Kay Ryan

‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan is a short, cynical, and witty free verse poem in which the speaker explores the differences between what is good and what is best.

Kay Ryan

Nationality: America

Kay Ryan is an American poet who was born in 1945 in California. S

She is regarded as one of the most important contemporary poets.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: History is written by the victors

Themes: Failure, Identity

Speaker: Unspecified

Emotions Evoked: Amusement, Laughter

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 21st Century

'Bestiary' is a cynical postmodern poem that sheds a skeptical eye on all that is the "best"

‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan, former U.S. Poet Laureate, is a distinctly postmodernist poem that explores what it means to be “best” through wordplay and sound. This short poem comes from Ryan’s book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, for which the poet won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2010.

While this poem is brief and to the point, its exacting use of sound, imagery, and language makes it an excellent example of where poetry stands in the 21st century, displaying Ryan’s aggravated, sardonic, and witty style.


‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan is a humorous, critical poem about the way we rank things in terms of how good they are. 

The unspecified speaker begins ‘Bestiary’ by explaining that bestiaries catalog only the best things. 

Anything that is mediocre or not “singularly savage” gets suppressed in the bestiary, where there is no place for ordinary things. However, the speaker describes all of these “best” things as arch deceivers who out-compete everything else by deception. 

The speaker then explains that all of the good things are “a different creature altogether.” The catalog of all the good things, however, has been lost. 

Form and Structure

‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan is a short free verse lyric poem. Without any meter or stanza divisions, this poem creates rhythm using alliteration, slant rhyme, sound, and punctuation. 

In form, the poem looks a bit like a dictionary entry or the placard on a museum wall beside a painting, offering details about the art. By deliberately following this format, this poem provides encyclopedia-like details about a “bestiary,” a literary creation of the poet’s own imagination. 

Still, despite the descriptive, informational feel of the poem, it maintains its rhythm as Ryan incorporates many line breaks, uses of slant rhyme, other sound devices, and punctuation — or lack thereof.


The poem ‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan hinges on wordplay. 

A bestiary is a Medieval manuscript that includes images and/or descriptions of various animals and mythological creatures. However, each description of a creature usually includes a moral or biblical allegory

For example, in the untitled bestiary we call Cambridge University Library ms. Ii. 4.26., there is an account of an antelope who, while grazing, gets stuck in a bush called a Booze bush and is killed by a hunter. The book explains that the antelope was tempted by the Booze bush, and warns men not to give into the temptations of alcohol and other sins. 

While Kay Ryan uses wordplay to turn the beast-iary into a best-iary, this poem mimics the structure and themes of a traditional Medieval bestiary. Thus, ‘Bestiary‘ contains a moral along with its description of the beast that is “best.”

Literary Devices

Some of the most significant literary devices in ‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan include: 

  • Slant Rhyme – Ryan often uses slant rhyme to make connections between words without adding much musicality to the poem. In doing so, she retains her deadpan, sardonic tone. For example, “mediocres” and “lower” from lines three and four almost rhyme, drawing a connection between those things that are too lowly and far too mediocre for a bestiary. 
  • Alliteration – Ryan draws emphasis to certain phrases using alliteration. For example, “singularly savage” has a very sharp sound, which creates a pause in line five. 
  • Pun and wordplay – Ryan includes several puns and instances of wordplay in this poem, but the best example is in the title. By riffing on the word “bestiary,” Ryan creates a double meaning to the word, implying that all of the “best” things are beast-like and fearsome. 
  • Irony – By stating that “Best is not to be confused with good” the poet creates irony, as the words good and best are directly related to each other. However, by constructing a difference between good and best, Ryan emphasizes that the things that are “best” are far different from the things that are “good.”

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-5

A bestiary catalogs
are suppressed in favor
of the singularly savage

The impersonal, unspecified speaker of the poem opens by stating that a “bestiary catalogs bests.” This sentence is an excellent example of the poet’s love of humor. It contains a pun, turning Medieval bestiaries, which were books about various mythological beasts and creatures, into books that list all of the best things. 

This joke sets up the tone for the poem, which is dry, yet humorous. 

The speaker suggests that all of the best things “suppress,” or stifle, anything else that falls under the category of mediocre. These bests are also “singularly savage.”

