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For Kay Ryan, Poetry Is 'the Most Private Form of Communication'

A report on the new poet laureate of the U.S. A question from Yemen about Emily Dickinson. And poetry set to music, on a new album from France's first lady, Carla Bruni. Transcript of radio broadcast:


Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.


I'm Doug Johnson. This week, a special poetry show:

We hear some songs of famous poems by France's First Lady Carla Bruni ...

Answer a question about American poet Emily Dickinson …

And tell about Kay Ryan, who begins serving as poet laureate of the United States this weekend.


Kay Ryan


The United States has a new poet laureate, Kay Ryan. She will read some of her poetry Saturday at the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Barbara Klein tells about the poet and her work.


Kay Ryan did not know she could be a writer until she had a brief talk with the universe. She was on a very long bicycle trip, from the West Coast to the East, in nineteen seventy-six. Riding through Colorado's Rocky Mountains, a question came to her: "Can I be a writer?" Ryan said the universe answered, also with a question: "Do you like it?"

She said yes, she liked it more than anything else. A few years later, she and her friends self-published her first book of poetry, "Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends."

Kay Ryan generally writes short poems that have short lines. The poems look simple on the page, and can be read simply, but they are complex in subject. They are often many things at once: funny, sad, troubling or mysterious, frightening yet hopeful. And her poetry has a wonderful playfulness with words. Kay Ryan says she likes to use rhyme in unexpected ways.

The poem, "Blandeur," is a good example. She read it at the Library of Congress in two thousand one.


"If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth's
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts."

Kay Ryan was born in nineteen forty-five in Southern California. She grew up in small valley and desert towns. She received both her bachelor's and master's degrees in English from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has taught English at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California, for more than thirty years. She lives in Marin County with Carol Adair, her partner of thirty years.

Kay Ryan says she believes poetry is "the most secret, the most private form of communication in language." She says she does not believe it will ever lose value no matter how many, or how few, readers it has.

Kay Ryan has advice for those who want to write poetry: Read a lot. Not necessarily poetry. Read science, philosophy, newspapers, murder mysteries and all kinds of things. And, she says it is good to have a love of language.

Kay Ryan has won many poetry prizes. She has also been compared to American poet Emily Dickinson, but dismisses the suggestion. Some of her favorite American poets include William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost. Her international favorites include Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Emily Dickinson


Our listener question this week comes from Yemen. Sameer Taher Mahdi wants to know about what he calls the "strange life" of Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson was born in eighteen thirty in the small Massachusetts town of Amherst. She lived and died in the same house where she was born. She received a good education. She studied philosophy, the Latin language, and the science of plants and rocks.

Emily's parents were important people in Amherst. Many famous visitors came to their house, and Emily met them. Her father was a well-known lawyer who was elected to Congress for one term.

Mister Dickinson believed that women should be educated. But he also believed a woman's one and only duty in life was to care for her husband and children. Emily once said: "He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they upset the mind. "

Emily Dickinson wrote more than one thousand seven hundred poems. There are three books of her letters. And there are many books about her life.

Some of her best poems were written between eighteen fifty-eight and eighteen sixty-two. Here is one of them.

I live with Him -- I see his face --
I go no more away
For Visitor -- or Sundown --
Death's single privacy
Dreams -- are well -- but Waking's better,
If One wake at Morn --
If One wake at Midnight better --
Dreaming -- of the Dawn --
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to me --
The simple News that Nature told --
With tender Majesty

Although Emily Dickinson did not believe in organized religion, religious music of the time influenced the form of her poetry. She also used unusual words. She once wrote that the dictionary was her best friend. The English writer William Shakespeare, the Christian holy book the Bible and nature also influenced her work.

Emily Dickinson's life was strange because the older she became the more she withdrew from the world. By her early thirties, she had stopped socializing almost completely. Within several years, she would not even open her door to visitors. She rarely left her house.

Emily Dickinson died in eighteen eighty-six at the age of fifty-five. She had made her sister Lavinia promise to burn all her writing but, luckily for us, that did not happen.

Very few of Emily Dickinson's poems were published when she was alive. She gained no fame until years after her death. Her complete works were published in nineteen fifty-five. She is now considered one of the world's great poets.

Carla Bruni


We continue our poetry theme with an album of poems put to music. Italian-born Carla Bruni is well known for her career as a model and her recent marriage to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. But Miz Bruni also writes and sings music. Her second album is called "No Promises." It is her first album in English. The album has musical versions of eleven poems by some of the most important English and American poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Faith Lapidus plays three of these songs.



That was "Those Dancing Days Are Gone," written by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. It is a good example of Carla Bruni's style. The singer says she sometimes felt guilty about repeating sentences in Yeats' poem since the poet did not repeat them in his original work. But she decided that Yeats would not have minded if she had sung the sung for him.

When she was planning this album, Carla Bruni thought she would combine songs she wrote with musical versions of these famous poems. But she said that the poetry reaches such a level of perfection that she only kept the poems. Here is "Lady Weeping at the Crossroads" by the poet W. H. Auden.


To make this album, Carla Bruni worked with her friend, British singer Marianne Faithfull, to improve her voice and diction. Faithfull also shared her knowledge of English and American poetry.We leave you with Carla Bruni's version of Emily Dickinson's poem "I Felt My Life With Both My Hands."



I'm Doug Johnson. I hope you enjoyed our program today.

It was written by Dana Demange and Caty Weaver who was also the producer.

Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC, VOA's radio magazine in Special English.