poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

In 1946, Michael Ryan was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He received a BA from the University of Notre Dame, an MA from Claremont Graduate University, and both an MFA and PhD from the University of Iowa. While studying at Iowa, he was the Poetry Editor of The Iowa Review.

Ryan's poetry manuscript, Threats Instead of Trees (1974), was selected by Stanley Kunitz for the Yale Series of Younger Poets and was a finalist that year for the National Book Award. His second collection of poems, In Winter (1981), was a National Poetry Series selection. Since then, Ryan has published two other collections of poetry, God Hunger (1989), which received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; and New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), which received the 2005 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.

About Ryan's work, the critic William H. Pritchard said in The Nation: "Unlike too many poets who tumble into print at the first twitch of feeling, Ryan takes time to listen to himself, and such listening contributes immeasurably to the subtlety of his address to the reader. [He] reminds us on every page that poems can be about lives, and about them in ways most urgent and delicate."

Ryan is also the author of an autobiography, Secret Life (Pantheon Books, 1995), which was highly acclaimed and became a New York Times Notable Book. He has also written a memoir, Baby B (Graywolf Press, 2004), excerpted in The New Yorker, and a collection of essays about poetry and writing, A Difficult Grace (University of Georgia Press, 2000).

"Ryan shows himself to be a superior formalist—" the poet David Baker said in The Kenyon Review, "that is, subtle, effective, various—for whom formality is less a quality to flaunt than a necessary means of articulation and control, whose best work is severe and taut, and whose gift is to be able to turn the apparently personal into the public and important."

Ryan's honors include a Whiting Writers Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. He has taught writing at the University of Iowa, Princeton University, the University of Virginia, the Warren Wilson College MFA Program, and the University of California, Irvine, where he has been a Professor of English and Creative Writing since 1990.

He currently lives in California with his wife, Doreen Gildroy, and their daughter, Emily.

Poem at Thirty

Michael Ryan
The rich little kids across the street
twist their swings in knots. Near me,
on the porch, wasps jazz old nesting tunes
and don't get wild over human sweat.
This is the first summer of my middle life.
I ought to be content. The mindless harsh
process of history; with its diverse murders
and starvations, its whippings, humiliations,
child-tyrants, and beasts, I don't care for
or understand. Nor do I understand
restlessness that sometimes stops my sleep.

Waking, those mornings, is like being thrown from a train.
All you know comes to falling:
the body, in its witless crooning for solidity,
keeps heading for the ground.
There is no air, no sound, nothing
but dumb insistence of body weight
coming down, and there is no thought of love,
or passing time, or don't want to be alone.
Probably one hundred thousand impressions
wrinkle the brain in a moment like this,
but if you could think about it
you'd admit the world goes on in any case,
roars on, in fact, without you, on its endless iron track.



But most mornings I ease awake:
also a falling,
but delicate as an agile wing
no one may touch with hands,
a transparent wing like a distant moan
arriving disembodied of pleasure or pain,
a wing that dissolves on the tongue,
a wing that has never flown.

Because I've awakened like this,
I think I could love myself quietly
and let the world go on.

So today I watched a pudgy neighbor
edge her lawn, and heard the small blade whine;
I saw her husband, the briefcase man,
whiz off in his Mercedes without a glance.
I believe I'm beginning to understand
that I don't know what such things mean:
stupid pain or pure tranquillity,
desire's dull ache or conquering the body,
the need to say we and be known to someone
or what I see in myself as I sit here alone.

The sun glares most mornings
like an executive's thick pinky diamond,
and slowly the dark backs off
This is one reason this morning I awakened.



No one can tell you how to be alone.
Some fine people I've known swirl to me
in airy forms like just so much hot dust.
They have all moved through in dreams.
A lover's smell, the gut laugh of a friend,
become hard to recall as a particular wind.

No one can tell you how to be alone.
Like the deep vacuum in sleep, nothing
holds you up or knocks you down, only
it doesn't end in waking but goes on and on.
The tangles of place, the floating in time,
you must accept gently like a favorite dream.

If you can't, and you don't, the mind
unlocks the mind. Madness, with his lewd grin,
always waits outside the window, always
wanting to come in. I've gone out before,
both to slit his throat and to kiss his hand.
No one can tell you how to be alone:

Watch tiny explosions as flowers break ground;
hear the children giggle, rapid and clean.
It's hard to care about ordinary things.
Doesn't pain expand from lack of change?
I can't grasp exactly the feelings of anyone.
No one can tell you how to be alone.



At thirty the body begins to slow down.
Does that make for the quiet on this porch,
a chemical ability to relax and watch?
If a kid bounces her pelvis against a chain-link fence,
bounces so metal sings
and it seems she must be hurting herself
how old must I get before I tell her to stop?

Right now, I let her do it.
She's so beautiful in her filthy T-shirt
and gym shorts, her hair swings with each clang,
and she can do no wrong.
I let her do it as background music
to storm clouds moving in like a dark army.
I let her do it as a fond wish for myself
I feel the vibration of the fence
as a wasp feels voices on a pane of glass.
The song in it I can't make out.

This day, then, ends in rain
but almost everyone will live through it.
Tomorrow's thousands losing their loved ones
have not yet stepped into never being the same again.
Maybe the sun's first light will hit me
in those moments, but I'd gladly wake to feel it:
the dramatic opening of a day,
clean blood pumping from the heart.

From New and Selected Poems by Michael Ryan. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Ryan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

From New and Selected Poems by Michael Ryan. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Ryan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Michael Ryan

Michael Ryan

Born in 1946, the poet Michael Ryan's works have been selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award

by this poet

poem
Sex
After the earth finally touches the sun,
and the long explosion stops suddenly
like a heart run down,
the world might seem white and quiet
to something that watches it in the sky at night,
so something might feel small,
and feel nearly human pain.

But it won't happen again:
the long nights wasted alone, what's
poem
It shows up one summer in a greatcoat,
storms through the house confiscating,
says it must be paid and quickly,
says it must take everything.

Your children stare into their cornflakes,
your wife whispers only once to stop it,
because she loves you and she sees it
darken the room suddenly like a stain.

What did
poem
Torment by appetite
is itself an appetite
dulled by inarticulate,
dogged, daily

loving-others-to-death—
as Chekhov put it, "compassion
down to your fingertips"—
looking on them as into the sun

not in the least for their sake
but slowly for your own
because it causes
the blinded soul to bloom

like