Although Kay Ryan has earned nearly every accolade a poet can dream of—Pulitzer Prize winner, Guggenheim Fellow, National Humanities Medal recipient, and Poet Laureate of the United States, to name a few—Synthesizing Gravity is her first collected work of prose. The title comes from her commentary on Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s poems: “They must synthesize gravity, direction, time, substance. They can’t use anyone else’s.” This idea feels both essential and antithetical to Ryan’s selected prose, where her unique style so often comes out of commenting on the work of others.
Synthesizing Gravity opens with shorter pieces reflecting on the writing process and life at-large then expands to allow for criticism and analysis of her favorite poets and their work. At its conclusion, it broadens still further to comment on her relationship to poetry more broadly. The strongest bits of her book at the beginning and end, where Ryan’s tongue cuts with unstoppable wit on broad subjects related to writing. In disagreeing with the notion for writers to keep notebooks, she argues that, “almost everything is supposed to get away from us,” and that the practice is sort of a crutch, adding, “Isn’t it odd to think that in order to listen we must be a little bit relieved of the intention to understand[?]” Her trip to the 2005 AWP conference is a similar treat. Ryan compares the book fair hall to a Costco, riffs on bombastic panel names (“I guess I shouldn’t have expected to like neglected poets since I don’t like many unneglected ones”), and cringes at her moments of celebrity status, wondering, “What in the world was my essay doing encouraging…ever-expanding fuzzy rings of literary mediocrity, deepening the dismal soup of helpful supportive writing environments?” The only moment she seems to enjoy is an appearance by Phillip Lopate, writing, “I trust writers who know they aren’t nice.”
Although the writing in Synthesizing Gravity is objectively strong, Ryan’s tone and approach can often isolate. A reader likely cannot penetrate the world Ryan inhabits when she fondly gazes at Stevie Smith’s poetry collection and remarks that she believes Robert Frost to be “at the top of the list” of “a whole category of poets who are the ‘talking-back’ poets.” Reading these sections, the reader feels she is standing on the fringe of a cocktail party conversation on a rarefied subject that interests her, but that she cannot quite grasp.
Ryan understands this to a degree, how the reaction is a common problem with poetry and can sometimes lead to distaste for the genre. On a personal level, however, Ryan embraces the prickly nature of uninviting poetry, writing, “The poets I go back to are not at all welcoming. I don’t apparently like to be welcomed…I like skinny-bodied poets, the stringy ones who don’t impress the boys on the poetry beach.” Still, Ryan’s work begs the question of how the average reader is expected to react, especially since she so cheekily writes, “I want the great masters to enjoy what I write. The noble dead are my readers.” What about the rest of us? Is it possible to find something, as I do, somehow both pompous and endearing?
In a way, Ryan does not care if the reader understands or enjoys. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” she writes. “That’s the relief of it. And the reason why nothing can substitute for it… Poems are to liberate our feelings rather than to bind them. If a poem sticks you to it, it has failed.” Ryan’s own uninviting prose mirrors her philosophy about poetry: that it is not meant to be easy or satisfying. Her insights often do bring satisfaction, though, especially when her subject matter is more broad, so it is compelling that this does not seem to be the primary impetus with which she writes. “Greatness in a poem can be calculated as the relationship between means and ends: the bigger the disproportion the greater the poem…it’s the break-line where the welding of the world comes loose,” Ryan writes. She ultimately admits to having two brains for poetry: one concerned just for herself and one for the audience, the latter of which, Ryan writes, “I often see…as a betrayer of the poet, but she isn’t. Secretly they are best friends.”
This second voice of Ryan’s has likely told her this work may not land with every reader, that they will not all be fond of her crotchety distaste for the writing community and obsessive love of long-gone poets. “I cannot imagine that these snippets I am offering here are mixing the morning martinis in you that they are in me,” she writes, even adding, “Indeed, I hope they are not…Such books are the private, the select company of a mind to which I often lack access myself.” This, of course, could well describe Ryan’s book as well. Although Ryan writes here in prose, she carries over her key concepts of how writing should work from her poetry. Alas, much of embracing Ryan’s collection, and embracing poetry generally, seems to come from accepting that poetry may never yield understanding the way that prose often does, but that voice can elicit universal reaction.
Ryan writes, “That’s poetry, this impossible pang… It’s a small door to a room full of gold that we can have any time we go through the door, but that we can’t take away.” Rather than dwell on the shortcomings in understanding, Ryan invites readers to be open to this. “It can be a good thing…to feel trapped, cut off, at your wit’s end, bored silly, left tricked, drained,” she writes. “We need to hear that gurgle when the straw probes futilely for more Coke. We need to be deriched.” She adds, “Being almost there is the best sort of being there.” Readers are fine to dive into Ryan’s essays without fear of not knowing everything, to be simply nodding along on the edge of the circle of partygoers and hopefully attaining something in the process. In fact, it seems to be exactly what Ryan wants.