Carolyn Kizer Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Carolyn Kizer (KI-zuhr) is the author of numerous critical reviews and articles on poetry and other literature. Many of these are collected in Proses: On Poems and Poets (1993) and Picking and Choosing: Essays on Prose (1995). She is a prolific translator of poetry from other languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Urdu, Macedonian, Yiddish, French, and French African. An account of an academic year spent in Pakistan, “Pakistan Journal,” is included in her book of poetry translations Carrying Over: Poems from the Chinese, Urdu, Macedonian, Yiddish, and French African (1988). With Donald Finkel, she prepared A Splintered Mirror: Chinese Poetry from the Democracy Movement (1991). Kizer has written several short stories, one of which, “A Slight Mechanical Failure,” appeared in Quarterly Review of Literature in 1978. Kizer coedited, with Elaine Dallman and Barbara Gelpi, Woman Poet, Vol. 1: The West (1980). She has also edited One Hundred Great Poems by Women (1995) and The Essential Clare (1992).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Finch, Annie, Johanna Keller, and Candace McClelland, eds. Carolyn Kizer: Perspectives on Her Life and Work. Fort Lee, N.J.: CavanKerry Press, 2001. A significant collection of appreciations, both in poetry and in prose, plus interviews and a bibliography of Kizer’s work. Maxine Kumin’s short introduction leads to the work of such critics as Alfred Corn, Ruth Salvaggio (on Kizer’s feminism), Robert Phillips (focus on mythology), Henry Taylor (perhaps the best overview of her career), and Judith Johnson.

Fulton, Alice. “Main Things.” Poetry 151 (January, 1988): 372-377. A perceptive essay-review of Mermaids in the Basement and The Nearness of You, written with feminist concerns in mind. Fulton scrutinizes some of Kizer’s language choices and finds evidence of bias against women. She believes that Kizer’s attitude toward women is ambivalent at times, but that overall the poet’s strengths greatly outweigh her few weak moments. Along the way, Fulton offers many excellent insights into the poems.

Hampl, Patricia. “Women Who Say What They Mean.” Review of Mermaids in the Basement and Yin. The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1984, p. 36. This essay-review of Mermaids in the Basement and Yin praises Kizer for having the courage of her early feminism but finds...

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