The Poetry Foundation's website has characterized Ryan's poems as follows: "Like Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore before her, Ryan delights in quirks of logic and language and teases poetry out of the most unlikely places. She regards the 'rehabilitation of clichés,' for instance, as part of the poet’s mission. Characterized by subtle, surprising rhymes and nimble rhythms, her compact poems are charged with sly wit and off-beat wisdom." J. D. McClatchy included Ryan in his 2003 anthology of contemporary American poetry. He wrote in his introduction, "Her poems are compact, exhilarating, strange affairs, like Satie miniatures or Cornell boxes. ... There are poets who start with lived life, still damp with sorrow or uncertainty, and lead it towards ideas about life. And there are poets who begin with ideas and draw life in towards their speculations. Marianne Moore and May Swenson were this latter sort of artist; so is Kay Ryan."
Ryan's poems are often quite short. In one of the first essays on Ryan, Dana Gioia wrote about this aspect of her poetry. "Ryan reminds us of the suggestive power of poetry–how it elicits and rewards the reader’s intellect, imagination, and emotions. I like to think that Ryan’s magnificently compressed poetry – along with the emergence of other new masters of the short poem like Timothy Murphy and H.L. Hix and the veteran maestri like Ted Kooser and Dick Davis – signals a return to concision and intensity."
Many reviewers have noted an affinity between Ryan's poetry and Marianne Moore's.
In addition to the oft-remarked affinity with Moore, affinities with poets May Swenson, Stevie Smith, Emily Dickinson, Wendy Cope, and Amy Clampitt have been noted by some critics. Thus Katha Pollitt wrote that Ryan's fourth collection, Elephant Rocks (1997), is "Stevie Smith rewritten by William Blake" but that Say Uncle (2000) "is like a poetical offspring of George Herbert and the British comic poet Wendy Cope." Another reviewer of Say Uncle (2000) wrote of Ryan, "Her casual manner and nods to the wisdom tradition might endear her to fans of A. R. Ammons or link her distantly to Emily Dickinson. But her tight structures, odd rhymes and ethical judgments place her more firmly in the tradition of Marianne Moore and, latterly, Amy Clampitt."
Ryan's wit, quirkiness, and slyness are often noted by reviewers of her poetry, but Jack Foley emphasizes her essential seriousness. In his review of Say Uncle he writes, "There is, in short, far more darkness than 'light' in this brilliant, limited volume. Kay Ryan is a serious poet writing serious poems, and she resides on a serious planet (a word she rhymes with 'had it'). Ryan can certainly be funny, but it is rarely without a sting." Some of these disjoint qualities in her work are illustrated by her poem "Outsider Art", which Harold Bloom selected for the anthology The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997.
Ryan is also known for her extensive use of internal rhyme. She refers to her specific methods of using internal rhyme as "recombinant rhyme." She claims that she had a hard time "tak end-rhyme seriously," and uses recombinant rhyme to bring structure and form to her work. As for other types of form, Ryan claims that she cannot use them, stating that it is "like wearing the wrong clothes."
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