Carolyn Kizer Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Carolyn Kizer was born December 10, 1925, in Spokane, Washington, the only child of exceptional parents, Mabel Ashley Kizer and Benjamin Hamilton Kizer. Her mother had earned a Ph.D. in biology from Stanford University in 1904, taught at Mills College and San Francisco State while helping three younger brothers through college, administered the first federally sponsored drug clinic in New York, and worked as an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. She was in her mid-forties by the time she met and married Benjamin, a well-established Spokane lawyer and regional planner. Kizer’s recollections of her childhood convey ambivalent feelings toward her distinguished but difficult parents. Her father’s emotionally remote, authoritarian personality intimidated and disturbed her, yet she feels profound respect for his integrity, self-discipline, and achievements. Her brilliant mother’s abandonment of a career for a near-neurotic obsession with her daughter, especially with her daughter’s “creativity,” also dismayed Kizer. She confesses that her mother’s demands and expectations hampered her, and that she could come into her own as a serious poet only after her mother’s death. Yet she also pays tribute to her mother as beloved muse: “I wrote the poems for her. I still do.”

After receiving a B.A. degree from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945, Kizer began graduate studies at Columbia University, where she became a fellow of the Chinese...

(The entire section is 564 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Carolyn Kizer was born in 1925 to remarkable parents. In “The Stories of My Life” she traces her father’s dogged pursuit of a career in law: Without benefit of an undergraduate education, he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School Phi Beta Kappa in 1902, then returned to Spokane, where he practiced for the rest of his life, dying at age ninety-nine. Her mother received a doctorate in biology from Stanford University in 1904 and taught at Mills College and San Francisco State, living “a bohemian life” before working as a labor organizer in the Pacific Northwest.

Kizer has noted the awkwardness of having parents about the same age as her friends’ grandparents—her father was forty-seven when she was born—but has also described the rich social and intellectual atmosphere in which she grew up as an only child. The poet Vachel Lindsay was a household guest, but Kizer argues that a more important influence on her decision to become a poet was Lindsay’s sister, Olive Wakefield, a missionary in China. Through her mother’s reading to her of Arthur Waley’s translations, Kizer acquired what she terms “an unending devotion to Chinese poetry.” This devotion is evident in her second book, Knock upon Silence, the title of which is drawn from a poem by Lu Chi. More than half the poems of that book are in the sections “Chinese Imitations” and “Translations of Tu Fu.”

Kizer describes both her parents as skilled raconteurs; she preferred her mother’s “creamy, deep, and resonant” voice to that of her father, which “throbbed with feeling.” In the prose section of Yin entitled “A Muse,” Kizer elaborates on her mother’s influence, portraying her as talented and sensitive but “riddled with self-doubt,” and she sees herself as both motivated and exhausted by her mother’s nervous energy. Kizer describes herself as spoiled, and she concludes that she has always written for her mother.

Partly in order to escape the powerful parental influence, Kizer went East to college, graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945 and doing graduate work at Columbia University for a year and then at the University of Washington. As she sums up those years at the end of “A Muse,” she published one poem in The New Yorker and one in...

(The entire section is 951 words.)


(Poetry for Students)

Carolyn Kizer has fashioned her career as a poet by being part of the very institutions that poets once loved to criticize: the government...

(The entire section is 468 words.)