Kizer, Carolyn 1925–

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Kizer, Carolyn 1925–

(Carolyn Ashley Kizer)

PERSONAL: Born December 10, 1925, in Spokane, WA; daughter of Benjamin Hamilton (a lawyer and planner) and Mabel (a biologist and professor; maiden name, Ashley) Kizer; married Charles Stimson Bullitt, January 16, 1948 (divorced, 1954); married John Marshall Woodbridge (an architect and planner), April 11, 1975; children: (first marriage) Ashley Ann, Scott, Jill Hamilton. Education: Sarah Lawrence College, B.A., 1945; graduate study at Columbia University, 1945–46, and University of Washington, 1946–47; studied poetry with Theodore Roethke, University of Washington, Seattle, 1953–54. Politics: Independent. Religion: Episcopalian.

ADDRESSES: Home—19772 Eighth St. E, Sonoma, CA 95476; Paris, France.

CAREER: Poet, educator, and critic. Poetry Northwest, Seattle, WA, founder and editor, 1959–65; National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, first director of literary programs, 1966–70; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, poet-in-residence, 1970–74; Ohio University, Athens, McGuffey Lecturer and poet-in-residence, 1975; Iowa Writer's Workshop, University of Iowa, Iowa City, professor of poetry, 1976; University of Maryland, College Park, professor, 1976–77; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, professor of poetry, spring, 1986; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, senior fellow in the humanities, fall, 1986; Fannie Hurst Professor of Literature at Washington University, St. Louis, MO, 1971; lecturer at Barnard College, spring, 1972; acting director of graduate writing program at Columbia University, 1972; visiting professor of writing, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1989, 1990, and University of California—Davis, 1991; Coal Royalty Chair, University of Alabama, 1995. Participant in International Poetry Festivals, London, England, 1960, 1970, Yugoslavia, 1969, 1970, Pakistan, 1969, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 1970, Knokke-le-Zut, Belgium, 1970, Bordeaux, 1992, Dublin, 1993, and Glasgow, 1994. Volunteer worker for American Friends Service Committee, 1960; specialist in literature for U.S. State Department in Pakistan, 1964–65; director of literary programs for the National Endowment for the Arts; poet-in-residence at the University of North Carolina and Ohio University. Member of founding board of directors of Seattle Community Psychiatric Clinic.

MEMBER: International PEN, Amnesty International, Association of Literary Magazines of America (founding member), Poetry Society of America, Poets and Writers, Academy of American Poets (chancellor), American Civil Liberties Union.

AWARDS, HONORS: Masefield Prize, Poetry Society of America, 1983; Washington State Governors Award, and San Francisco Arts Commission award, both 1984, both for Mermaids in the Basement: Poems for Women; award in literature, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1985; Pulitzer Prize in poetry, 1985, for Yin: New Poems; Frost Medal, Poetry Society of America, Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Award, and President's Medal, Eastern Washington University, all 1988; D.Litt., Whitman College, 1986, St. Andrew's College, 1989, Mills College, 1990, and Washington State University, 1991.



Poems, Portland Art Museum (Portland, OR), 1959.

The Ungrateful Garden, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN)), 1961.

Knock upon Silence, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1965.

Midnight Was My Cry: New and Selected Poems, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1971.

Mermaids in the Basement: Poems for Women, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1984.

Yin: New Poems (contains selections from Mermaids in the Basement), BOA Editions (Brockport, NY), 1984.

The Nearness of You: Poems for Men, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1986.

Harping On: Poems 1985–1995, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1996.

Cool, Calm, & Collected: Poems 1960–2000, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2000.

Pro Femina: A Poem, University of Missouri Press (Kansas City, MO), 2000.

(Coeditor) American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Library of America (New York, NY), 2000.


(Editor, with Elaine Dallman and Barbara Gelpi) Woman Poet—The West, Women-in-Literature (Reno, NV), 1980.

(Editor) Robertson Peterson, Leaving Taos, Harper (New York, NY), 1981.

(Editor) Muriel Weston, Primitive Places, Owl Creek Press (Seattle, WA), 1987.

(Translator) Carrying Over (poetry), Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1988.

(Editor) The Essential John Clare, Ecco Press (Hope-well, NJ), 1992.

Proses: Essays on Poems & Poets, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1993.

(Editor) One Hundred Great Poems by Women, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1995.

Picking and Choosing: Essays on Prose, Eastern Washington University Press (Cheney, WA), 1995.

(Compiler and author of introduction) Jeffrey Greene, American Spiritualists, Northeastern University Press (Boston, MA), 1998.

