Sample Essay Analysis Poem The Quiet
Writing a Thesis Sentence: An Introduction
Few sentences in your paper will vex you as much as the thesis sentence. And with good reason: the thesis sentence is typically that one sentence in the paper with the potential to assert, control, and structure the entire argument. Without a strong, thoughtful thesis or claim, a paper might seem unfocused.
Complicating the matter further is that different disciplines have different notions of what constitutes a good thesis sentence. Sometimes you'll encounter differences not only from discipline to discipline, but also from course to course. One of your professors might frown on a thesis sentence that announces your process: "This paper will argue X by asserting A, B, and C." Another professor might prefer this approach.
So what makes a good thesis sentence?
Despite the differences from discipline to discipline and from course to course, a good thesis will generally have the following characteristics:
A good thesis sentence will make a claim.
A good thesis rarely turns an intellectual problem into a black & white, "either/or" proposition that the writer will then defend. Rather, a good thesis offers a nuanced and interesting perspective that the writer can develop via careful analysis. This perspective must be more than an observation. For example, "America is violent" is an observation. "Americans are violent because they are fearful" (the position that Michael Moore takes in Bowling for Columbine) is an argument. Why? Because it posits a perspective. It makes a claim.
Put another way, a good thesis sentence will inspire (rather than quiet) other points of view. One might argue that America is violent because of its violent entertainment industry. Or because of the proliferation of guns. Or because of the disintegration of the family. In short, if your thesis is positing something that no one can (or would wish to) argue with, then it's not a good thesis.
A good thesis sentence will define the scope of your argument.
Your thesis sentence determines what you will discuss in your paper. It also determines what you won't discuss. Every paragraph in your paper exists in order to support your thesis and its claim. Accordingly, if one of your paragraphs seems irrelevant, you have two choices: get rid of the paragraph, or rewrite your thesis so that it is complex enough to embrace the whole of your argument.
A good thesis will shape your argument.
A good thesis not only signals to the reader what claim you're making, but also suggests how your argument will be presented. In other words, your thesis sentence should suggest the structure or shape of your argument to your reader.
Say, for example, that you are going to argue that "American fearfulness expresses itself in two curious ways: A and B." In this case, the reader understands that you are going to have two important points to cover, and that these points will appear in a certain order. If you suggest a particular ordering principle in your thesis and then abandon it, the reader could become confused.
Developing A Thesis: Sample Methods
Professors employ a variety of methods to teach students how to compose good thesis sentences. Your professor has likely demonstrated several methods to you. Here we offer sample methods employed by three instructors from the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric: John Donaghy, Sara Biggs Chaney, and Karen Gocsik. Please note that these methods do not represent a program-wide sense of the thesis and how it should be taught or practiced. In fact, no such program-wide method exists. Instructors in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric believe that there are many approaches which can help students compose a good thesis. We offer you these examples with the hope that you will think about their underlying principles and consider how these principles might transfer to the work that you're doing in your classrooms.
JOHN DONAGHY: FINDING PATTERNS, SOLVING PROBLEMS
Professor John Donaghy's method is founded on the understanding that a good thesis comes from good analysis. In his view, analysis is a complicated process that requires readers to break down a text (event, object, or phenomenon) into parts, discovering patterns among the parts, and coming up with a theory for why these patterns exist. Professor Donaghy believes that students are initially afraid of analysis. He's puzzled by this fear. In fact, Professor Donaghy argues, we are analyzing all the time: life presents us with data that we are continually sorting by finding patterns, creating categories, and making meaning. Analysis is necessary for something as simple as crossing the street. Students can be encouraged to see that they already possess analytical skills that can be transferred to writing papers.
To illustrate how analysis brings us to the development of a thesis, Professor Donaghy suggests three steps regarding a simple reading of the following Gary Snyder poem, "Pine tree tops:"
In the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
The creak of boots. Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.
