Kyger, Joanne (Elizabeth)

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KYGER, Joanne (Elizabeth)

Nationality: American. Born: Vallejo, California, 19 November 1934. Education: Santa Barbara College (now University of California, Santa Barbara), 1952–56. Family: Married 1) Gary Snyder, q.v., in 1960 (divorced 1965); 2) John Boyce in 1966 (died 1972). Career: Lived in Japan, 1960–64; performer and poet in experimental television project, 1967–68. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968. Address: P.O. Box 688, Bolinas, California 94924, U.S.A.



The Tapestry and the Web. San Francisco, Four Seasons, 1965.

The Fool in April. San Francisco, Coyote, 1966.

Places to Go. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1970.

Joanne. New York, Angel Hair, 1970.

Desecheo Notebook. Berkeley, California, Arif Press, 1971.

Trip Out and Fall Back. Berkeley, California, Arif Press, 1974.

All This Every Day. Bolinas, California, Big Sky, 1975.

Up My Coast/Sulla mia costa. Melano, Switzerland, Caos Press, 1978; Point Reyes, California, Floating Island, 1981.

The Wonderful Focus of You. Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1980.

Mexico Blondé. Bolinas, California, Evergreen Press, 1981.

Going On: Selected Poems 1958–1980, edited by Robert Creeley. New York, Dutton, 1983.

Man: Two Poems (broadside). Pacifica, California, Big Bridge Press, 1988.

The Phone Is Constantly Busy to You (broadside). Lawrence, Kansas, Tansy Press, 1989.

Just Space: Poems 1979–1989. Santa Rosa, Black Sparrow Press, 1991.

Some Sketches from the Life of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Boulder, Colorado, Rodent Press, 1996.


The Japan and India Journals 1960–1964. Bolinas, California, Tombouctou, 1981; as Strange Big Moon: The Japan and India Journals, 1960–1964, Berkeley, California, North Atlantic Books, 2000.

Phenomonological. Canton, New York, Glover Publishing, 1989.


Manuscript Collection: University of California, San Diego.

Joanne Kyger comments:

I myself am a West Coast poet, but I also feel an affinity for much of the work of the younger New York poets.

My vision of the poet changes so I can stay alive and the muse can stay alive. I report on my states of consciousness and the story I am telling.

*  *  *

Joanne Kyger is not the enchantress Circe, but she has admired her. Kyger's first book, The Tapestry and the Web, exhibits great mythic propensities. In it she reactivates the Odysseus myth, but unlike Pound and Joyce and Olson she enlarges the feminine aspect of the Odyssey. She is not Penelope, however, waiting on a man (or anyone else) for her fate. Her Penelope is not domesticated patience; rather, she is the mother of Pan. Kyger's destiny as poet is her own responsibility, and she has borne it as Pan, free spirited and ranging. Her web is metaphoric of the poem itself—patterned freely and self-supporting—the isolated narrative strands that, when bound together, capture the reader and bring meaning.

Kyger's gifts as a narrator are extraordinary. In fact, it is this technique that characterizes almost all of her poems, a pattern marked by sudden cuts of consciousness, the narrative abruptly shifting in flight, not relying on startling imagery to signal changes of direction. A significant early poem is "The Maze," in which there are several entrances but only a single exit from bewilderment.

Overall, Kyger's early poems deliberately hold back personality. They are populated by disembodied presences, an unmoored "he" or "she," various "figures" engaged in vague but effective drama. Her "I" is a nonconfessional, impersonal, automatic speaker, perhaps showing the influence of Jack Spicer. In the late 1960s and in the 1970s she keeps a greater account of herself, reporting directly in such books as Joanne and All This Every Day that it is "Joanne" who is interesting, wonderful to behold, making her sense out of the world. She has kept close to what she knows, absorbed by the day's contents and contentments while rejecting paper plate, disposable America, as in "Don't Hope to Gain by What Has Preceded."

The turning point comes with "August 18" in Places to Go, where a new personality arises in phases like a moon over the mesa. By the time of All This Every Day the "I" becomes more obviously the poet's own personality and steps out into quotidian daylight, where there are sharper outlines. Dates become titles—"October 29, Wednesday," "October 31"—and poems are entries in imagination's almanac, records of the day as lived a little closer to understanding, a catalogue of motives, concordances, and accords. The daily brings with it a new ambition for samadhi, total consciousness, like what Little Neural Annie attains in "Soon," with what has become characteristic humor for the poet:

   Little Neural Annie was fined $65 in the Oakland
   Traffic Court this season for "driving while in
   a state of samadhi." California secular law requires
   that all drivers of motor vehicles remain firmly seated
   within their bodies while the vehicle is in motion.
   This applies to both greater vehicles and lesser

Kyger puts the comic back in the cosmic. Relationships, too, yield attainment, as in these lovely lines: "She makes / herself, decorative, agreeable, for him. They nod / inside a flower, a wonderful room." It is a leisurely, drifting poetry, stirring in the breeze, absorbing the occasional muffled chaos, a day's small panics. Only in such a relaxed state, without the uneconomical expense of willful pressure, do the lines work so effectively.

Kyger's work is generally characterized by eagerness, even in the face of a disaster such as the plundering of a camp cabin by a bear. "Destruction" may well become her best-known poem. It is a great chuckle of a poem, although a more formal analysis might speak of its excellent dramatic device. The speaker follows the bear's path of destruction, pad and pencil in hand, as if for a police report or insurance claim:

   He eats all the apples, limes, dates, bottled decaffeinated
   coffee, and 35 pounds of granola. The asparagus soup cans
   fall to the floor. Yum! … Rips open the water bed, eats
       the incense
   drinks the perfume … Knocks Shelter, Whole Earth
   Planet, Drum, Northern Mists, Truck Tracks, and
   Women's Sports
into the oozing water bed mess.
                                            He goes
     down stairs and out the back wall. He keeps on going
   for a long way and finds a good cave to sleep it all off.
   Luckily he ate the whole medicine cabinet, including stash
   of LSD, Peyote, Psilocybin, Amanita, Benzedrine,
      Valium ann

Kyger's images are few; puns not essential; devices, tricks, and syncopations unintended; diction comfortable. Her lines are biomorphic, ever adjusting to what they seek to accomplish, not to hold the world at bay or shore up ruined traditions but extending out to join the oncoming freshened world. The value of her work lies in its openness, its whimsy, the acceptance of daily change. Her poems are attentive to a spirit's needs, a deeply drawn aim within aimlessness. She has never been less than autonomous and thus is beyond the futile eddies of taste. Always a free spirit, she has rarely spoken for any group larger than her thoughts. It amounts to a style to which she has faithfully adhered.

—George F. Butterick