Contributor to numerous anthologies, including New Poems by American Poets, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1957; New Poets of England and America, Meridian Publishing (Salinas, CA), 1962; Anthology of Modern Poetry, Hutchinson (London, England), 1963; Erotic Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 1963; and New Modern Poetry, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.

Translator of Sept versants, sept syllables (title means "Seven Sides, Seven Syllables"). Also contributor to various periodicals, including Poetry, New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Spectator, Paris Review, Shenandoah, Antaeus, Grand Street, and Poetry East.

SIDELIGHTS: Although Carolyn Kizer's poetry collections are not vast in number, they bear witness to her much-praised meticulousness and versatility. Critics noted although that Kizer's subject matter has changed over the years, the caliber of her art has remained high. In 1985 her collection Yin: New Poems—twelve years in the making—won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Kizer is "a writer to treasure," maintained Elizabeth B. House in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. "She has created poetry that will endure … Faced with the human inevitability of loss and destruction, Kizer, in both poetry and life, celebrates the joys of art, friendship, family, and good works. Undoubtedly, she has earned a secure niche in American letters."

"Like some people, Carolyn Kizer is many people," noted Washington Post reviewer Meryle Secrest. Kizer received her B.A. degree from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945 and then went on to do graduate work at both Columbia University and the University of Washington. During the mid-1950s, she studied poetry at the University of Washington under the tutelage of Theodore Roethke. According to American Women Writers, Kizer believes that it was "her study of the craft with Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington in the early 1950s that finally turned her into a self-assured poet." Later, Kizer cofounded the prestigious Seattle-based Poetry Northwest, a journal she edited from its inception in 1959 until 1965. In 1964 Kizer went to Pakistan as a U.S. State Department specialist and taught at various institutions, including the distinguished Kin-naird College for Women. Among her other activities, Kizer was the first director of literary programs for the newly created National Endowment for the Arts in 1966, a position she held until 1970. As literary director, she promoted programs to aid struggling writers and literary journals, and she worked to have poetry read aloud in inner city schools. In addition to teaching and lecturing nationwide, Kizer has translated Urdu, Chinese, and Japanese poetry. According to Kizer, "What is so marvelous about living today is that it is possible to extend, like a flower, spreading petals in all directions," recorded Secrest.

House claimed that, as a poet, Kizer deals equally well with subjects that have often been treated by women and those that have not. "Tensions between humans and nature, civilization and chaos," are topics no more and no less congenial to her than are love affairs, children, and women's rights. According to House, in Kizer's first two poetry collections, The Ungrateful Garden and Knock upon Silence, the poet employs grotesque imagery—"lice cozily snuggling in a captured bat's wing, carrion birds devouring the last pulp of hell-bound bodies," and other unsettling topics—but the poet is not fearful of femininity and sentimentality. Sometime in the past, Roethke composed a list of common complaints made against women poets that included such things as lack of sense of humor, narrow range of subject matter, lamenting the lot of women, and refusing to face up to existence. In Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, Richard Howard maintained that Kizer has first incurred and then overcome these complaints. "She does not fear—indeed she wants—to do all the things Roethke says women are blamed for, and indeed I think she does do them…. But doing them or not, being determined to do them makes her a different kind of poet from the one who manages to avoid the traps of his condition, and gives her a different kind of success," noted Howard.

The Ungrateful Garden, Kizer's first major collection, appeared in 1961. Devoted in large part to the examination of people's relationships to nature, it is a candid work, according to Saturday Review critic Robert D. Spector. Because "candor is hardly ever gentle, her shocking images are brutal," the critic continued. Kizer "abuses adult vanity by setting it alongside a child's ability to endure the removal of an eye. Pretensions to immortality are reduced to rubbish by 'Beer cans on headstones, eggshells in the [cemetery] grass.'" In the title poem and in one of her better-known pieces, "The Great Blue Heron," Kizer presents her belief that nature has no malevolence toward man, that the two simply exist side by side. In "The Great Blue Heron," according to House, "the heron is a harbinger of death, but [Kizer] never suggests that the bird is evil. As part of nature, he merely reflects the cycle of life and death that time imposes on all living creatures."

In The Ungrateful Garden, House also observed Kizer emphasizing the distance between humans and nature, and also the perils of modern governments quashing individual identity. Kizer demonstrates that a reprieve from the terrors of nature and government can be found in human relationships, and especially in poetry. In the poem "From an Artist's House," for example, the poet celebrates the unchanging nature of verse. On the whole, D.J. Enright of the New Statesman feels there are "some remarkably good things in this strong-tasting collection, thick with catastrophes and fortitude."