First, when analyzing, students need to be conscious of examining parts of a text, looking for patterns (or repeating elements). In a short poem, students can make a number of simple observations, including:
- Number of words (34)
- Number of syllables in words (mostly single syllable)
- Parts of speech: mostly nouns; adjectives are scarce; surprisingly few verbs
Second, students need to try to determine how these parts and patterns are speaking to each other. Do these parts and patterns illustrate a similarity? Draw a contrast? Create an emphasis? Together form a new observation or idea? In terms of the poem:
- Nouns: so many nouns emphasizes the "thing-ness" of the poem
- Adjectives: very few; one (blue) is attached to a noun
- Verbs: the verbs (glows, bend, fade) are gentle, yielding verbs
Finally, students can put forward a proposition. For instance: Snyder builds his poem on nouns to give power to the "things" in his scene. Or Snyder chooses verbs that seem to yield to the nouns in order to tell us how to behave in the presence of nature. This proposition, with some tweaking, can become a working thesis.
SARA BIGGS CHANEY: EVOLVING THE THESIS BY UNPACKING THE ASSUMPTIONS & MAKING COUNTER-CLAIMS
Professor Sara Chaney uses various methods to help her students arrive at a thesis. One that has proven successful is requiring students to examine their assumptions. Professor Chaney begins this instruction by introducing the student to the enthymeme. Like the syllogism (All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal), the enthymeme has three parts: the major premise, the minor premise, and the conclusion. The difference is that in the case of the syllogism, the major premise is based on fact (All men are mortal), while in the enthymeme it's based on a commonly held belief (cheating is unethical, smoking around children is a danger to their health, etc.). As Professor Chaney notes, in many cases the enthymeme is presented with the major premise left unstated: She smokes around her daughter; she endangers her daughter's health. Professor Chaney illustrates the importance in finding the "missing" major premise, arguing that unpacking an argument's unstated assumptions can help students to better analyze the texts they're writing about, and to create better texts of their own.
The key question to ask is: What must be true about the world in order for this statement to be true? Students are asked to put forth all hidden assumptions, large and small. This forces the students to dig beneath the surface of the text, to explore the structure and the nuance of the argument. In the process, ideas for a thesis will present themselves.
Once the students have drafted a thesis, Professor Chaney has a strategy (borrowed from David Rossenwasser and Jill Stephen's Writing Analytically) for evolving the thesis by putting forward counter-claims. Students sometimes make the mistake of forcing evidence to fit an overly rigid claim, or of presenting their claim in the form of a list, with few connections between the points. To evolve the thesis, Professor Chaney asks students to begin with their basic claim and then to methodically increase the complexity of that claim through the introduction of complicating evidence. This new evidence forces students to redefine their initial claims and to determine how the counter-claim might or might not be accommodated by their thesis.
For instance, a student may have written the following thesis: "Reported cases of autism in children have increased by almost 200% in the last twenty years because autism has been redefined to include less severe forms of the disorder." Professor Chaney presents students with this complicating evidence: "Some research also suggests that autism may be linked to mercury exposure in childhood vaccines." Students may weigh the evidence to see which has more merit; they might expand their thesis to point to two reasons for rising autism; they might acknowledge the truth in both statements but want to subordinate one argument to the other; they might point out a causal relationship between the two sentences (i.e., has the frequent levels of mercury exposures led to a new definition of autism in the DSM-IV, which in turn has increased the numbers of reported cases of autism?). Using any of these methods, students will have improved their thesis sentences.
KAREN GOCSIK: FINDING THE UMBRELLA IDEA
Professor Karen Gocsik advises that developing a good thesis is often the result of finding the "umbrella idea." Finding this idea requires that students move back and forth between a text's particularities and its big ideas in order to find a suitable "fit" between the two that the students can write about. This fit is then summed up in the "umbrella idea," or the big idea that all of their observations can stand under.
For instance, in an exploration of the Gospels as rhetoric, a student makes the specific observation that, in three of the four gospels, Jesus is reported as saying dramatically different things during his crucifixion. This observation by itself won't produce a paper - it's simply a statement of fact, with which no one will disagree. Nevertheless, this observation provokes a broader question: do these differences constitute a contradiction in the text? And if so, how do we understand this contradiction? What are the conditions of religious truth? Is there room for a contradiction as important as this?
