Teaching Writing

Poet Laureate Kay Ryan: Poet as Teacher, Teacher as Poet

Curators notes:

Listen to two-time Poet Laureate Kay Ryan as she addresses Poets and Writers in San Francisco.


Although Kay Ryan has kept her life as a teacher separate from her life as a writer, her teaching and poetry share similarities. They both focus on fundamentals and a search for the possibilities of expression within the limits of small spaces.

Ryan, who served two terms as United States Poet Laureate, taught remedial English as an adjunct professor at the Bay Area’s College of Marin for 33 years. She set a straightforward goal for her students: “a shapely, powerful paragraph, properly punctuated, grammatically correct, with a topic sentence, primary support, secondary support, and a conclusion.”

“I could deal with all problems in the miniature arena of the paragraph,” she says. “Oh, you can do a lot there. You can get their minds ordered and help them get so many skills. ‘What’s the main point? What are the primary supports for that? What illustrates it?’ That helps them in every aspect of their lives.”

Teaching such rudimentary writing skills might sound like a pedestrian task for one destined to become the nation’s poet laureate. But as with Ryan’s short, deceptively simple poems—which typically number only 20 lines or so, with just a few choice words per line—the compact space of a paragraph presents limitations that don’t necessarily limit writing.

A Reluctant Teacher

Ryan speaks affectionately of her community college students, but she didn’t want to be a teacher, even though her mother and grandmother were both teachers. She became a teacher “completely by accident”—as “good indoor work” that allowed her to write poetry.

“I disdained people who considered what practical purpose they might put their education to,” says Ryan with a laugh. “I considered myself completely driven by questions of the intellect and aesthetics. I simply also had no capacity for thinking in the future.”

Ryan’s father was an oil driller, and the idea of being a published poet was a remote one in the dusty working-class towns of the San Joaquin Valley and Mojave Desert where she grew up.

She attended Antelope Valley College, a community college near her home, and then received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA before returning to teach at Antelope Valley.

As with many community college teachers, she was essentially dropped into her class and had to learn on the job alone. “I wasn’t ready,” she says. “I hadn’t taken any education classes. Teaching had to teach me how to do it.”

In 1971 she visited Marin County, decided to live there, and found a job teaching at the College of Marin.

Just as a writer has to work to develop a voice, a style, Ryan had to work to find her identity and approach as an educator. It took some time for her to understand how to best approach her students, some of whom were older than she was. She would explain concepts to students by using simple analogies—for instance, describing an essay’s introductory paragraph as the engine of a train—and she worried she might come off as condescending.

“It took me ages to realize that you can do these things with respect. Because if someone doesn’t know something, that’s no shame, and if you use a simple analogy, that’s no shame. I had to realize that there is great art in simplicity.”

Simple, Yet Demanding Poems

The art of simplicity that Ryan honed as a teacher is very much a part of her poetry, especially in how it’s made her conceive of her audience.

“Teaching has made me always question the way I say things. I never take my audience for granted. I want to write in such a way that anyone who is willing to try hard, just with a good mind and attention, can get it. I don’t mean that I’m trying to hit the least common denominator or anything, but I don’t want to assume a lot of learning.”

The closing lines from William Carlos Williams’ poem “January Morning” sum up her approach, she says:

All this —
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
But you got to try hard —

Dana Gioia, poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, comments on the combination of simplicity and challenge in Ryan’s work in his essay “Discovering Kay Ryan” : “She is not obscure but sly, dense, elliptical, and suggestive. She plays with her readers—not maliciously or gratuitously but to rouse them from conventional response and expectation.”

In fact, Ryan embraces the commonplace, revels in clichés. She compares herself to a second-language student who hears these strange nuggets for the first time and thinks “how gorgeous they are—arresting and concise.”

