Harping On

Ranging across her long, liberal embrace with the latter twentieth century, Carolyn Kizer both delights in and questions the personal and collective manners and deeds of her time. Her “harping” is both lyrical and satirical, holding up mirrors for our exultation and shame.

Kizer’s poems are like old friends who come to the party with stories never before told, or never told this well. Ready to take these friends for granted, readers discover that they do not know them as well as they thought. It is easy to forget just how intelligent, wry, tonic, powerful, and tender Kizer can be. There is an easiness about her manner, an invitation that makes readers feel so welcome that they are caught off-guard when the menu is not quite as expected and the music does not stay in the background.

Pantoum, villanelle, couplet, and sonnet find places at the feast, as do various rhymed stanzas. However, whether employing free verse or a contemporary voicing of traditional shaping or technique, Kizer is confident, direct, and approachable. Unlike the art of many of her highly regarded contemporaries, Kizer’s art rarely seems frenzied or on display. And her learning, which is considerable in depth and scope, has become so much an extension of her personality that it does not get in the way of communication but gracefully serves it. Hers well may be the most representative and lasting feminine voice of the second half of the twentieth century, a closing her final poem, “Fin-de-Siecle Blues,” considers with majestic perception and complexity of mood.