Of course, these questions are too big to be addressed in an academic paper. And so the student returns to the text, still with these too-big questions haunting him. Reviewing the specific contradictions of the text, he crafts another set of questions: How should we understand the differences we see across the four gospels? What might have inspired these writers to craft this important crucifixion scene differently - particularly when, as is true of the authors of Matthew and Luke, they were using the same sources? The student posits that these differences arise from a difference in audience, historical moment, and rhetorical purpose. He turns to scholarship and finds his interpretation confirmed.
But the bigger questions persist. If the gospels are constructed to serve the earthly purposes of converting or supporting the beliefs of specific audiences, how can they also be considered as true? After doing a great deal of sketching, the student posits that perhaps the differences and contradictions are precisely what communicates the texts' truth to its audience of believers. After all, if the truth of a supreme being is beyond human grasp, then perhaps it requires a many-voiced or polyglossic narrative. With this idea in mind, the student produces a paper that not only details the variances across the texts, but offers a claim about why an audience of believers are not deterred by the differences. It is this claim that serves as the umbrella idea, synthesizing the student writer's various observations and ideas.
To sum up, successful employment of the umbrella method depends on four steps:
- Students must move fluidly back and forth between the text and their abstractions/generalizations, ready to adjust their ideas to the new evidence and new abstractions that they encounter.
- Students must sketch their ideas. Drawing their ideas helps students pull their thinking out of linear, two-dimensional modes, enabling them to see multiple possibilities for their essays.
- Students must seek an umbrella idea, under which their ideas can stand. To get to this umbrella idea, they need not only to analyze but to synthesize: they need to bring disparate ideas together, to see if they fit.
- They further need to create this synthesis by playing with language, creating an umbrella sentence that can embrace their ideas. This requires that students write and revise their thesis sentence several times as they write their paper. It also requires that students have a basic understanding of the principles of style, so that they can understand how to place their ideas in appropriate clauses, create the proper emphasis, and so on.
Alternatives to the Thesis Sentence
Sometimes, the purpose of a piece of writing is not to make a claim but to raise questions. Other times, a writer wants to leave a matter unresolved, inspiring the reader to create his or her own position. In these cases, the thesis sentence might take other forms: the thesis question or the implied thesis.
The Thesis Question
As we've said, not every piece of writing sets out to make a claim. If your purpose as a writer is to explore, for instance, the reasons for the 9/11 attacks (a topic for which you are not prepared to make a claim), your thesis might read: "What forces conspired to bring these men to crash four jetliners into American soil?"
You'll note that this question, while provocative, does not offer a sense of the argument's structure. It permits the writer to pursue all ideas, without committing to any. While this freedom might seem appealing, in fact you will find that the lack of a declarative thesis statement requires more work: you need to tighten your internal structure and your transitions from paragraph to paragraph so that the essay is clear and the reader can easily follow your line of inquiry.
The Implied Thesis
One of the most fascinating things about a thesis sentence is that it is the most important sentence in a paper - even when it's not there.
Some of our best writers never explicitly declare their theses. In some essays, you'll find it difficult to point to a single sentence that declares the argument. Still, the essay is coherent and makes a point. In these cases, the writers have used an implied thesis.
Writers use an implied thesis when they want to maintain a light hand. However, just because the writer doesn't delcare the thesis doesn't mean that she was working without one. Good writers will have their thesis clearly stated - either in their own minds, or in their notes for the paper. They may elect not to put the thesis in the paper, but every paragraph, every sentence that they write is controlled by the thesis all the same.
If you decide to write a paper with an implied thesis, be sure that you have a strong grasp of your argument and its structure. Also be sure that you supply adequate transitions, so that the reader can follow your argument with ease.
Will This Thesis Sentence Make the Grade? (A Check List)
In the end, you may have spent a good deal of time writing your thesis and still not know if it's a good one. Here are some questions to ask yourself.
- Does my thesis sentence attempt to answer (or at least to explore) a challenging intellectual question?
- Is the point I'm making one that would generate discussion and argument, or is it one that would leave people asking, "So what?"
- Is my thesis too vague? Too general? Should I focus on some more specific aspect of my topic?
