(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

New and Selected Poems is Michael Ryan's fourth poetry collection and his first in fifteen years. His debut collection, Threats Instead of Trees, was published in 1974 and won the Yale Series for Younger Poets Award. This was an auspicious start for Ryan. The collection also was a finalist for a National Book Award. His second collection, In Winter, appeared in 1981 and was a National Poetry Series Selection. Ryan's third collection, God Hunger, was published in 1989. The poem “My Dream by Henry James” appeared in this collection. Its opening—“In my dream by Henry James there is a sentence:/’Stay and comfort your sea companion/ for a while,’ spoken by an aging man/ to a young one”— introduces characters and moves the story line forward. Ryan has stated that this beginning “made a window I would eventually see the rest of the poem through in language I found compelling.” This poem is a fine example of how Ryan takes satisfaction in the melding of language and meaning. God Hunger won the 1990 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

Ryan's New and Selected Poems includes eleven poems from his first collection, twelve poems from his second, thirty-four from his third, and thirty-one new poems. Most of the new poems previously appeared in such prestigious publications as the American Poetry Review, the Kenyon Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, and the Threepenny Review. For this volume, Ryan took the time to revise significantly some of the poems that first appeared in his previous collections, especially the poems from Threats Instead of Trees. A selected edition like this gives the poet the opportunity to alter the past, to improve what came before. It forces the serious reader to locate the earlier collections in order to do a line-by-line comparison. It is well within the poet's prerogative to change poems from the distant past, but to leave the older poetry alone would have served as a gauge of where the poet began and how he had since grown as a poet.

In such poems as “Speaking” and “Prothalamion,” there is a dark tone that touches on the anguish found in loneliness. The poem “Speaking” opens with “I’m speaking again/ as the invalid in the dark room./ I want to say thank you/ out loud to no one.” In “Prothalamion,” Ryan expresses his uneasiness with a relationship in such lines as “The love we’ve defined for ourselves/ in privacy, in suffering,/ keeps both of us lonely as a fist…. ” This theme is revisited in a poem from the collection In Winter titled “The Pure Loneliness.” The poem opens with “Late at night, when you’re so lonely,/ your shoulders curl toward the center of your body,/ you call no one and you don’t call out./ This is dignity. This is the pure loneliness/ that made Christ think he was God./ This is why lunatics smile at their thoughts.” These striking poems fit in well with this new collection, but they may not be a totally accurate representation of the poet's first two poetry volumes. Ryan also has been acclaimed for his autobiography, Secret Life (1995), a volume of essays A Difficult Grace: On Poets, Poetry, and Writing (2000), and a memoir, Baby B (2004).

As Ryan has included so many poems from his third collection, God Hunger, a reader must conclude that the poet wishes to be judged more for the poems that he wrote at that stage in his development than any other. Out of the eighty-eight poems included in New and Selected Poems, only twenty-three come from his first two books. While craft and the concept of being poetic served Ryan well enough in his first two collections, for God Hunger he took his...

(The entire section is 1540 words.)