When the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in poetry was awarded to Carolyn Kizer for Yin, her admirers considered that appropriate recognition was being given, if belatedly. Many others were undoubtedly asking, “Carolyn who?” because her work has not received a great amount of critical attention and consequently her name is not well known. During an interview following her winning of the Pulitzer Prize, Kizer offered two explanations for her relative neglect by critics: “For one thing, I think my poems are very clear, so my work lacks the interesting ambiguities that appeal to the critical mind. And I write in so many genres—free verse, formal verse, just about anything—that I can’t be pigeonholed.” Possibly another reason for critical neglect is that Kizer is a poet of relatively slender output, one who chooses to be known more for the excellence of her work than for the number of her poems. Nevertheless, in the wake of the Pulitzer Prize and with the increasing interest in gender studies on college and university campuses, Kizer is attaining greater recognition as a feminist writer and critic. Some of her writings about women, particularly Pro Femina, are and have for some time been well known to students of women’s poetry.
Although Kizer may not have achieved the name recognition of a Sylvia Plath or an Adrienne Rich, her career as a poet has not been lacking in awards and honors. In 1985, she was awarded an Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Among her other honors are the Masefield Prize from the Poetry Society of America in 1983; the Governor’s Award from the State of Washington and an award from the San Francisco Arts Commission, both for Mermaids in the Basement; the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize from Saginaw Valley State University in 1988 for The Nearness of You; the Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in poetry from the Poetry Society of America in 1988; two Silver Medals from the Commonwealth Club of California, in 1996 and 2001; two Washington State Book Awards, in 1997 and 2002; the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry in 1997; and the Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement in 2000. She served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1995 to 1998.