The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

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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 “vast, unmoving” wings (“ashen things”) that the child beheld as “A pair of broken arms/ That were not made for flight.”

Although the child speaker grieved for the loss of the bird, she could not quite comprehend what she had lost. Like little Margaret, who weeps for the falling leaves in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s famous poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” the child’s heart had intuitively grasped the meaning of an omen that her mind could not yet accept, even as she was aware that her mother understood. The mute vision of the heron is a central metaphor for the child’s dawning perception of mortality, to be confirmed in the poem’s final lines.

In the last stanza, the adult speaker addresses the heron directly. Now that the years have passed, now that many Fourth of July rockets and pinwheels have fizzled and burned out and the summer house itself has burned to the ground, “Now,” she says, “there is only you.” Why has the memory of the heron followed her? The somber vision of that moment fifteen years ago has haunted her until this day when, “like gray smoke, a vapor,” or “A handful of paper ashes,” her mother too has disappeared. It is clear to the adult that the silent heron prefigured death and that the death to come was her mother’s. The poem travels from the child’s vision to the mother’s indirect vision and ultimately to the speaker’s mournful recognition.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397

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.