Sep. 27, 2009
The Wild Swans At Coole
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodlands paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
It's the birthday of poet Kay Ryan, (books by this author) born in San Jose, California (1945). She's the current U.S. poet laureate and the author of the poetry collections Strangely Marked Metal (1985), Elephant Rocks (1996), Say Uncle (2000) and The Niagara River (2005).
Kay Ryan is a lifetime Californian, though she has migrated through the state's vastly varied landscapes: She grew up in small towns among San Joaquin Valley's fertile farmlands and in the stark desert landscape of the Mojave, where her family were parishioners, she says, of the "Church of Proximity" — whichever denomination happened to be closest to their house. She spent six years studying English literature surrounded by Brentwood and Bel Air mansions at UCLA, where she was excluded from the school poetry club because, she recalls, she was thought of as "too much of an outsider." Since the 1970s, she's lived along Francis Drake Boulevard in Fairfax, a small town in Marin County (just north of San Francisco), a town in which reusable canvas bags and signs proclaiming "Buy local" and "Organic" abound.
She started writing poetry at age 19, the year her father died while reading a book on how to get rich quick. Throughout her 20s, she wrote some poems, but it was mostly something she did in her spare time. Then, age 29, she decided to bicycle across the country with some friends, hoping that the 4,000-mile trek would give her time to think about what she was going to do with her life. She started on the West Coast, and as she was pedaling through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, she said, "The repetitive, rhythmic exercise gave [her] a sense of oneness with [her] surroundings." It felt as though, she said, "I could pass through the pine trees and they through me."
At that moment, she asked the universe, "Should I be a writer?" She said that the universe answered with a question: "Do you like it?" Her response was a resounding affirmative, and in that moment, she felt that she "wasn't bound by the ordinary structures of ego."
When she returned to California, she went about setting up her life so that she could devote as much of it as possible to poetry. She got a job teaching basic writing skills to junior college students at the College of Marin in Kentfield. She taught only Tuesdays and Thursdays and lived frugally so that she could spend the other five days a week writing poetry. Kay Ryan has an unusual writing routine. After breakfast and reading the newspaper, she reads "difficult books," in order, she says, "to help get my mind up to speed." And she writes the first drafts of her poems on pads of yellow paper.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®