Ryan’s poems will often start by thinking about clichés:
Her poems, she says, don’t begin with a simple image or sound, but instead start “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation.” An old saw may nudge her repeatedly, such as “It’s always darkest before the dawn” or “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“I think, ‘What about those chickens?’” she says, “and I start an investigation of what that means. Poets rehabilitate clichés.”
Some do, perhaps, but many wouldn’t dare to enter such familiar territory. Ryan, however, adds depth and so many surprises that the silliest clichés become fertile ground.
She expanded on this rehabilitation of clichés in her interview with the Paris Review:
I often find myself thinking in clichés. I’ll urge myself on with various bromides and chasten myself with others. When I want to write they’re one way to start thinking because they’re so metaphorically rich. For instance, take the word limelight, or being in the limelight—not really a cliché but a cherished idiom. Before electric light, they heated lime, or calcium oxide, to create incandescence for stage lights. In my poem, “Lime Light,” the limelight comes from a bowl of limes. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not nothing, not just a joke. It’s thinking about how limelight doesn’t work very well. You can’t do anything by limelight.
After I copied out “Lime Light,” I found this clipping of George Clinton talking about recording Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain: