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Carolyn Kizer
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Carolyn Kizer


Carolyn Kizer: where’s she been all her life?

She’s rooted here in the Northwest, Spokane borne – “After Spokane, what horrors lurk in Hell?” – a student in Theodore Roethke’s poetry workshop at the University of Washington in 1954 when she was already nearly thirty, mother of three small children, living up on Capitol Hill in a big house – Mark Tobeys on the wall, and Morris Graves – with rooms full of books from floor to ceiling. David Wagoner said “she came as close in the 1950s as anyone ever has in this area to having – you can’t quite call it a salon – a social center for literary activities. Her house was always open.”

In a 1956 article in The New Republic, she described this new school of Northwest poets, with Roethke at the center, cajoling, bullying, and singing, with students like Richard Hugo and James Wright, and alternative classrooms like the Blue Moon Tavern on 45th Street, “a grubby oasis just outside the university’s one-mile-limit Sahara” where “poets, pedants, painters and other assorted wild-life make overtures to each other.” Not long after she helped found and was the first full-time editor of Poetry Northwest, which she turned into a literary journal of national distinction.

What she took from Roethke, from the teaching, were “the standards he taught, the meter, the importance of syntax and grammar, and the extraordinary beauty of the English language.” Most important is the music, the sense of song that, Carlyle once said, is the very “essence of us,” that Thoreau called “the very breath of all friendliness,” or Shelley “the moment’s monument.” She stays close to the song, and to the dance. At home in a variety of forms, her rhythms strong, her language erudite, or bawdy – we cannot help but think of that other most musical of performer poets, Vachel Lindsay, barn-storming the country, singing with the force of personality, the poetry clear and plain. Still, however clear her poems are to the eye, there is always much more that meets the ear, as she warns us in “A Song for Muriel”:

          No one explains me because
          There is nothing to explain.
          It’s all right here
          Very clear.
          O for my reputation’s sake
          To be difficult, and opaque!

          No one explains me because
          Though myopic, I see plain.
          I just put it down with a leer and a
          Why does it make you sweat?
          Is this the thanks I get?

          No one explains me because
          There are tears in my bawdy song.
          Once I am dead
          Something will be said.
          How nice I won’t be here
          To see how they get it wrong.

What Kizer took from the Northwest was community, a sense of literary citizenship that is both intimate and expansive. This means family, of course, other writers, both now and before, friends and enemies, the oppressed everywhere, and, above all, the brave women of a “dreadful century”: “custodians of the world’s best-kept secret:/ Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity.” We have poetry to “bear witness,” and in the largest sense all her poems are political. “We are hyenas. Yes, we admit it,” she writes in “Pro Femina.” “While men have politely debated free will, we have howled for it,/ Howl still, pacing the centuries, tragedy heroines.”

Most profoundly and passionately, Kizer embraces that community of brave and hopeful “women of letters,” present and past, for she too, as she says, is “in the racket.” Like Roethke, she prods and pulls, nurtures and teachers:

          So primp, preen, prink, pluck, and prize your flesh
          All posturings! All ravishment!  All sensibility!
          Meanwhile, have you used your mind today?
          What pomegranate raised you from the dead,
          Springing, full-grown, from your own head, Athena?

In “An American Beauty,” for Ann London, a founder of the Women’s Movement and author of the ERA, Kizer writes:

          When you died I cleaned out your bureau drawers:
          your usual disorder; an assortment of gorgeous wigs
          and prosthetic breasts
          tossed in garbage bags, to spare your gentle spouse.
          Then the bequests

          you had made to every friend you had!
          For each of us a necklaces or a ring.
          A snapshot for me:
          We two, barefoot in chiffon, laughing amid blossoms
          your last wedding day.

Immensely gifted and giving, Kizer writes poems that are also, always, bequests, each “a necklace or a ring…”, that honors the past and gives courage to the future. Few women writers in modern American letters have so sharply and gracefully challenged the patriarchal poetry establishment and cleared the air, and the path, for what is already now several generations of confident women, these often amazing poetic voices. Carolyn Kizer, they will tell you, polished the stones for them to walk on.

~ Edwin Weihe

Program notes by Edwin Weihe on behalf of the poet’s reading for Counterbalance Poetry on Thursday, November 1, 2001.

collector's corner Collector's Corner: unique, limited-ddition and signed worksunique, limited-edition & signed works

"The Gift"
by Carolyn Kizer
The Gift

Broadside created by Paul Hunter/Wood Works Press for the poet’s reading for Counterbalance Poetry on Thursday, November 1, 2001. Printed from hand-set metal type on archival paper with original woodcut. Limited to 145 copies.

8.5" x 11" -  $20.00
  Signed by the Author(s) Limited Edition
Design: Hemisphere Design Hemisphere Design  
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