The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Carolyn Kizer first published “The Great Blue Heron” in Poetry magazine as a poem of fifty-five lines and three irregular stanzas. When it was later reprinted in Mermaids in the Basement, she split the middle section, creating a fourth stanza. She has dedicated the poem to “M.A.K.” These initials and the dates that follow them, as well as the content of the poem, confirm that this is an elegy, a long, sustained poem of mourning, for her mother, Mabel Ashley Kizer, who died in 1955 in her seventy-fifth year. The tone is serious and melancholy. The speaker in this first-person poem seems to be Kizer herself, as references to “my mother” also suggest. The youthful vision of the heron may likewise be autobiographical.

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker remembers the day when, as a child on the beach near the family’s vacation home “Some fifteen summers ago,” she saw a solitary great blue heron standing “Poised in the dusty light” and was struck by this prophetic apparition. Her startled response, “Heron, whose ghost are you?” indicates the intensity of this experience. Her body reacted as if in physical shock as she stood in “the sudden chill of the burned.” Even though the child raced to find her mother in the house and bring her back to the beach, “the spectral bird” had vanished from sight. The mother, however, called her attention to the heron in soundless flight above the trees, afloat on...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Critic Elizabeth B. House has observed that Kizer uses form in this poem in order to distance herself from the raw pain of her mother’s death. Although this relatively early poem may appear to be composed in free verse, it is actually in a form, as is most of her early work. The meter is accentual (of a type sometimes known as “loose iambic”), with the two-syllable iamb as its basic metrical foot. Each line consists of three distinct stresses or beats, with a varying number of unaccented syllables. Both the meter and the device of repetition give the poem an aura of inevitability.

Kizer makes use of repetition through occasional end rhyme and slant or imperfect rhyme, as well as through consonance and assonance (repeated consonant and vowel sounds). Perhaps most significant is her emphasis on key words such as “shadow” and “heavy,” which help to establish the poem’s mood and tone. First the child feels a premonition like the “sudden chill of the burned”; later the summer house has “burned.” She watches the heron “drifting/ Over the highest pines” with its “ashen” wings, and fifteen years later the “ashes” of the mother “drift away.” These words were carefully chosen for their connotations, their emotional impact upon the reader, as have such shaded words as “bleaker,” “tattered,” “ragged,” and “decayed.”

Kizer’s vivid visual imagery is noteworthy. Her contrast of the implied colors of summer and fire with the complete absence of color identified with the heron creates a dramatic tension within the poem. The glow of a past that cannot be recaptured—the warm, bright Fourth of July images of “smokes and fires/ And beach-lights and water-glow/ reflecting pin-wheel and flare”—fades to bleakest ash. That once brilliant, light-drenched past is contradicted by the flat shadow of the heron in its “dusty light.” The dark shape of the bird drifting in the sky is echoed by the drab, intangible qualities of gray smoke and vapor.

The great blue heron obviously becomes something more than a bird. It is otherworldly, passionless, almost mechanical in its movements. It appears and vanishes in ominous silence. The fact of its gloomy presence is warning enough. “What scissors cut him out?” asks the child, perhaps echoing William Blake’s question of “The Tiger”: “What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” The poet offers no answer.