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Turtle by Kay Ryan - a Poetry Friday post

Last night, my sweetheart and I drove to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania to attend a reading by Kay Ryan, which was, surprisingly enough, free of charge. My thanks to the good folks at the college and their endowment for that!

Kay Ryan is exactly as you'd expect and nothing like you thought, all at the same time. She is more self-assured and social than her bio makes her sound, and she is adept at handling an audience. I am sorry to say that the majority of the audience I was in did not understand her humor - or at least if they did, they chose not to smile or laugh overmuch. There is so much to love about Ryan's poems. If you're a poet, reading them will make you strive harder to be better at your craft: Ryan is a master at rhyme, alliteration and assonance.

One of the poems Kay Ryan read last night was "Turtle", a poem she introduced by saying that she wrote it at a time in her life when she felt like the beleaguered animal in the poem - she wanted certain things to happen in life, and quickly, and life wasn't complying. This is a poem I have used to teach about the poetic devices I mentioned above: rhyme, alliteration and assonance. It's a wonder for those reasons, and also without paying any attention to them whatsoever.

by Kay Ryan

Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing-case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
she's often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. She lives
below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
the sport of truly chastened things.

Ryan was especially proud of the internal (she calls it "recombinant") rhyme that repeats itself three times, and asked the audience to "spot" it (hard for anyone to do who was just listening, and not looking at the page). The answer is "four-oared" "afford" and "toward", by the way.

In discussing her love of rhyme, Ryan talked about how poets put words together. "Words want to be together, actually. We're just the clearing house." Isn't that lovely?

I found myself inspired and impressed (and in possession of a now-SIGNED copy of her collection, The Best of It, which I brought along and was happy to have during her reading, really. She believes her poems read better from the page than heard aloud). And wishing I could have crashed the poetry course at Bryn Mawr, where Ryan apparently guest-lectured yesterday. Can you imagine??

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