or if they're going to smooch at the end or if the dictator takes over (hint: he always does, and yes, it's always a he). Do I look like I have the time to dissect every page of your dumb novel about "the dichotomy of humanity"? I've got a blog to write.

So to summarize: if the novel is a woods thriving with birdsong -- beautiful and perfect but also kind of maddening in its complexity -- then a poem is that clear song you hear when the woods are otherwise quiet. You can really sit and listen to it. You can separate the notes and do that dumb thing birders do and translate it to words, like "tea-kettle-ettle-ettle," or "cheeeese-burger," or "who's awake, me too," or "mm baby I like that malar stripe come sing a little closer sweetheart and check out these wing bars."

There's no better way to learn songs than to watch a single bird sing his heart out all by himself. I mean, I guess it's sad when you think about it -- like watching a guy on the train swiping right on every girl he sees but never getting a response -- but you really get to know that bird. You also want to tap the bird on the shoulder and tell him that maybe the shirtless profile picture isn't doing him any favors, wing bars or no, but that wouldn't really be polite, you know? Also he's a bird.

That's why it took me a long time to read The Best of It. I spent some time with these poems.

"The Song Sparrow sings a loud, clanking song of 2–6 phrases that typically starts with abrupt, well-spaced notes and finishes with a buzz or trill. In between, the singer may add other trills with different tempo and quality. The song usually lasts 2-4 seconds. Patterns of songs vary over the species’ enormous range, so the Song Sparrows you hear when traveling may not sound quite like those from your hometown." - Cornell Lab of Ornithology

How Birds Sing
One is not taxed;
one need not practice;
one simply tips
the throat back
over the spine axis
and asserts the chest.
The wings and the rest
compress a musical
squeeze which floats
a series of notes
upon the breeze.

Like the bird's song, these poems seem effortless, but are dazzlingly complex in their melody. Like a Nicki Minaj song is. Or a Howie's Book Club post isn't.