Scott Cheshire on Kay Ryan

I am not a poet, nor can I claim lifetime love of poetry. Then again, having grown up in a very religious home, I read the Bible daily, as a boy, for one reason or another, and so the poetic language of Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Psalms, has been commonplace for me pretty much as far back as I can remember. It’s no accident, I think, that my journey away from that world might be mapped right alongside my venture into literature, a life of reading and writing. I started writing stories in my late teens and stopped going to church soon after. I continued writing stories all through my twenties, but always avoiding the very topic that had shaped me, like it or not, that of God. I flat out refused the traditional wisdom of “write what you know,” and wrote about everything else, hoping to rid myself of any and all residual religious inclinations.

Sometime in the late 1990’s I started reading poetry in earnest. I began with Walt Whitman because, frankly, it looked biblical. The anaphora, the elegant and euphoric cadences of the King James – Whitman felt familiar.

Kay Ryan did not.

The first poem I read of hers was “Blandeur,” which was fitting, as it’s all about God, or a lack thereof. I was in a bookstore in Southern California, 2001, and happened to pick up Say Uncle, her fourth book. Maybe it was the cover, the image of an amber glass bottle. It looked like a tonic, medicinal. I flipped through its pages and spotted the opening line: “If it please God,/let less happen.” Do I remember what I felt at that exact moment of discovery? No—but I do know I kept reading, and bought the book, that I’ve read the poem countless times since, and I always feel the very same thing: a weight lifting from my shoulders.

Ryan’s literally narrow and very pithy poems look nothing like Whitman’s sprawl. They usually fit on a page, which is sort of misleading to say, because really they’d fit on four of five lines, but she formats them like so: two or three items per line, down the side of a page, looking like a to-do list. Which is not so bad a way to think about them. Ryan’s poems demand to be “done.” You have to “do” them, like a puzzle, a problem, or a Japanese koan. Here was a writer, a poet – a person – thinking something through. And to read her was to think along with her. For me, this was utterly new. 

“Blandeur” remains a powerful poem for lots of reasons, but mostly because it actually lightens as it progresses, even as its subject is about as literally and metaphorically heavy as it gets. Ryan taught me writing could be a conduit not just for beauty and wonder, but for thought, for puzzling, even problem solving. “Blandeur” taught me if the idea of God is good for anything, it’s good for wrestling with. And if I were going to be a writer, a real writer, I had to stand my ground, own my history, and wrestle.

“Blandeur”            

If it please God,

let less happen.

Even out earth’s

rondure, flatten

Eiger, blanden

the Grand Canyon.

Make valleys

slightly higher,

widen fissures

to arable land,

remand your

terrible glaciers

and silence

their calving,

halving or doubling

all geographical features

toward the mean.

Unlean against our hearts.

Withdraw your grandeur

from these parts.

Recommended Reading: The Best of It, Kay Ryan


Scott Cheshire earned his MFA from Hunter College. He is the interview editor at the Tottenville Review, and teaches writing at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. His work has been published in SliceAGNIGuernica and the Picador anthology The Book of Men. His first novel High as the Horses’ Bridles is forthcoming from Henry Holt, July 2014. He lives in New York City.