- Does my thesis deal directly with the topic at hand, or is it a declaration of my personal feelings?
- Does my thesis indicate the direction of my argument? Does it suggest a structure for my paper?
- Does my introductory paragraph define terms important to my thesis? If I am writing a research paper, does my introduction "place" my thesis within the larger, ongoing scholarly discussion about my topic?
- Is the language in my thesis vivid and clear? Have I structured my sentence so that the important information is in the main clause? Have I used subordinate clauses to house less important information? Have I used parallelism to show the relationship between parts of my thesis? In short, is this thesis the very best sentence that it can be?
What else do you need to know about thesis sentences?
A good thesis usually relies on a strong introduction, sharing the work.
As your writing becomes more sophisticated, you will find that a one-sentence thesis statement cannot bear the burden of your entire argument. Therefore, you will find yourself relying increasingly on your introduction to lay the groundwork. Use your introduction to explain some of your argument's points and/or to define its terms. Save the "punch" for your thesis. For more information about creating good introductions that can support your thesis sentences, see Introductions and Conclusions elsewhere in this website.
The structure of your thesis, along with its introduction, should in some way reflect the logic that brought you to your argument.
It's helpful when structuring your thesis sentence to consider for a moment how it was that you came to your argument in the first place. No matter what discipline you are working in, you came to your idea by way of certain observations. For example, perhaps you have noticed in a History of Education course that female college students around the turn of the century seem very often to write about the idea of service to the community. How did you come to that observation? What did you observe first? And, more importantly, how did you go about exploring the significance of this observation? Did you investigate other college documents to see if the value of service was explicitly stated there? Or was this value implied in course descriptions, extra curricular possibilities, and so forth? Reconstruct for yourself how you came to your observations, and use this to help you to create a coherent introduction and thesis.
A good working thesis is your best friend.
Those writers who understand the concept of "working thesis" are way ahead of the game. A "working thesis" is a thesis that works for you, helping you to see where your ideas are going. Many students keep their working thesis in front of them at all times to help them to control the direction of their argument. But what happens when you stumble onto an idea that your thesis isn't prepared for? Or, more important, what happens when you think everything is going well in your paper and suddenly you arrive at a block? Always return to your working thesis, and give it a critical once-over. You may find that the block in your writing process is related to some limitation in your thesis. Or you may find that hidden somewhere in that working thesis is the germ of an even better idea. Stay in conversation with your thesis throughout the writing process. You'll be surprised at what you can learn from it.
Kay Ryan has become a famous poet in much the same way Ernest Hemingway described a man going broke: “gradually and then suddenly.” She was nearing forty when her first, self-published book appeared, in 1983, but neither that début nor the two books that followed got much response from readers or critics. In 1999, when Dana Gioia wrote an essay calling attention to Ryan’s work, it was the first substantial review she had ever received. Gioia recalled that he had discovered Ryan “almost by accident,” when he was given a copy of her 1994 collection, “Flamingo Watching.” “No critical fanfare accompanied the slender volume,” he wrote, “and I had no special reason to think it possessed singular merit.” Though Ryan was then fifty-four, and had been publishing for the best part of two decades, Gioia still considered her a “new” poet.
That was just over ten years ago. Today, Ryan is entering her second term as poet laureate of the United States, and has received most of the awards American poetry has to give. The appearance of “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems” (Grove/Atlantic; $24) confirms her stature: only the most eminent poets command this kind of publication, which represents for a poet what a career retrospective at a major museum means for a painter.
Yet to speak of Ryan’s success in conventional terms, however accurate it may be, feels like an irrelevancy, if not an impertinence. “One can’t work / by lime light,” Ryan wrote in a punning poem in her 2000 collection, “Say Uncle”: “A bowlful / right at / one’s elbow / produces no / more than / a baleful / glow against / the kitchen table.” And the more prominent Ryan has become, the more cuttingly she has criticized the very poetry world that seeks to honor her. In a wonderfully impolite essay published in Poetry in 2005, she wrote about attending the annual convention of the Associated Writing Programs—the umbrella organization for all the nation’s university creative-writing departments. Ryan compared the event, with its two-hundred-and-thirty-page schedule and its fifteen simultaneous panels, to a trip to Costco: “The AWP catalog says to you, as the Costco shopping cart says to you, Think big! Glut yourself !”