Whereas Poetry critic William Dickey considered The Ungrateful Garden to showcase a poet "more concerned with the manner of [her poems'] expression than with the material to be expressed," Saturday Review contributor Richard Moore commented that Kizer's third poetry collection, Knock upon Silence, contains relaxed meters and simple diction: "There are no verbal fireworks, no fancy displays." As with much of Kizer's poetry, an Eastern influence is present in Knock upon Si-lence, with its calm, cool, sensitive verse. The collection consists of two long poems—"A Month in Summer" and "Pro Femina"—a section called "Chinese Imitations," and several translations of the eighth-century Chinese poet Tu Fu. "She's at the top of her form, which is to say, devastating in her observations of the human animal," wrote Gene Baro in the New York Times Book Review. "How true, one thinks, when this poet writes about feminine sensibility or about love."

Of the two longer poems included in Knock upon Silence, "A Month in Summer" received mixed reviews. This diary of love gone sour, which contains both prose segments and occasional haiku, is viewed by Moore as the "weakest part of [Kizer's] book…. It is moving in places, witty in others; but there is also a tendency to be straggling and repetitive." In contrast, Bewley cited this piece as "the heart and triumph" of Knock upon Silence: "It manages to compress within a very few pages alive with self-irony and submerged humor, more than most good novelists can encompass in a volume."

The other long selection in Knock upon Silence, "Pro Femina," is comprised of three conversational poems that discuss the role of the liberated woman in the modern world, particularly the woman writer. "Pro Femina" is a satiric piece keenly aware of the fact that women still confront obstacles related to their gender: "Keeping our heads and our pride while remaining unmarried; / And if wedded, kill guilt in its tracks when we stack up the dishes / And defect to the typewriter."

Kizer turns, in part, to different matters in her collection Midnight Was My Cry: New and Selected Poems, which contains several previously published poems and sixteen new ones. Though she remains dedicated to meter and Eastern restraint—"the poet's mind continually judges, restrains, makes passion control itself," wrote Eric Mottram in Parnassus—her newer poems express an interest in the social and political problems of the contemporary world, especially those of the 1960s. These poems center on antisegregation sit-ins, the Vietnam conflict, and the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. For Poetry contributor Richard Howard, Kizer has "reinforced her canon by some dozen first-rate poems, observant, solicitous, lithe."

Catching the literary world a little by surprise, Kizer published two poetry volumes in 1984, Mermaids in the Basement: Poems for Women and Yin: New Poems. Mermaids in the Basement received minor critical attention, perhaps because it contains several poems from her previous collections, including "A Month in Summer" and "Pro Femina," the latter one of her best-known poems satirizing as it does liberated women writers by mimicking the hexameter used by the ancient misogynist poet Juvenal. According to Patricia Hampl in the New York Times Book Review, "the craft for which … Kizer is known serves her well in [the poem] 'Thrall'; a remarkable compression allows her to review the entire disappointing history of her relationship with her father…. There is a great effort toward humor in these poems. But the tone is uneven; the humor, as well as the outrage, seems arch at times." Yin, in contrast, received a favorable critical reception from the outset, winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1985. "One could never say with certainty what 'a Carolyn Kizer poem' was—until now…. Now we know a Kizer poem is brave, witty, passionate, and not easily forgotten," contended Poetry critic Robert Phillips.

The word "yin" is Chinese for the feminine principle, and many of the poems in this award-winning collection focus on feminine perceptions and creativity. In her joint review of Mermaids in the Basement and Yin, Hampl considered the prose memoir in Yin titled "A Muse" to be "a real find…. This piece, about … Kizer's extraordinary mother, is not only a fascinating portrait, but a model of detachment and self-revelation." "A Muse" examined Kizer's childhood feelings about the ambitions her mother had for her: "The poet describes a … mama smothering her precocious offspring with encouragement…. Only with the woman's death does the speaker's serious life as an artist begin," assessed Joel Conarroe in the Washington Post Book World. In addition, "Semele Recycled" is considered an imaginative treat with its description of a modern-day Semele symbolically torn apart at the sight of her lover and then made whole again.

