Kizer, Carolyn 1925–
An American poet and editor, Kizer has relinquished the formal poetic techniques of her early work for a freer verse style, often utilizing the rhythms of natural speech. Themes of loss and alienation inform her poetry, frequently drawing their strength from the poet's underlying concern for the condition of women in society. Kizer has also translated poetic works from Chinese and Urdu into English and, critics have cited an Eastern influence in much of her work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
Carolyn Kizer's "The Ungrateful Garden" … is an important new voice. Her witty urbanity and sophistication cut savagely through all sentimental disguises. Confronting her mother's tender fondling of a wounded bat with the reality of an infestation of lice, the ugly truth denudes the falsities of human sympathy. The bat is cast to the waiting house cat; the spoils are swept away, the water tap turned on to wash "the pity from her hands." Hearing what seems to be the noise of a baby's fatal spasm in the night, the poet finds comfort because "My children are all grown / Past infant strangles; so, reassured, I knew / Some other baby perished in the snow."
Because candor is hardly ever gentle, her shocking images are brutal. She abuses adult vanity by setting it alongside a child's ability to endure the removal of an eye. Pretensions to immortality are reduced to rubbish by "Beer cans on headstones, eggshells in the [cemetery] grass," and unnoticed signs that remind one to "Deposit Trash in Baskets."
While scorning man's Midas callousness that makes nature unnatural, she neither romantically ignores natural cruelty nor admires irresponsible primitive values. (p. 34)
Miss Kizer's best poetry is written in natural forms out of her own experiences. Her Japanese imitations and "Heine Journal" lack the vigor of which her originality is capable. Even the gentleness she achieves through the fragile oriental technique is unequal to the sympathetic tones which balance the harshness in her poem on the Canadian diplomat who was driven to suicide by McCarthyism, the "Wounds to [whose] name were mortal to [his] mind." (pp. 34-5)
Robert D. Spector, "Muse of Many Voices," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1961 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 44, No. 29, July 22, 1961, pp. 15-17, 34-5.∗
Carolyn Kizer [in The Ungrateful Garden] is least serious, truly serious, when she is making head-on attempts at seriousness. In lighter mood her verse soars with unlikely grace from chamber-pot to sainthood. There are some remarkably good things in this strong-tasting collection, thick with catastrophes and fortitude, bursting with bloody but unbowed puns and light-hearted quotes or misquotes. Literature and life dance such a riotous pas de deux that you can't tell the one from the other and neither can they….
D. J. Enright, "Cats and Dogs," in New Statesman (© 1962 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXIV, No. 1642, August 31, 1962, p. 262.∗
[In "Knock Upon Silence" Carolyn Kizer is] at the top of her form, which is to say, devastating in her observations of the human animal. How true, one thinks, when this poet writes about feminine sensibility or about love. Her poems are both astringent and tender; they turn on a precise insight. To some degree, of course, they are self-conscious; contrivance is necessary to them, for they tell a story about human relationships for the sake of a point, or they are set out to illuminate a situation. But Miss Kizer works so tactfully and skillfully that we seem to be observing the real thing, the unfolding of intimate experience.
Miss Kizer is infatuated with Oriental poetry. She offers a section called "Chinese Imitations," and another large part of her book is given over to translations from Tu Fu, a great Chinese poet of the eighth century. Her long poem, "A Month in the Summer," is indebted to "The Year of My Life" for its form. The results are persuasive poems in English—I suspect more clear-cut than their models. No doubt the originals have given Miss Kizer support or direction in her standards of taste. The lucidity of her writing and its restraint gives great pleasure. The containment of the poems plays against their resonance of feeling.
Gene Baro, "Clear Vision," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 26, 1967, p. 5.
Carolyn Kizer is … highly conscious of making poems for a university-trained audience to use as a calm mirror of reflective consciousness. Her forms are generally within that inheritance from the reverie of "Frost at Midnight" which came into Robinson and Frost, and Roethke later, enlivened by colloquial variations on punctuated sentences and meter derived from Browning. The first poem in Midnight Was My Cry is exemplary. The voice is neatly fitted into continuities of metricized rhythm, with a general tone of controlled confidence in reflection. Her poems report contemplation of experience rather than dramatize it, but the meditative quality is sufficiently rough and ironic—one meaning of to meditate is to design mentally….
The pitch is not high; the tone is even. The poet's mind continually judges, restrains, makes passion control itself, constructs molds of cleverness. The surface of "The Dying Goddess" is orderly syntax and conventional language; the interior is erotic violence and decay. These are not the pleasures of risk but of harness. (pp. 153, 155)
Eric Mottram, "The Limits of Self-Regard," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1972, pp. 152-62.∗
I have often heard the comment made by men and intended as a compliment, "She doesn't write like a woman." Kizer would find that no compliment. Hers, though, is clearly a woman's consciousness, and the poetry that comes out of it is strong indeed. Her third book, Midnight Was My Cry, is a collection of recent verse as well as selections from her two previous volumes. By virtue of its skill, depth, and variety, it should establish her as one of our better poets.
I suppose what impresses me most about this book is its mastery of different types of poems, from love poems to narrative poems to poems in the Oriental manner, to name a few. (p. 117)
Kathryn Stripling Byer, "Book Reviews: 'Midnight Was My Cry'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1973, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 117-18.