Essays, Features

On Kizer: “Her Own Woman”

In recent weeks, we’ve been publishing tributes to Poetry Northwest founding editor, Carolyn Kizer.  We’ll post additional material throughout the spring: for additional features in the series, please visit here.  Here, we continue with a spirited admiration, by Martha Silano, of Kizer’s ability to express and measure the inadequacy of “man’s / Ingenious constructions.”

I was in my mid-20s, living in Portland, Oregon, and newly enrolled in my first poetry writing workshop at Portland State University. My teacher, the wonderfully avuncular Primus St. John, gently broke the news, with each poem I brought to class, that I wasn’t quite yet Sappho.

I wasn’t titling my poems, claiming I was following in the footsteps of Emily Dickinson, but when Primus shook his head and laughed at this defense, I took his advice. In retrospect, it makes sense that I would be taking my cues from Dickinson. Having just spent four years at a prestigious liberal art college in the Midwest, I received my BA in English without being asked to read or analyze a single poem by a contemporary female poet. Indeed, most of what I’d read in a half dozen English courses had been written by men, mostly white men at that. But titles or no titles, if I knew one thing by the end of the term, it was that I would be writing bad poems for a long, long time.

For the next two terms I studied poetry with Theodore Roethke/Elizabeth Bishop protégée Henry Carlile. As I later learned when I went to seek my fortune in the MFA program at the University of Washington, Henry taught poetry much in the Roethke and David Wagoner tradition, asking no less from us than to read every book of poetry ever written in English. His syllabus included a long, long list of poetry books, many of which the Multnomah County Library held for me on their dusty, inviting shelves.

It was at this juncture that I began reading the poems of Carolyn Kizer. She had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Yin, one of my favorites because it deals directly with issues of feminism and creativity. I didn’t know enough about  poetics to comprehend her brilliant facility for composing in fixed forms (pantoums, Juvenalian hexameters, etc.). Instead, I was immediately attracted to her work for its subject matter—female friendship, parenting, war, nature vs. humankind, motherhood, anti-segregation sit-ins, Vietnam, and physics, to name a few—proudly adding to my poetry shelves every book she’d written up until that time.

In the summer of 1987, I was lucky enough to land a spot in one of William Stafford’s famed workshop classes, and one evening Kizer showed up for cocktail hour. I had not yet published a single poem, so there was no chance of buying her a drink, but I do recall the buzz and excitement as it was called to Stafford’s attention that Kizer would be showing up. When she walked into the room, it was obvious her poetry peers adored her. I remember wishing I could approach her, but I was not only a novice poet, I was a shy one, too. But I do remember her gravelly, booming voice, and I couldn’t help but nod in agreement that she did resemble, in strength and tenacity and fearlessness, a condor.

It wasn’t until much later that I bothered to learn that back in the 1950s, Kizer married, had three children in three years, and, upon divorcing her husband in 1954, simultaneously became a single mom and a fledgling poet. In her Paris Review interview with Barbara Thompson Davis in the spring of 2000, Kizer recalls how, sitting in a class with James Wright, Jack Gilbert, David Wagoner, and Richard Hugo (“a nest of singing chauvinists”), she didn’t take herself seriously as a poet, “but then again, most women poets of my generation did not take themselves seriously—I was almost middle-aged before the idea penetrated.” She goes on to say that it was Roethke who got her to take poetry, and in turn her own attempts, as seriously as the male poets who surrounded her. When she showed her poem “Pro Femina” to this male posse, they reacted negatively, so negatively, in fact, that Kizer all but threw the poem in the trash. Eventually, Ralph Humphries and Robert Fitzgerald salvaged it from the rubbish bin, praising its meter while keeping mum on its subject matter, a stinging commentary on the history of female oppression and submission to the patriarchy. But hexameter be damned; it’s the subject matter that got this poet fired up and inspired:

Knitting booties and brows, tartars or termagants, ancient
Fertility symbols, chained to our cycle, released
Only in part by devices of hygiene and personal daintiness,
Strapped into our girdles, held down, yet uplifted by man’s
Ingenious constructions, holding coiffures in a breeze,
Hobbled and swathed in whimsy, tripping on feminine
Shoes with fool heels, losing our lipsticks, you, me,
In ephemeral stockings, clutching our handbags and packages.
Our masks, always in peril of smearing or cracking,
In need of continuous check in the mirror or silverware,
Keep us in thrall to ourselves, concerned with our surfaces.
Look at man’s uniform drabness, his impersonal envelope!
Over chicken wrists or meek shoulders, a formal, hard-fibered assurance.
The drape of the male is designed to achieve self-forgetfulness.

So, Sister, forget yourself a few times and see where it gets you:
Up the creek, alone with your talent, sans everything else.
You can wait for the menopause, and catch up on your reading.
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?

Kizer, through poems like this one, and whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, played a huge role in encouraging me, and others like me, to be brave, to write with wit, passion, and irreverence about not only once-forbidden subjects such as foot-binding, labor pains, control-top panties, mashed Gerber peas, and the inherent problems with the word “vagina,” but about traditionally male subjects as well: rocket science, unbridled consumerism, political unrest, and war. For her imaginative genius, for her agility with assuming personae (her poem “Fanny” is written in the voice of the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson), and for her ability to pursue poetry at a time when her contributions to discussions about craft were less than well-received (“they would act as if I hadn’t spoken, as if I were wallpaper”), I tip my hat and heart to the woman who through her example, inspired and buffeted me, like Chaucer’s Criseyde, to become my own woman wel at ease.

Martha Silano‘s most recent book of poems is The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, chosen by Campbell McGrath as the winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Martha teaches composition and creative writing at Bellevue College.

If you’d like to con/tribute – the remembrance of an encounter with Kizer or her work, a close reading of  a poem, a letter to the editor, etc. – please write us at: editors@poetrynw.org, with the subject line “Kizer tribute.”