“Synthesizing Gravity” is a delight, if a tart and idiosyncratic one. The book is divided into four sections, more or less keeping to a theme (essays on general subjects, essays and reviews of individual writers, etc.). There is no mystical bombast here whatsoever. Indeed, there is very nearly the opposite, delivered by a writer with a full command of the English sentence and an electric talent for metaphor. As in: “Almost any random poem by a great poet can become your private key to their Enigma machine; although the Enigma machine keeps spitting out different daily codes, you will sense the same deep gizmo behind it.” Note the cheeky, unpretentious excellence of “gizmo.” Or (in one of the few essays not having to do with poetry): “There is always a feral scent to Annie Dillard’s writing, and always a little spatter of blood — from birth, the kill, the dissection, the thorn of the rose.” Note “spatter” rather than the clumsier “splatter,” and the carefully delayed “thorn of the rose.”
Ryan’s touchstone poets are those you’d expect from her own poems — Frost, Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Philip Larkin, Stevie Smith. She’s a keen reader of each of them, particularly Smith, whose deliciously loony, merrily hostile writing has bewildered many a Serious Reader of Poetry. Here is Ryan on her unique appeal: “Call her childlike, or childish; say that it is unattractive for a grown woman to steal the good stuff out of the tea sandwiches; but add that her method of getting along was sustainable, that her solitary stand, her combination of fierceness and indecision, her tweaking of demons’ beaks, continued to nourish as well as any of the more familiar modes.” This seems exactly right (and Smith would have loved “demons’ beaks”). Nor is Ryan reluctant to call attention to the clay on the boots of her heroes. On the ostentatiously combative Frost: “The constant black hat can get to be a tiresome pose. It’s as though the suspicious part of Frost saw every beautiful thing that he was capable of as a rock to throw.”
Ryan has all of a critic’s skills, but this isn’t a critic’s book. That’s not a put-down but an observation. The prose of a true poet-critic — Randall Jarrell is the classic example — engages with a wide variety of writers, styles, problems and pleasures; it provides a window on the art for new readers (perhaps not the widest window, but even so). “Synthesizing Gravity,” however, is a poet’s book about poetry, and a fairly circumscribed one at that. The same figures recur. The same lines recur. Frost’s tiny poem “A Dust of Snow” is discussed not once but twice, yet you will search in vain for any substantial analysis of Auden or Plath, to say nothing of the poems of any living writer whatsoever.
This can be frustrating, especially since Ryan is such a strong thinker and writer. Certainly you don’t expect her to spend any time on, say, Charles Olson, whom she probably read in embarrassed silence, if she’s read him at all. And while it would be interesting to see her thinking on Ashbery, you don’t expect it. But there are long essays here on Frost and Marianne Moore, so it seems odd to see nothing on Elizabeth Bishop, who is the most prominent heir to these writers, and whose work is both a complement and a challenge to Ryan’s approach.
Yet if Ryan gives us a view through a keyhole, it’s a view often made richer by its constraints. The essay that many readers will fix on here is “I Go to AWP,” which caused a minor ruckus when Ryan first published it back in 2005 in Poetry magazine. A.W.P. is the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, an annual event in which more than 10,000 creative-writing industry folk gather in a vast hotel in some large American city and try to kindle the fire of art while drinking plonky wine in Grand Ballroom E. Ryan is dry and droll as you might expect (“I am given a black tote bag when I register. Very nice with the A.W.P. logo”), and yet the heart of the piece is a quietly severe self-interrogation. Ryan has always felt herself to be different, to be striving for a kind of perfection. And yet here she is, surrounded by waves of thoroughly mediocre writers, many of whom probably think of themselves the same way.