To a poet like Ryan, nothing could be more of an anathema than bigness. Open “The Best of It” to any page, and you will find a narrow column of verse, held aloft by taut rhythms and irregular rhymes; her poems are seldom longer than a page and never longer than two. There have been great poets devoted to glut, but Ryan belongs to the other—and usually more trustworthy—camp, the one ruled by what she calls “That Will to Divest”:
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you’ve begun.
In American poetry, the contest between glut and starvation is inevitably epitomized by Whitman and Dickinson. Between these two tutelary spirits, Ryan would of course choose Dickinson, and the resemblances between them have been made much of by critics. This is natural enough—after all, Ryan, too, writes brief, compressed lyrics, and has been a kind of outsider to the literary world.
But the comparison does not really capture Ryan’s style and personality, and she sometimes seems to be consciously repudiating it, as in the poem “Hope.” Hope, to Dickinson, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul; to Ryan, it is merely “the almost-twin / of making-do, / the isotope / of going on.” The chemical vocabulary dissents from Dickinson’s romantic imagery, just as Ryan’s wry pessimism keeps its distance from Dickinson’s metaphysical despair. Often, in fact, the poet Ryan sounds most like is Philip Larkin: she, too, aspires to be one of “The Less Deceived”—the title of Larkin’s second book.
Certainly Larkin would have appreciated the metaphor in “The Niagara River,” the title poem of Ryan’s 2005 collection. “We / do know, we do / know this is the / Niagara River, but / it is hard to remember / what that means,” she writes, and her deliberate refusal to name the famous falls in the poem both mirrors and mocks our tendency to ignore the ending we are all heading for. Larkin, it bears remembering, was another sharp critic of creative-writing classes, and of poetic cant in general. He was in the university world, but as a librarian he was not quite of it—just as Ryan has been a professor not of creative writing but of remedial English, at a community college in Marin County.
Ryan herself attended Antelope Valley Community College, before transferring to U.C.L.A., and her signature effort as Poet Laureate is the Community College Poetry Project. Perhaps because she grew up in remote parts of California—the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert, far from the coastal metropolises—Ryan has a pronounced sympathy with those who approach poetry with a sense that they are entering a foreign country. One early poem, “A Certain Meanness of Culture”—the phrase is T. S. Eliot’s dismissive description of William Blake—proclaims her allegiance to those “born on deserts” who “start to value culture / like you would water.” “You get / pretty stringy and impatient / with the fat smoke off / old cities,” she writes, sounding like a New World populist in the William Carlos Williams tradition.
But this persona is not a good fit for Ryan, whose poems feature epigrams from and references to Fernando Pessoa, Martin Buber, and Joseph Brodsky (as well as “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”). Reading “The Best of It,” it becomes clear that Ryan, like all genuinely gifted poets, is a democratic élitist, believing that many are called but few are chosen. It is precisely because she earned her own intimate relationship with literature—because she needs “culture / like you would water”—that she believes in greatness, which is simply another name for effectiveness: great writing is writing that really does quench your thirst. She has no patience for the clumsy sincerity of what she calls, in one poem, “Outsider Art”: “There never / seems to be a surface equal / to the needs of these people. . . . / We are not / pleased the way we thought / we would be pleased.”
One of the clearest signs of Ryan’s seriousness and talent, in fact, is her willingness to sound the old, noble, and unfashionable note of high poetic ambition: “Few / are the willing / and fewer / the champions,” she writes in “Repetition.” This kind of ambition would be equally familiar to Whitman and Dickinson, but it is another barrier between Ryan and the conventional poetry world. In her essay in Poetry, she describes listening to panelists talk about how teaching creative writing fuels their own creativity, and feeling the same kind of guilt a four-star chef might feel at a church potluck:
My sense of this panel, mostly made up of women and attended by women, for what reason I can’t say, is that these are sincere, helpful, useful people who show their students their own gifts and help them to enjoy the riches of language while also trying to get some writing done themselves. They have to juggle these competing demands upon their souls and it is hard and honorable. I agree and shoot me now. This is abrasive, and so, at its best, is Ryan’s poetry, as in “Periphery”:
Fountains, for instance,
have a periphery
at some distance
from the spray.
