From confirmation hearings for Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress Kay Ryan before the United States Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce, Recreation, and Poetry, Patrick Leahy, D-VT, Chair. The excerpted testimony comes from the third afternoon of the nine-day hearings in early July of 2008, in which Senator Orrin Hatch, R-UT, requested that Ryan explain her poetic philosophy underlying “He Lit A Fire With Icicles,” her elegy for German writer W. G. Sebald. Many later recalled this relatively heated exchange as one of the most memorable of the hearings in part because of Ryan’s coinage, “The Enjambed States of America.” The slogan “UnbreaKAYble,” which appeared on bumper stickers, T-Shirts and at the end of television and radio ads purchased by the 527 group Citizens To Confirm Kay Ryan, has been compared to the “I Believe Anita” slogan that was publicized similarly during and following the Senate confirmation hearings for then-nominee to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas.
Senator Orrin Hatch: And Ms. Ryan, do you recall your use of enjambed line breaks to break up a rhyming couplet of iambic hexameter at the poem’s conclusion?
Kay Ryan: Senator, I—It has been some time since I wrote that poem. I’m not sure that—
SOH: The poem’s sixteenth line ends with the word stay. And the poem’s twentieth, its final line, ends with the word away. Isn’t that correct, Ms. Ryan?
KR: Yes, Senator, that does, that sounds correct, to the best of my recollection.
SOH: Then do you also recall that the final four lines, and I’ll read them, “When he could feel his feet he had to back away,” do you also recall that this single sentence, six iamb feet lined up like ducks in a row dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, that it is in fact four lines, at least according to your poem as published? It is four lines, isn’t it?
KR: Yes, Senator, I believe that is correct.
SOH: I’ll get back to the issue at hand then, Ms. Ryan. I’m sure you won’t be surprised, and I’m sure the other members of the committee and the members of the public here today won’t be surprised to hear that I’m curious about how you came to the decision to break apart that single thought. I say single thought, of course, since that is the traditional, and, well, agreed upon definition of a sentence. A single thought.
KR: Senator, I think what you’re—
SOH: And I consider enjambment, the breaking up of that single thought, a serious matter. I think all Americans do whether they agree with my position, which I know is a matter of deep personal, moral feeling, whether you agree with me or not. I’m sure that my constituents from the great state of Utah agree that it’s a serious matter. But frankly, Ms. Ryan, based on the record that myself and others here today have tried to bring to light, I’m not sure I am yet convinced that you treat this matter with, really, the gravity it deserves. And that concerns me. It does. It concerns the American people. So I would hope that the other members of this committee would give pause before simply rubber stamping a Poet Laureate who went out and enjambed single, inviolable thoughts, thoughts contained in rightfully codified, systematic meter, went out and enjambed them willy-nilly. The, really, the question before you, Ms. Ryan, is whether or not there was a legitimate reason, a poetical basis if you will, for your dissection of the poem’s closing thought in the manner you did, in fact, dissect it. And I give you the opportunity to explain yourself, if you can, here today.
KR: I thank you, Senator Hatch, for that opportunity. Before I answer though, I believe some clarification may have—may be, rather, in order. I think what you’re calling a rhyming couplet of iambic hexameter is perhaps, if you’ll excuse me, not entirely accurate. It is true that those final four lines can be considered six iambs, and that the second iamb of the first and third of those lines is enjambed. But it might also be said that each of those four lines is a trisyllabic foot unto itself, a Cretic or amphimacer foot. These are matters left up to interpretation, and intended to be left to interpretation, by the American people, as established in the precedent of 15 Poet Laureates and many, many Consultants in Poetry for the, to the Library of Congress before me. I feel I should also note that the poem’s previous lines do not follow this structure, whatever we choose to call it, and that the couplet itself, is in question even if undoubtedly this poem does contain some rhyme. A digression, perhaps, that I hope this committee will forgive. The larger issue, however, if I take your meaning correctly, Senator, is a question of my loyalty to integrity and, I believe, by implication, clarity. The suggestion has been made today and in the previous weeks, before I was able to speak for myself, that my use of enjambment is confirmation of a not-so-secret belief that some parts of thoughts, some words, and therefore some citizens of this great nation are more important than others. In other words, my critics would have it that I have a tendency toward prejudicial emphasis. I want to assure you, Senator Hatch, as well as the other members of this committee and all of the American people that this great deliberative body represents, I want to assure you that nothing is farther from the truth. And I think if you go back and look at the context in which these, well, these line breaks occur, that is in the whole poem and the author it was trying to honor, I think you’ll see that I had intended to show exactly the opposite. It is my belief that the integrity of a single thought is unbreakable, just as this nation has proven it is unbreakable, following our bloody second birth in the Civil War. What the poem suggests about Mr. Sebald, who is, for the record, a man I greatly admire for his unwillingness to insert even a single paragraph break into his narratives. The poem suggests that we must notice the juxtapostion, the natural pauses for mutual regard, for perspective, the stopping and restarting that takes place within integrity. And again, I would suggest that this notion is confirmed in our history and in our character as a nation, a nation that is united because it is enjambed, the Enjambed States of America, if you will. We are joined by our integrity as a culture, as a nation, as individuals. But we are set apart, as states, as people, set next to each other, enriched by our relation to each other. We comprise a more powerful whole because of our undeniable separations. We are enjambed as a nation and within ourselves and it is the fact of this enjambment, the acknowledgement of it, that makes us so great. It is what makes us unbreakable. That’s not exactly that that poem is about, but that is, was rather the basis of my use of the, I want to re-emphasize, rather narrow usage of the technique.
SOH: Ms. Ryan, are seriously suggesting–
Senator Patrick Leahy: Senator Hatch, your time has expired. We must—
SOH: Mr. Chairman, I retract, I—One more question, please, Chairman. I will be brief.
SPL: I don’t think I need to remind you, Senator, that we would all like to ask the nominee a lot of questions that—
SOH: I do apologize, Chairman Leahy, I simply want to know if Ms. Ryan is aware that W. G. Sebald, the subject of her poem, was a German citizen who wrote extensively about the so-called atrocities committed by the American army liberating Germany in WWII.
SPL: Senator Hatch, your time has expired. I will thank you to respect—
KR: Mr. Chairman, excuse me. Excuse me. If the chairmen permits, I’ll answer the Senator’s question.
SPL: Very well, Senator Hatch, you may ask your final question.
SOH: Are you, Ms. Ryan, aware of Sebald’s writings on the so-called fire-bombing of Dresden?
KR: I am. I am well aware of Mr. Sebald’s sympathies. I would ask, request that you judge me, however, on my own work, and not by supposed association with the sentiments of anyone else. My tenure as Poet Laureate would be loyal to the best interests of the American people and nothing else.
SOH: Thank you, Ms. Ryan, for your testimony, and thank you Chairman Lahey, for your consideration.
SPL: I prefer, for future reference, keeping to the schedule to being thanked, but I thank you both for your brevity once consideration was granted. We will, uh, will take a ten-minute, a flexible, ten-minute break now. This hearing is now in recess.