California ‘hermit' named poet laureate

Kay Ryan, award-winning poet, mountain bike rider and self-described “modern hermit,” is going to Washington.

The Library of Congress will announce today that the lifelong Californian, whose compressed, metaphysical poetry has been likened to Emily Dickinson's, will succeed Charles Simic as the 16th U.S. poet laureate. The appointment lasts a year and brings a $35,000 salary, $5,000 for travel and a “splendid office,” said Librarian of Congress James Billington.

“In a society full of rhetorical overstatement and a kind of zigging in and out of all kinds of pontifical disguises, she's got this marvelous, understated depth,” he said recently.

Ryan, 62, lives in Fairfax, Calif., with longtime partner Carol Adair. The poet acknowledged that being named the nation's laureate was hardly on her mind during the past 30 years as she quietly completed six volumes of poetry, taught at the local College of Marin, and enjoyed the woods and hills of Northern California.

Upon hearing the Library of Congress had called, she said, she thought, “I can't have that many overdue books.” But she was also “hip enough to the world of possible glories for the poet” to know who chose the laureate.

She is a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles whose books include “Elephant Rocks,” “Say Uncle” and “The Niagara River,” released in 2005. She has won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, four Pushcart Prizes and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Describing her work, she says she likes “to squeeze things until they explode.”

Her poems are profoundly and humorously aware of both the limitless cosmos and our limited lives, as illustrated in “The Best of It,” in which she writes, “However carved up/or pared down we get/we keep on making/the best of it.”