On nice days
idle people circle
all the way around
the central spout.
They do not get wet.
They do not get hot.
It is Ryan’s version of Frost’s complaint: “They cannot look out far. / They cannot look in deep.” Reading her, one remembers that abrasiveness used to be a prized characteristic of American literature, a reflection of the democratic orneriness of the homesteader and the frontiersman. Now that literature is largely a profession and an institution, it is hard to imagine how D. H. Lawrence could ever have said that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”
Ryan is no killer, of course, though when she writes about nature she does tend to sympathize more with the predator than with the prey: “Rabbits are one of the things / coyotes are for,” one poem observes. But Lawrence’s other adjectives are a faithful enough description. “It takes a courageous / person to leave spaces / empty,” Ryan writes in “Leaving Spaces,” condemning the medieval mapmakers who filled up their blanks with monsters or pretty designs: “Of course they were cowards / and patronized by cowards.” She uses the same metaphor in protesting creative-writing classes: “One must truly HOLD A SPACE for oneself. All things conspire to close up this space.” If this were simply a complaint about the poetry world, it could be dismissed as mere crankiness; as an expression of Ryan’s sensibility, or even her philosophy of life, it goes much deeper. Thoreau would have understood it perfectly.
It may seem like a paradox that a poet who makes much of her independence should turn out to be one of the best contemporary poets of marriage. But the paradox is only superficial: it is because Ryan values true companionship so highly that she scorns its easy simulacra. In interviews, Ryan has spoken about the role that her wife, Carol Adair, played in her development as a writer; in a recent Newsweek profile, she called Adair “my strongest advocate and my single companion in my poetry life.” The two met in 1977, when Ryan was teaching an English class at San Quentin State Prison (where Adair worked in the education department), and they were together until Adair’s death, last year.
Yet aside from the dedication—“For Carol / who knew it”—Adair’s name never appears in “The Best of It.” This reticence is entirely in keeping with Ryan’s approach to poetry, which developed in reaction to the vogue for confessional poetry in the nineteen-sixties. “I just didn’t like the style that saying ‘poet’ meant,” Ryan told Newsweek. “Anne Sexton was a poet. Robert Lowell was a poet. People who cut a dramatic swath. Lots of medication. I didn’t want to be dramatic.”
When Lowell wrote about his marital griefs, he spared no details: “Why not say what happened?” he asks in a late poem. With Ryan, by contrast, it is entirely possible to read her 1996 collection, “Elephant Rocks,” without fully realizing that she is chronicling, with touching delicacy, a domestic crisis. It becomes clear only in retrospect, for instance, that “Hope,” that despairing poem—which speaks of “the always tabled / righting of the present”—is part of the same sequence that includes “Bad Patch,” “Swept Up Whole,” and “Relief,” each observing a moment in the trajectory of a marriage or love affair. Even at her most explicit, Ryan never gets more confessional than “A Plain Ordinary Steel Needle Can Float on Pure Water” (a factoid credited to “Ripley’s”):
It’s a treat to see water
so rubbery, a needle
so peaceful, the point encased
in the tenderest dimple.
It seems so simple
when things or people
have modified each other’s qualities
The technique of talking about people by talking about things, as well as the slightly arch tone and diction, are Ryan’s legacies from Marianne Moore, who is a sometimes overbearing presence in her earliest poems. Who is the tender water in this relationship, and who the needle? That “somewhat,” carefully placed on its own line, is surely a clue to the answer. It is the poet who, with prickly honesty, insists on the limits of mutual accommodation, just as she insists, in “Heat,” that sexual attraction can be deceptive:
There is a heat
anything we meet
Who has not found
by certain stones,
for example, or
“mistakes” about things
that didn’t turn out
to be people?
