She built up a small following for her poetry as it began being accepted in literary journals. After the publication of two volumes of poetry, one which was self-published and one which was published by a small press, and neither of which received much attention, Flamingo Watching was published in 1994.
The volume was well received and was followed two years later by Elephant Rocks, the volume that contains ‘‘All Shall Be Restored.’’ Andrew Frisardi reviewed that volume in 1997 in Poetry magazine. Frisardi is among the first of Ryan’s reviewers to compare her work to that of Emily Dickinson, a comparison that is now repeatedly made in response to the insightful brevity of Ryan’s work. In describing the volume as a whole, Frisardi states: ‘‘So original, so astute, so pleasurable are the poems in this book, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if they’re still being read long after the current critical fashions are dated.’’
Former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the poet Dana Gioia was one of Ryan’s earliest supporters. In an article for the Winter 1998–1999 issue of the Dark Horse, a poetry journal, Gioia offers a lengthy, laudatory assessment of Ryan’s work. He commends her language as reflective of ‘‘the shaping hand of a quick and skeptical intelligence,’’ and describes Ryan as a poet who is ‘‘refined, disciplined, and original.’’ Gioia states that ‘‘Like Dickinson, Ryan has found awayof exploring ideas without losing either the musical impulse or imaginative intensity necessary to lyric poetry.’’ Also admiring the compact nature of Ryan’s poems, Gioia observes that the effect of Ryan’s ability to endow a short poem consisting of brief lines with so much meaning ‘‘is complex but never annoyingly cluttered or overly elaborate.’’ In an introduction to Ryan’s work in California Poetry, editors Gioia, Chryss Yost, and Jack Hicks maintain that Ryan’s Elephant Rocks, along with her 2000 volume of verse Say Uncle, ‘‘have confirmed her position as one of the finest poets of her generation.’’
In another anthology, the 2005 100 Essential Modern Poems, editor Joseph Parisi introduces Ryan by stating that her ‘‘witty poems are bright distillations of her precise observations of the world and the vagaries of humankind.’’ Parisi goes on to observe that ‘‘For her wry, idiosyncratic take on life and her use of compact, seemingly simple forms, Ryan is often compared with Emily Dickinson.’’ The Dickinson comparison comes up again in a 2008 American Scholar essay onRyan by Langdon Hammer, who states, ‘‘Critics compare her poems to those of Robert
Frost and Emily Dickinson—Frost because of their moral seriousness and playful skepticism, and Dickinson because of their small-scale lyric intensity, the power the poems gain from compactness.’’ Hammer goes on to explore Ryan’s unique style and language, finding that her ‘‘language is plain but crowded with internal rhymes that create complex networks of sound, and the syntax is compressed, making those short lines extremely dense.’’ Since Ryan’s work began to be treated seriously by literary critics, it has been lauded for its ability to capture in compact language and efficient structure the weight of emotional and philosophical responses to the world.