Probably the most admired piece in the Yin collection is the poem "Fanny." Written in Roman hexameter, this 224—line poem is the proposed diary of Robert Louis Stevenson's wife, Frances (Fanny), as she nurses her husband during the last years of his life. Remarked Kizer in Penelope Moffet's Los Angeles Times review: "'Fanny' is about what happens to women who are the surrogate of gifted men. Women who look after the great writers, whether mothers, sisters, wives, or daughters. What they do with their creativity, because they can't engage in open or active competition. I think 'Fanny' [is] a political poem, if you consider feminism a political issue, as I do." In addition, Conarroe claimed "Fanny" is "Keatsian in the sensuousness of its imagery, the laughing of its odors and textures. Kizer gives a shattering sense of a woman's sacrifice and isolatio while communicating vividly the terrible beauty of the woman's obsession with her husband's health." Whereas Suzanne Juhasz in Library Journal considered Yin a "mixed bag, or blessing," most reviewers agree with Phillips that Yin "is a marvelous book."

Kizer's The Nearness of You serves as a "companion piece" to Mermaids in the Basement, as it is a collection of poetry on men. According to Charles Libby in the New York Times Book Review, the collection "shows evidence that writing about the other sex involves different struggles than writing about one's own. Despite many local triumphs, the new collection is in many ways less striking, technically and psychologically more self-conscious [than Mermaids in the Basement]." In Contemporary Women Poets, essayist John Montague noted, with relief, "In an era when a shrill feminism threatens to tilt the scales of past injustice, Kizer's view of the sexual universe contains polarity without hostility." Meanwhile Diane Wakoski, appraising The Nearness of You for the Women's Review of Books, found the work somewhat uneven, but concluded, "What this book convinces me of, finally, is that Carolyn Kizer is a poet of occasion, of person and personality. When she becomes historical or formal, when she attempts either love-lyrics or story poems, she is mediocre at best…. But as the ambassador of goodwill in the poetry world … as the woman longing for a family of artists and intellectuals who will replace the one she lost in growing up and leaving her father—yes, yes, yes. Believable, strong, someone who deserves to be remembered."

Kizer's subsequent collection, Harping On: Poems 1985–1995, was not published until 1996. Christine Stenstrom, writing for Library Journal, noted that Kizer's "political poems satisfy less than those vividly recalling parents and friends in small masterpieces of verse narrative." In Publishers Weekly, a critic described Kizer's voice in the book as "distinctly irreverent," her politics "left-leaning," and noted of her poetry that "Kizer employs everything from slanted rhymes to venerable forms like the villanelle and pantoum with a chatty grace that makes the intricacy of her structures all but invisible." Commenting on the satire that wires its way throughout the poems in Harping On, New Leader reviewer Phoebe Pettingell maintained that while the poet comes across as a "clever, tough-minded, and erudite" harpy "exercising her slashing wit on her self as often as others," the poetry scene of the 1990s "needs her voice, whether hectoring, prophesying, seducing, or informing, to raise our consciousness with the eloquence of her subtle lyrics."

Kizer's essays and criticism have been gathered in several volumes, including 1994's Proses: Essays on Poems and Poets. Kate Fitzsimmons, reviewing the book for the San Francisco Review of Books, found Kizer's writing to be engaging. "The joy Kizer experiences in reading other poets is infectious," Fitzsimmons concluded. "Whether she is writing about the lives of poets or their poetry, her enthusiasm for their work is evident, nearly tactile." While Doris Lynch in Library Journal praised the effort, a Publishers Weekly reviewer was less impressed, commenting that if the book had been written by a more-obscure writer, "it would fade quickly into blessed obscurity."

Antioch Review critic Carol Moldaw called Kizer's Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems 1960–2000, "consistently and fearlessly irreverent," and noted that Kizer uses "wit and irony to drive her points home." She added that "almost all of her poems have points, the way roses have thorns." Moldaw continued, "Kizer's poetic voice is one of the most engagingly warm human voices we have, and it would be a mistake to take this enormous, if hard to define, feat for granted. While in her poems from the 50s, Kizer has already begun to stake out the territory she will later make her own … and by the 60s she is already writing 'Chinese Imitations,'" but "it is in the 70s and 80s that you feel her hit her stride." Robert Phillips of the Houston Chronicle noted that Cool, Calm & Collected appears in Kizer's seventy-fifth year and that it "ranks among her best." He observed that one of Kizer's greatest strengths is her use of mythology. "Rather than dragging out the usual versions of the familiar tales, she goes the sources of the myths with surprising results," he explained.

Writing in Booklist Ray Olson observed that "Kizer's four decades of work demonstrate a highly skilled and witty formal poet who yet has been an avant-gardist thematically. Well before many others, she adopted the personae of goddesses in poems that remain more feminine and more feminist than many poems published yesterday." In the same publication, Patricia Monaghan reflected that Kizer "has produced dozens of tender, passionate poems of age and loss…. The stately power of her verse has never failed her."

