Kizer, Carolyn

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KIZER, Carolyn

Born 10 December 1925, Spokane, Washington

Daughter of Benjamin H. and Mabel Ashley Kizer; married Charles S. Bullitt, 1948 (divorced); John M. Woodbridge, 1975; children: Ashley, Scot, Jill

In the second half of the 20th century, Carolyn Kizer emerges as one of a powerful group of women poets for whom motherhood is a crucial aspect of identity. These women, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, among others, helped expand the range of metaphor and the depth of meaning for all poets and for all women. Not simply a feminist poet, a gifted translator, a committed internationalist, Kizer has an inclusive generous intellect that offers a strong stand against the petty visions attributed to "women" poets of the past.

Born when her politically active biologist mother was in her forties and her distinguished planner-lawyer father fifty, Kizer flourished on the attentions afforded an only child with extraordinary parents. Her father introduced her to a parade of accomplished friends such as Lewis Mumford, Percy Grainger, and Vachel Lindsay, and her mother gave up her own work to encourage her daughter's talents. When Kizer later garnered much praise for her "interpretations" of Chinese poetry, she remarked that her mother (credited in YIN: New Poems, 1984, as her muse) had read Arthur Waley's translations to her when she was as young as eight. High-minded and intense, Kizer missed other children, but her childhood and her remarkably individual education suggest the freedom available to many important creative personalities. Living in the western U.S. may also have contributed to the sense of possibility essential to becoming a writer. In a valuable brief autobiography, Kizer captures the bravery and the variety of her ancestors' achievements as they struggled toward the far edge of the continent. Similar pride might have also inspired her first public success: a patriotic poem published in the Ladies' Home Journal and set to music for radio when she was just fifteen.

Looking for a college far from home to match the seriousness and eccentricity of her upbringing, Kizer settled on Sarah Lawrence, a school that challenged her self-image but also provided encouragement for her writing. When the New Yorker published one of her poems, the seventeen-year-old author received over 500 letters—public endorsement for an unsure commitment. Going on to Columbia University after graduation to study comparative literature on a Chinese Cultural Fellowship, Kizer subsequently continued her studies in China. But her poetic inspiration remained more imaginative than linguistic. Waley's translations suggested the imitations included in her second collection of poems, Knock Upon Silence (1965). Praising her sensitivity to the spirit of the Chinese poems, critics admired her ability to include many perspectives in her work. Comparisons with Waley suggest entirely new dimensions of psychological insight.

It was, Kizer said, 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. The Ungrateful Garden (1961, reissued 1999), her first volume, was a polished offering reflective of the highly valued stress on workmanship characterizing the earlier decade. Poems like "The Great Blue Heron" and "The Death of a Public Servant" hold up as elegantly crafted artifacts. Perhaps reacting to Roethke's mocking hostility to women poets as much as she admired his teaching techniques, Kizer also began to record the range of women's sensibilities finally included in her assembled poems for women, Mermaids in the Basement: Poems for Women (1984). But the idea that women writers were the custodians of the world's best-kept secret, "merely the private lives of one-half of humanity," has always been with her. A protofeminist, as were many of her gifted contemporaries (women poets trained by men), she early saw beyond the college English Department into life. With the "Pro Femina" sequence in Mermaids, she distinguished herself as a pioneer in forging new traditions in American women's writing.

The roles Kizer has played as poet are various and international. In 1959 she became an editor and founder of Poetry Northwest, which she served until 1965. She acted as cultural ambassador to Pakistan in 1964-65 and continued a life of public service as the first director of Literary Programs for the National Endowment of the Arts, where good sense distinguished her choices. During these years, she managed to raise three children who make their presence felt in a number of moving poems. And she has continued to share her knowledge of poetry as a teacher: from North Carolina to Ohio to Iowa to Stanford to Arizona and Princeton, young writers have profited from her critical advice. Fellow professionals have appreciated her talents enough to award her a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 and a Robert Frost medal in 1988.

What we continue to value most highly in Kizer's work is her deep sense of engagement with life on every level, personal, political, and aesthetic, an involvement that makes all readers more human by sharpening our awareness of the possibilities in every kind of experience.

Other Works:

Midnight Was My Cry: New and Selected Poems (1971). The Nearness of You (1986). Carrying Over: Translations from the Chinese, Urdu, Macedonian, Yiddish, and French African (1988). The Shattered Mirror: Poems from the Chinese Democracy Movement (with D. Finkel, 1991). Proses: Essays on Poets and Poetry (1993). The Essential Clare (edited by Kizer, 1993). Picking and Choosing: Essays on Prose (1995). Election Day, 1984 (1996). Harping On: Poems 1985-1995 (1996). On a Line from Valery (1996). 100 Great Poems by Women: A Golden Ecco Anthology (1998).


Howe, F., ed., No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Newly Revised and Expanded (1993). North, A. F., "Carolyn Kizer: Contemporary Feminism" (thesis 1988). O'Connell, N., At the Field's End: Interviews With 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (1998). Rigsbee, D., ed., An Answering Music: On the Poetry of Carolyn Kizer (1990). Schumock, J., Story, Story, Story: Conversations with American Authors (1999). Simic, C. and D. Lehman, eds., The Best American Poetry, 1992 (1992).

Reference works:

CAAS (1987). CA (1977, 1999). CANR (1988). CLC (1980, 1986). DLB (1980). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Carolyn Kizer, 17 November 1987 (video, 1987). The Writing Life. A Conversation About the Writing Life Between Lucille Clifton … and Carolyn Kizer (video, 1985).