This description of the “bests” reveals that they are merciless, domineering, and powerful. These features make them seem aggressive and, possibly, undesirable. 

Stanza one also incorporates plenty of alliteration. It predominantly uses “s” sounds to make the lines sound sharp, just as the “bests” in the poem are harsh. 

Lines 6-11

or clever, the spectacularly
they’ve won, as of course they would.

In lines six through eleven, the speaker continues characterizing the “bests” of the bestiary. 

The “bests” are clever, have spectacular pincers, or are the best of the best deceivers. Here, the “bests” are intelligent and marvelously fearsome. However, they use their physical attributes and wit to “press their advantage,” or get ahead of everyone else. 

These “bests” never stop, as they continue vying for power without giving up, even after they win. 

Here, the poet seems to paint all of the “bests” in a dark, skeptical light, portraying them as aggressive, power-hungry monsters who use their exacting “pincers” and intelligence to trample over everything else as they fight for their title. 

In this pursuit, being best is all they want, and they have no respect for the “mediocres,” nor do they have any relationships with each other. Instead, each one exists independently, their competitiveness too intense for friendship. 

These lines are also excellent examples of how the poet uses sound to create rhythm. Each sound relays in a sort of canon. For example, the “c” in “clever” changes positions as it reappears in “pincered,” “archest,” “deceivers,” and “of course.” The sound of “quarters” also mimics the hard c in “clever.” This repetition creates a solid flow of recurring letters throughout the poem. 

Lines 12-15

Best is not to be confused with good—
a text alas lost now for centuries.

After closing the long sentence that runs from lines one through twelve, the speaker makes an apostrophe to the audience. Here, the speaker creates a turn, or volta, as they explain the difference between good and best. 

The speaker continues the poem’s joke, stating that good is a “different creature” — instead of a different beast — from best. 

While the bests all make it into the bestiary, the goods only make it into another book called the “goodiary.” However, the speaker also states that the “goodiary” has been “lost now for centuries.”

Here, the poet closes by making her point clear. Only the power-hungry, aggressive bests remain at the end of the poem. Anything that was “good” is now lost to time.

Thus, things that are mediocre and good do not bear remembrance. Only the things that are fierce and intelligent stand the test of time. The point is: history is only written by the winners.


What is the tone in ‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan?

The tone in ‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan is witty, sardonic, cynical, and dry. Ryan is well-known for her dry humor, and in her poetry, it shines out as a critical voice that picks apart many things that we, as humans, hold dear. In ‘Bestiary,’ Bryan deconstructs the concept of supremacy, implying that being the best also means being destructively competitive and self-centered.

What is the meaning of ‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan?

The meaning of ‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan is that to be the best, one must be aggressive, competitive, intimidating, and selfish. In addition, the poem indicates that all things good and mediocre are forgotten and lost to time. Only those who are true conquerors will be remembered in literature and stories.

When was ‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan Published?

Bestiary’ was published in 2010 in Kay Ryan’s collection of poems, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. By placing this poem in a book with the title The Best of It, the poet takes a very cynical look at her own work, as if lamenting all of the good poems that did not make it into the collection. ‘Bestiary’ is also a product of its time, as it is an excellent example of postmodern poetry.

Who is the speaker in ‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan?

The speaker in ‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan is never specified. Ryan, though a lyric poet, rarely defines the speaker in her poetry, instead preferring an impersonal, objective speaker who judges harshly and breaks down concepts until they fall apart. In this poem, the impersonal speaker fits in well, as the poem reads similarly to an entry from a Medieval bestiary.

Similar Poetry

If you appreciated the cynical simplicity of ‘Bestiary’ by Kay Ryan, you might also like:

  • ‘no help for that’ by Charles Bukowski – a cynical, witty poem about how we, as humans, are insatiable, and will always be waiting for something to fill the void in our hearts
  • Stone’ by Charles Simic – an interesting poem where the poet states that he would prefer to be a stone than anything fierce or memorable
  • ‘I Know a Man’ by Robert Creeley – a remarkably post-modern poem about consumerism and the feeling of needing to escape.

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Aimee LaFon Poetry Expert
Aimee LaFon has a BAS with honors in English and Classics, focusing her studies on the translation of Latin poetry, manuscript traditions, and the analysis of medieval and neoclassical poetry. She is a full-time writer and poet passionate about making knowledge accessible to everyone.
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