Monday, February 9, 2009

Michael Ryan

Michael Ryan's Threats Instead of Trees won the 1973 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award; In Winter, for which he won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Writers Award, was a 1981 National Poetry Series selection; God Hunger won the 1990 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; and New and Selected Poems won the 2005 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His other books are an autobiography, a memoir, and a collection of essays about poetry and writing. He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of California, Irvine.


The dead thing mashed into the street
the crows are squabbling over isn’t
her, nor are their raucous squawks
the quiet cawing from her throat
those final hours she couldn’t speak.
But the racket irks him.
It seems a cruel intrusion into grief
so mute it will never be expressed
no matter how loud or long the wailing
he might do. Nor could there be a word
that won’t debase it, no matter
how kind or who it comes from.
She knew how much he loved her.
That must be his consolation
when he must talk to buy necessities.
Every place will be a place without her.
What people will see when they see him
pushing a shopping cart or fetching mail
is just a neatly dressed polite old man.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

2002-03. It started with the first sentence breaking over the first five lines: that was the donnee and it didn’t change through revision. It set me into the poem in every way I needed, both dramatically and prosodically.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Not as many as most of them, but the poem took eighteen months to come right. The problems were entirely writing problems--how to say what needed to be said and how to exclude what didn’t.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

The first sentence was given to me: that’s how I experienced it. The brain is a mysterious organ, even to neuroscience.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Frost said, “The ear does it. The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.” I write by ear, as well as with my brain and heart.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

It first appeared in the February 9, 2004 issue of The New Yorker. Horace exhorted the poet to keep his poem in his desk until the ninth year, to make sure that he has made it as good as possible: limae labor et mora (“the labor of file and delay”). Only a small portion of what I write can I bear to see in print, but sometimes I have sent poems out too soon and have published a few in magazines that mercifully never made it into a book.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I have never met the people in this poem except in this poem.

Was this poem always in the third person? Would you care to address any general advantages of using third-person point of view in a poem?

I love prose fiction and wish I could write it. Narrative casting, the choice of pronouns, is everything (along with everything else being everything. I love Wallace Stevens’ line: “You can do what you want, but everything matters.”) Obviously, you can do things in third-person that you can’t in first- or second-person. And so on, for each of them. The introduction of a new pronoun can be the most dramatic event in a poem.

Is this a narrative poem?

I confess it is, focused on and by a single moment. The way the poem tells its story is another one of Stevens’s everythings. The twin ancient powers are story and song. The proportions vary from poem to poem. I like a lot of both.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I don’t remember what I was reading. Emily Dickinson is my favorite poet. Frost is my favorite theoretician. I love his poems, too. And many many other poems, composed in many different languages by poets living and dead. Every time I am moved I am influenced, a word whose Latin root means the flowing of an ethereal fluid or power from the stars which affects a person’s character and actions. Human beings are permeable, fortunately and unfortunately.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

My audience is the poem itself. I write to the poem. I try to see what it actually says. I also try to listen to its telling me what it wants to be.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Some of the best poets writing in English have been my trusted readers for years. I’m married to one of them and show her everything. “Outside” is a crypto-love poem to her. I hope I never suffer the loss the old man in the poem does. I wouldn’t be neat or polite.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I try to do something new in every poem. I try even harder while being drawn to habitual subjects like how people bear the unbearable. That’s the subject of many Dickinson poems that move me the most. “Outside” is pushed very far from me autobiographically while being very close to me personally. Maybe this reflects the contrast between outside and inside in the poem.

What is American about this poem?

Everything is American about this poem, but not exclusively American, I hope.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I can’t make it any better. Valery’s idea (“A poem is never finished, it is merely abandoned.”) was spoken from and for his time, a time when the independence of art seemed exciting. Language is certainly its own realm, subject to its own rules, but it’s also rooted in communication that refers to the real world of survival, for both the species and the individual. If it were otherwise we wouldn’t have learned to talk. Opacity is easy. And puts me right to sleep. The real mystery is clarity, but it’s only the means not the end, unless it’s spiritual and emotional clarity of the kind Dickinson practiced in and by writing poems. Art for art’s sake would have struck her as a ludicrous, debased idea. For her, the foundation and purpose of art was moral and religious, as it was for every poet of her time except Poe, but unlike the Victorian sages for Dickinson the relationship between art and morality was implicit not explicit, private not social, neither pious nor privileged but enmeshed with gritty, difficult, daily life, and every crack and crease in their connections was open to exploration. I think this is still the great enterprise of poetry, and it will never be finished or abandoned.


  1. Wonderful choice of poet/poem. Interesting, instructive, inspiring interview. Thank you.

  2. This is the best remark about audience I've ever read.

  3. What a beautiful poem. Thank you for exposing me to it.

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