Dear Kay Ryan,
I’ve been thinking a lot about entropy lately, probably because it’s summer in Chicago. I would have thought Chicago winter would be the season of sullen thoughts, but something about the cold and the dark and the warm interiors leaves only enough room to sit near a space heater and write to-do lists. Life in the winter is all about order starting over and it extends as far as the three-and-four word projections of what tasks might lead to the full expression of the self, maybe when the weather gets nice.
Anyway, I can see that I’m justifying my prattle because you are a poet and are supposed to have some kind of super-human patience for listening to people gush about their feelings in a register one step above their comfort zone.
To get on with it, the point of this letter is to tell you that you are my favorite living poet. This sentiment loses just about all of its potency when it’s written down. I imagine a poet of your stature receives fan mail by the burlap sackload, each letter trying to distinguish itself from the last. But maybe not. I’ve heard that Eleanore Roosevelt received a mountain of letters daily, but I’d guess that the digital sorting of communications has done away with this kind of landfill of envelopes, and whatever email address of yours is public is probably a de facto spam box for some disciple of yours to sort through. But maybe not. In any case, your publisher declined to give me your address, and that’s why this is an open letter, and I guess not really a letter at all but an essay in epistolary drag.
Speaking of drag, I’ve got to get this letter off the ground now. Here it goes. I love your poems and I depend on them. I own only one book—The Best of It (which you signed for me at the University of Tennessee two years ago), but I’ve read and reread its poems, certain ones especially, and I don’t feel ready to move on to another volume yet. It’s like an album, the kind that gives you the urge to claim the musician as your favorite whenever you’re asked and then you get embarrassed when you can’t say you’ve listened to anything but that one album.
One poem of yours can get me through a week or two. “Odd Blocks,” for example, has gotten me through two years, not exclusively, but recurringly. When I feel threatened by entropy (a theory that I think needs to be disproved soon before it becomes fact) I consult your verse. When I can’t find the reason why I live alone, or when the pace of a day’s productivity is lost on me and I feel I’ve veered off into a weird place where rooms feel too big, one of the few ways I can recenter myself is to read “Odd Blocks.” Order keeps starting over.
This one poem, actually, has become lodged in the language center of my brain. Among the many brain functions that haven’t been studied, in my humble opinion, there’s one that flips on an internal juke box and retrieves forgotten pop songs that narrate whatever hardship you’re going through, piped in with such tasteless cliche that you thank God its all muffled by skull so that your ex doesn’t hear you think-singing “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.”
“Odd Blocks” is at the disposal of this juke box, but it’s the best song in the machine. That line “And why not also in the self?” asserts itself in my internal monologue from time to time, and sometimes (unfortunately) when I’m trying to write my own poem, so that I have to look up the definition of pastiche again for ethical guidelines. I know, of course, that I’m obligated to replace the line with my own, and sometimes I do, but other times I simply copy out your words, content that the poem exists already, the said has been said.
That’s another reason I felt I had to write you. Poetry can sometimes feel extremely wasteful. To get to a certain level of notoriety you have to exert yourself, you have to compete, you have to bury someone else’s great poetry in a pile of your own scrapings, hoping no one finds the better poem that you’ve only echoed, and poorly. I blame capitalism, but capitalism as a part of the human soul (because why not also in the self?). Poets are forced and force themselves to create something that a market can consume and the landfills swell with outdated iPhones alongside last week’s poems.
Is your opus proof that this laissez-faire model of poetry has created genius? I’d say the opposite. Your poetry’s genius seems almost accidental. Or incidental, like an heirloom tomato. You mentioned in a small workshop at UT that poetry was central to your life but as a means to recognition and as a fiscal maneuver was an afterthought. I think I know the feeling. You read The New Yorker and think, What a bunch of crap. And you send them your poems like you might sign a petition or buy a raffle ticket. The point is for principle, but then there’s the chance you might actually get published. But maybe you never even thought like this. You are likely a very different kind of person from me.
What I want to tell you is that “Odd Blocks,” “Train Track Figure,” and “This Life”–to name just a very few–are not disposable. At least not to me. They occupy a space in my interpretation of things that no other poem will challenge. In other words, in no small way, they’ve changed my life.
Hopefully, you don’t read this as me swooning but rather making an observation that your poetry means a great deal to me, and thanking you for it.
P. S. If you do happen to come across this letter, I would be honored to hear back from you, really.