MacArthur Fellows Program

Kay Ryan

Poet | Class of 2011

Composing deceptively simple verse of wisdom and elegance, grounded in explorations of familiar ideas and experiences, and surprising us with the possibilities of the medium.

Fairfax, California
65 at time of award
Area of Focus
Published September 20, 2011

About Kay's Work

Kay Ryan is an accomplished poet whose immediately distinctive and tightly woven verse is grounded in incisive explorations of seemingly familiar language, ideas, and experiences. Independent from schools of poetry and literary fashion, her mode of expression is a disarmingly clear and accessible style, characterized by concision, rhyme, wordplay, and wit. A part-time remedial English teacher for over thirty years at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California, Ryan published her first major book of verse, Strangely Marked Metal (1985), at the age of forty. Since then, she has published seven additional volumes of poetry, including The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010). In this work, Ryan's precise crafting of language and thought is revealed in such poems as "The Edges of Time," a philosophical meditation in which the narrator deftly grapples with both the sense of time's fleeting quality as well as one's own mortality. In "Green Behind the Ears," from The Niagara River (2005), she carefully distills an adult's complexity of feeling evoked by memories of one's youth. Drawing from the puns and implications of everyday speech to achieve a wide range of effects, Ryan conveys emotional intensity and intellectual heft in poems that are rarely longer than a page. This inventive poet has already created a distinguished body of work and will continue to compose deceptively simple verse of wisdom and elegance, surprising us with the possibilities of the medium.


Kay Ryan received B.A. (1967) and M.A. (1968) degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. From June 2008 to June 2010, she was the sixteenth Poet Laureate of the United States. Her additional publications include Flamingo Watching (1994), Elephant Rocks (1996), and Say Uncle (2000), among others. Since 2006, she has served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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