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The Niagara River by Kay Ryan
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Feb 17, 09

bookshelves: poetry
Read in October, 2008

Friend and I were having a conversation today in which she admitted that a Haruki Murakami book is her idea of literary foreplay.

Wait, what?

Let me enlighten you.

Said friend and I sat around a fondue pot, waxing literarily about David Sedaris books and how I should read more David Sedaris books, when said friend said that she hadn't read in awhile, which meant she needed to read a Murakami book.

I said, "Wait, what?"

And she said, in a way that was most enlightening, that Murakami books just get her excited about reading. They're like the spark that sets off the TNT. Once she reads a Murakami book, she finds herself running downhill and gaining momentum, devouring books in her path. There are no survivors after that Murakami book until she runs out of steam.

I was a bit jealous. Sure, I go through reading ups and downs, but I don't have a guarenteed formula to get me reading again. Instead, my reading phases depend on the whimsy of my fancy. This year, I read and reread all the Jane Austen books within a three month period because of the Masterpiece Theater teledramas, then I hit some non-fiction with a vengeance because of Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter. And now? Well, I am reading poetry like crazy.

Generally, I don't read poetry. Instead, I tend to read it like I listen to music in that I go to a reading, hear a poem or am directed to a poet. Then I hear something I like, buy a book if I want, read a few poems in no particular order, shelve the book, forget about it, and then, like a CD, find it again a few years later and love it all over again.

Not so here. I have been buying poetry books, sitting down with them immediately and reading them straight through from page 1 to page whatever.

It's shocking to me, too.

I wonder if it's a matter of time in that I only have so much time to read, and poetry is a very condensed story. And yet, at the same time, I think poetry is something that's meant to be read and enjoyed over time. You can't just read a poem. You read it. Think about it. Forget it. Remember it. And love it again.

Stranger and strangier don't you think?

So whom are these poets that have bewitched me? First up is Kay Ryan, followed by Pablo Neruda and Zen poet Ryokan.

The Niagara River is by Kay Ryan, who is the current poet laureate of the United States. I uncovered this volume while at Chicago O'Hare airport. I needed a book to read. I recognized her name and thought that I'd give it a whirl. As I said earlier, I didn't put the book down till I had read every single, delicious word. And this was a poetry book in which I had to pop up every now and then, bother my traveling companions and share some deliciousness with them. And what was even better was that they loved every morsel as much as I did.

One thing that I noticed about Ryan's poems was that they were compact little narratives, like Aesop's fables. There were "No Moral of the Story" type endings, but there were lessons to be had. I give you this example:

"Pitcher"

A pitcher molds
the air in it, dividing
from the air beyond
the air it holds. And should the pitcher
vanish, something
would take a minute
to escape, a gradually
diminishing integrity,
a thinning pitcherful
of pitcher shape.

Note also how neatly built this poem is. Despite the simplicity of the language, there's a mature internal rhyme scheme and structure. It just made me "squee!" in delight! I laughed at funny parts while reading this on the plane. I "awwed." I was touched. I felt the same sentiment as the girl in Simon Romero's NYTimes article on the Biblioburro, thinking: "Oh this is beautiful Maestro. And when will such an experience come back?"

See Ode to Common Things or One Robe, One Bowl to see how it did come back.
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