Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

8. Carolyn Kizer, 1925–

Benjamin Kizer and Mabel Ashley, Carolyn Kizer’s parents, first met on a bench in Spokane’s Davenport Hotel after the president of Reed College told Carolyn’s mother, a 1904 Stanford University Ph.D. in Biology, she should meet the available Ben Kizer, a Spokane attorney whose remarkable career is detailed in Who’s Who in America for 1978-1979. Some prediction of Carolyn’s genetics for poetry may be evidenced by her father’s first marriage to the poetry critic for the New York Times Book Review, Helen Bullis, to whom Mr. Kizer proposed on the basis of her poetry reviews. After exchanging some letters and a snapshot, Mr. Kizer convinced Ms. Bullis to marry him after he took a train to New York City to see her for the first time and to care skillfully for the funeral arrangements of Ms. Bullis’s mother. After several years of marriage, Helen Bullis Kizer died horseback riding when her saddle slipped and her horse kicked her to death. The heartbroken Ben Kizer was convinced to try love again with Mabel Ashley because, he said, he liked the sound of her voice on the phone

Otherwise, such spontaneity was rare for Benjamin Hamilton Kizer, who was fifty when his daughter Carolyn was born in 1925; Carolyn’s mother was in her late forties. Years later, in 1977, the prominent Spokane clothier, Bob Pierone, wrote to Carolyn before writing a posthumous review of Ben Kizer’s life. Pierone wrote that Ben “came across as supremely structured, intelligent, polite but always somewhat remote. What was he like to you?” Kizer replied at length, but to Pierone’s observation she said, “Add ‘authoritarian and severe,’ and you get a pretty good approximation of how he appeared to that stranger, his child” (Kizer 2001: 249). At times, Kizer’s father addressed her with the same “viscera-shriveling” voice she heard him use later on “members of the House Un-American Activities Committee and other villains of the 50’s, to even more devastating effect…” and, Kizer continued in her letter, “I almost forgave him” (Kizer 2001: 251).

If her precocity was not assured, it was expected. At the age of eight, she was taught to speak clearly to her father about recent Supreme Court decisions. Carolyn’s mother asked for nearly equal accomplishments in the arts and music. Her uncommon childhood set Kizer apart from other students at Spokane’s Lewis and Clark High School. Kizer’s poem “Running Away From Home” reveals the comic alienation she must have felt from her contemporaries and from her regional society. "Most people from Idaho are crazed rednecks. . . Some people from Oregon are mad orphans / Who claim to hail from Stratford-upon-Sodom. / They speak fake BBC; they are Unitarian fairies, / In the Yang group or the Yin group, no Middle Way. . . . Some people from Washington State are great poetasters, / Imbibers of anything so long as it makes us sick . . . Some people from Spokane are insane salesmen / Peddling encyclopedias from door to door . . . Some people from Montana are put away; / They shake their manacles in a broken dance, / With eyes blue-rimmed as Picasso’s clowns” (Kizer 2001:178-183).

Kizer left Spokane for Sarah Lawrence College to study comparative mythologies with Joseph Campbell and a score of anthropologists and philosophers. Later she was a Fellow of the Chinese Government in Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her education shows in many of her poems; the broad unities of science and myth, of spirituality and society, that so many people heard popularly explained in the Power of Myth television interviews Joseph Campbell held with Bill Moyers, are applied specifically and rigorously in Kizer’s poetry. Kizer reaches into mythology in poems like “Semele Recycled”; into politics, into feminism, especially in her series of poems called “Pro Femina”; into science, the natural world, music, and translations and commentaries on Japanese and Chinese literatures. Often her poems are set in the context of her highly accomplished and sometimes-audacious autobiography. Her poem “Twelve o’clock,” written on the anniversary of Hiroshima, describes youthful encounters with science and theology, with Einstein and E. O. Lawrence. “At seventeen I’ve come to read a poem / at Princeton. Now my young hosts inquire / If I would like to meet Professor Einstein / . . . Mother had scientific training. I did not; / . . . God was made manifest to her in what she saw / As the supreme order of the skies. / We lay in the meadow side by side, long summer nights / As she named the stars with awe.” The poem recalls the history of the bomb and says, “But then the giant fist struck—in the still / Center of chaos, noise unimaginable, we thought we heard / The awful cry of God.” (Kizer 2001: 297-301).

Kizer’s contribution to Pacific Northwest culture is significant. After three children and her divorce from Stimson Bullitt, an heir to Seattle wealth and influence, she turned to poetry and studied at the University of Washington in the 1950’s whirl with Theodore Roethke and his remarkable students—David Wagoner, Richard Hugo, James Wright, and others. She was included in the important post-Roethke anthology, Five Poets of the Pacific Northwest (Skelton 1964). She was the first editor from 1959-65 of the long-running Poetry Northwest; she wrote on the community of Seattle poets for The New Republic; and in the mid-1990s she returned home for a school year to teach at Eastern Washington University whose press published Picking and Choosing: Essays on Prose (1995). Her collected poems Cool, Calm and Collected are from Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Washington. Kizer won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Yin in 1985. She also won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1985, the Pushcart Prize three times, and she was elected Chancellor to the American Academy of Poets, an organization from which she later resigned in protest of its wide male majority. She was the first Director of Literary Programs for the National Endowment for the Arts. Her nearly twenty books of poetry, translation, and prose, her editing, her tours as a visiting teacher, her international travel to represent the arts, all have earned Spokane’s Carolyn Kizer international literary prominence.

See: The Academy of American Poets website for Carolyn Kizer:

“The Great Blue Heron”

“A Poet's Household”
"By the Riverside"

"Singing Aloud"

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