Compared with the way many poets write about sexual or romantic disappointment, this sounds almost like indifference. It takes an ear attuned to Ryan’s pitch of irony to appreciate the contempt and regret she packs into words like “certain” and “mistakes.” In fact, the more directly Ryan writes about desire, the more indirect she becomes, as befits a poet for whom, it seems, the most important things are the ones that are hardest to say. In “Green Hills,” for instance, is Ryan writing about landscape, or about young, unattainable bodies, or both, when she observes, “Their green flanks / and swells are not / flesh in any sense / matching ours, / we tell ourselves”?
Certainly it is not just the fish we are supposed to sympathize with in “To the Young Anglerfish,” when Ryan, spurred by a quotation from Stephen Jay Gould, sympathizes with a creature caught in mid-evolution, its lower nature at war with its higher one:
Meanwhile, the problems of life enhance:
an awkwardness attends the mating dance
and an inexplicable thoughtfulness
at the wrong moments.
That part of you that is pledged to the future
abstracts you in some way from nature
with the small n.
Here it is easy to recognize the classic complaint of the writer (usually, however, the young writer) who finds her self-consciousness inhibiting her instincts, especially when it comes to sex. The problem is that self-consciousness, “inexplicable thoughtfulness,” is also the writer’s greatest point of pride. It is what makes Ryan, in the title of another poem, “Cut Out for It”: “Cut out / as a horse / is cut / from the / pack,” she finds her very isolation is what gives her “such a feeling / for the way / they touch / and shift / as one, the / beauty when / they run.”
This melancholy lucidity is Ryan’s greatest gift, and it can be heard in all her most successful poems. But her most startling discovery is that melancholy, with its tendency to brood and spread, is best contained in a form that is tight, witty, almost sprightly sounding. Her poems are often built on the logic of the pun, taking an ordinary word or dead cliché as a title and then jolting it to unexpected life. The title of the book itself does something like this: “the best of it” is simultaneously a boast (“These are my best poems”), a demurral (“This is the best I can do”), and, most powerfully of all, a description of Ryan’s stoic art (poetry is the way she “makes the best of it”).
That stoicism is especially in evidence in the collection’s new poems, which seem to deal—in typically oblique fashion—with Adair’s illness and death. In “Bitter Pill,” Ryan makes the title phrase surprisingly literal: it is an actual pill, in a bottle with “your name” on it, and the bitterness is not just that of seeing a loved one sick but of actually swallowing the medicine. In “Dogleg,” Ryan first challenges the title word by observing that “only two of / the dog’s legs / dogleg,” then extends its meaning by seeing it as an emblem of those moments “when life has / angled brutally.”
But the pun is not a very challenging kind of wit, and Ryan’s least satisfying poems are those in which she settles for the easy payoff of verbal comedy. “Bestiary,” for instance, begins, “A bestiary catalogs / bests,” and goes on to contrast it with a “goodiary.” “Extraordinary Lengths” imagines “lengths / swagged from balconies, / ribbons of lengths rippling,” and so on. Where Ryan’s technique truly justifies itself is when pun deepens into symbol. In “Chop,” Ryan turns the footprint of a bird on the beach into an “emperor’s chop”—that is, a Chinese stamp or seal, used for signing documents. But the real point of the poem is what happens to that proud signature:
goes the emperor
down his wide
the sea bows
The sea seems to be doing homage to the bird-emperor, but in fact it is effacing every trace of his passage—just as, Ryan does not have to say, time and nature do to all our imperial ambitions.
A poem like this helps to explain why Ryan would choose to write an elegy for the German writer W. G. Sebald, with whom she seems to have little in common, at least on the surface. But, after all, Sebald wrote a book called “The Rings of Saturn,” and Ryan is another disciple of the god of melancholy; Sebald was obsessed with transience and decay, and Ryan can never stop noticing what she calls, in “Slant,” “a bias cut to everything, / a certain cant / it’s better not to name.” Ryan’s poem for Sebald is titled “He Lit a Fire with Icicles,” which is both an incident in the life of St. Sebolt, the writer’s namesake, and a description of his technique: “How / cold he had / to get to learn / that ice would / burn. How cold / he had to stay,” Ryan writes. Her admiration is unmistakable. ♦