Although the more pointed aspects of her verse are often couched in sarcasm and stylistic intricacy, Kizer considers herself a political poet. As she remarked to Moffet: "Because I do not feel that [it] is a steady undercurrent, just as feminism is, there are these parallel streams that I hope infuse everything that I do. And I find that stream getting more and more strong in my work. But I don't ever want to be hortatory or propa-gandistic." With regard to the quantity of poetic output—Kizer is not known for being especially prolific herself—she had this to say to inexperienced poets: "I think a lot of younger poets get terrible anxiety that they'll be forgotten if they don't have a book all the time. Well, maybe they will be forgotten, but if they're any good they'll come back."

In an interview with Allan Jalon for the Los Angeles Times, Kizer explained her writing style: "I'm not a formalist, not a confessional poet, not strictly a free-verse poet." Jalon described Kizer as, "Tough without being cold, sometimes satirical (she's a great admirer of Alexander Pope)," and noted that "her work expresses a wordly largeness that repeatedly focuses on the points at which lives meet. 'That's my subject,'" concluded Kizer. "No matter how brief an encounter you have with anybody, you both change."



Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 5, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI)), 1987.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 15, 1980, Volume 39, 1986.

Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 169: American Poets since World War II, Fifth Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Encyclopedia of American Literature, Continuum (New York, NY), 1999.

Howard, Richard, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, Ath-eneum (New York, NY), 1969.

Kizer, Carolyn, The Ungrateful Garden, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1961.

Kizer, Carolyn, Knock upon Silence, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1965.

Malkoff, Karl, Crowell's Handbook of Contemporary American Poetry, Crowell (New York, NY), 1973.

Rigsbee, David, editor, An Answering Music: On the Poetry of Carolyn Kizer, Ford-Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.


Antioch Review, winter, 2002, Carol Moldaw, review of Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems, 1960–2000, p. 166.

Approach, spring, 1966.

Booklist, November 1, 2000, Patricia Monoghan, review of Cool, Calm & Collected, p. 513; March 15, 2001, Ray Olson, review of Cool, Calm & Collected, p. 1349.

Hollins Critic, June, 1997.

Houston Chronicle, December 24, 2000, Robert Phillips, "Two Modern Masters: Collected Poems of Kizer, Kunitz, Prove Luminary Works," p. 13.

Hudson Review, spring, 1972; summer, 1985, pp. 327-340; summer, 2001, R.S. Gwynn, Cool, Calm & Collected, p. 341.

Library Journal, July, 1984; November 1, 1993, p. 93; July, 1996, p. 120; April 1, 2000, Daniel L. Guillory, review of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, p. 105.

Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1985; March 5, 2001, Allan M. Jalon, "Everything, Forever, Everything Is Changed; A Glimpse of Einstein, the Bombing of Hiroshima, the Plight of Women; Moments Are Blazing Images in Carolyn Kizer's Poetry."

Michigan Quarterly Review, John Taylor, "Cool? Calm? Collected? A Meditation of Carolyn Kizer's Poetry," p. 162-173.

New Leader, February 254, 1997, p. 14.

New Statesman, August 31, 1962.

New York Review of Books, March 31, 1966; September 21, 2000, Brad Leithauser, review of American Poetry, pp. 70-74.

New York Times Book Review, March 26, 1967; November 25, 1984; March 22, 1987, p. 23; December 17, 2000, Melanie Rehak, "Freedom and Poetry," p. 23; April 2, 2000, William H. Pritchard, "Eliot, Frost, Ma Rainey, and the Rest," p. 10.

Paris Review, spring, 2000, Barbara Thompson, "Carolyn Kizer: The Art of Poetry," pp. 344-346.

Parnassus, fall-winter, 1972.

Poetry, November, 1961; July, 1966; August, 1972; March, 1985; November, 1985.

Prairie Schooner, fall, 1964.

Publishers Weekly, October 18, 1993, p. 70; August 26, 1996, p. 94; September 18, 2000, review of Cool, Calm, & Collected, p. 105.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 2002, "Milosz, Straight Win California Book Awards," p. D5.

San Francisco Review of Books, October-November, 1994, p. 20.

Saturday Review, July 22, 1961; December 25, 1965.

Shenandoah, winter, 1966.

Tri-Quarterly, fall, 1966.

Village Voice, November 5, 1996.

Washington Post, February 6, 1968.

Washington Post Book World, August 5, 1984; February 1, 1987, p. 6.

Women's Review of Books, September, 1987, p. 6. World Literature Today, summer, 1997.


Academy of American Poets Web site, (May 13, 2003), "Carolyn Kizer."

St. Martin's Press Web site, (May 13, 2003), "Carolyn Kizer."