Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Love and death are both major themes in Kizer’s work, appearing in multiple variations, but here they are combined in a single poem. “The Great Blue Heron” not only confronts the hard fact of death (specifically of the mother, but by implication of all humankind) but also seems to ask, What is the meaning of death—and, perhaps, of life?

Certainly the poet mourns for her mother, and in that sense this is also a poem of love. Mabel Ashley Kizer was a most uncommon woman for her time. She held two degrees in biology, taught at Mills College and headed the biology department at San Francisco State College, was a radical political activist and organizer, and did not marry until her mid-forties. In “A Muse,” the second prose section of her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Yin (1984), Kizer credits her mother as the source of inspiration for her writing. She notes with deep affection and respect that her “serious life as a poet” began after her mother’s death in 1955: “I wrote the poems for her. I still do.” Other portraits of her mother appear in the poems “The Blessing,” “The Intruder,” and “A Long Line of Doctors.”

In addition, this poem is an elegy, a serious meditation on the vanishing past and the despoiling of nature: “The pines and driftwood” have been “cleared/ From that bare strip of shore.” Kizer’s reverence for nature comes partly from her love of its beauty, which was encouraged by...

(The entire section is 502 words.)