“I think if we pay attention to clichés, then they aren’t clichés anymore,” she says. “The thing about a cliché is that it’s language that we don’t listen to. If we listen to clichés they are gorgeous, and they have survived in language because they are often the quickest way to get from one place to another.”

As Ryan threads a cliché through a poem, it serves as a conduit to nuanced, evocative speculations that subtly demand attention. For example, Ryan’s poem “Home to Roost” uses the cliché “when the chickens come home to roost” to investigate her sense of desperation in an oblique and menacing way.

The chickens
are circling
and blotting out the
sun. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them…

Her poems can feel casual, conversational, even folksy, but not confessional. In fact, the use of such language as clichés gives her a way to explore the self without directly talking about herself.

“I don’t have to say look at me, and I can find out so much more by taking this approach,” she says.

Learning to Write

It might be natural to think that Ryan would want to teach creative writing classes, but you won’t find her in writers’ workshops—either as a writer or a teacher. “What I thought was very necessary was that my work be private,” she says. “I could barely stand my own struggle. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about their creative writing, their poetry.”

Although she doesn’t like to talk about writing in spiritual terms, one might say she’s taken a monk’s approach to her art. Her work went unpublished and without acclaim for years, but she taught herself to write “slowly, stubbornly, with a lot of frustration and with a lot of humiliation,” guarding the solitude and quiet she needed to focus on writing.

“I have a constitutional aversion to instruction, so I had to learn how to write my way. My early work was kind of funny and superficial and narrative, and I had to learn to really respect language and not to waste anyone’s time. Nobody else could teach me.”

A reckoning with failure can be crucial to a writer’s development, Ryan says.

“I believe in people banging around by themselves. If they find anything, they go down on their knees and feel like it was a miracle.”

Artist Teachers

Ryan sees connections between life as an artist and life as a teacher. In December, at a reading at the College of Marin, she dedicated the evening to “artist teachers,” such as her partner, Carol Adair. Adair, who recently died, was a lifetime community college teacher—”a different sort of teacher from me,” says Ryan. “She was an artist teacher; it was spiritual practice for her.”

Ryan says the nature of art applies to the craft of teaching in a number of ways.

“An art is something that you can think about, go back to, and don’t get tired of going back to. You do it again and want to go back and do some more. It doesn’t exhaust you, it intrigues you and makes you want to try it another way. An art is something to which you apply everything in life—it all becomes material for your art. When something is your art, it gives you a way of thinking that is profound to you—it allows you access to parts of your own self that you have no access to otherwise. ”

In other words, the same passionate, single-minded, ineffable urge that drives a poet can drive a teacher.

“There are artist teachers who put their lives, all their experiences in their lives, into their teaching really actively and who are refreshed by teaching. And I think that’s true art—that was Carol.”

Advocating for Community Colleges

Although Ryan no longer teaches, she wants to use her second term as poet laureate to advocate for the importance of community colleges in the nation and to reach out to more community college students by doing readings at campuses across the nation.

“When I think community college, I think of those people who are getting themselves to a point where they can function in this country. Where they can get a job and read the paper, assuming there are still newspapers left.”

Ryan recounted the story of a student of hers who was an English language learner and had a job as a bank teller but needed to take Ryan’s class because her boss told her to learn how to write.

“She was so thrilled when she could write clear notes to her boss or other tellers. I want that to happen to more people, and I see community college as that essential bridge for people who for one reason or another don’t have the skills to really succeed. A bridge so that they can go on to a four-year college and get a decent job.”

But learning to write goes beyond fundamental employment skills. “You don’t know what you think unless you can write,” says Ryan.

“I think we have to make an object, because the conversation inside ourselves is so intimate that we can’t see it unless we can make a product and see it. In a way, writing creates a second person for you. When you write you are two people. Because you are writing to the writer and the writer is talking to you.”

If community college students develop these skills, they can go anywhere. “You can even be the poet laureate,” Ryan says.

This post is part of the Meet the Poets: the Writers Council and Beyond collection.