‘Everything, Forever, Everything Is Changed’
Carolyn Kizer’s friend and editor, Sam Hamill, has long regarded her as “a grande dame of American poetry.” But when he recently dared to print that on the review galley for the newly published, 509-page collection of her life’s work, she had it removed. Now, sitting here in her high-windowed, mid-19th century house, fixing her large blue eyes on me, she asks: “Do I seem like a grande dame to you?”
She’s a statuesque woman who stands almost 6 feet; a 76-year-old winner of a Pulitzer Prize in a fashionably dark pantsuit; the first director of the literary program of the National Endowment for the Arts, whose aging admirers still recall the remarkable beauty of her youth. She is a widely traveled grandmother who translates poets from the Balkans to Beijing; she is a famously good teacher, spreading her work ethic of artistic improvement in a richly mellifluous voice, defying severe arthritis this winter to be a visiting professor at San Jose State University.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. March 8, 2001 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 8, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Poet’s name--A story in Monday’s Southern California Living misspelled the name of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
And now she waits for my answer.
“Yes,” I venture nervously, if any poet on the West Coast, indeed in America today, deserves such a title, it is probably her. “Oh, it makes me sound like a large piano,” she groans.
She sits in a reddish chair surrounded by Greek statuary, antique Chinese scrolls and modern paintings by her friends from the Northwest, Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, along with countless shelves of books, many by poets she’s known. The balance of intimacy and Old World elegance comes close to the architectural equivalent of a Kizer poem. It reflects what she calls a “very fortunate life” and also her collection’s title, “Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems 1960-2000” (Copper Canyon).
We struggle to fit her among poets. “I’m not a formalist, not a confessional poet, not strictly a free-verse poet,” she says, though she relies on a refined metrical ear and has confessional moments. She agrees with the idea that she belongs to a long tradition of social advantage applied to a socially minded art, one that embraces writers ranging from Edith Wharton to Robert Lowell.
It is an unusual place to hold these days. In the 1960s, the big story in American letters became the explosion of minority voices: Jewish, black, Asian and, more recently, Latino. Kizer emerged from a sturdy, if left-leaning, WASP background. Her father was a prominent lawyer and civil libertarian in Spokane, Wash., who was harassed during the McCarthy era. Her mother worked for radical causes. Her parents, portrayed vividly in her work, taught Kizer a sensitivity to imbalances between insiders and outsiders. “I’m a lucky woman, really,” she says. “Things always turn out all right for me, but if I have a model in this life, I’ve taken it from the Quakers: ‘Speak truth to power.’ ”
She’s fought for the social and artistic recognition of women. In the most-quoted line from her best-known poem, “Pro Femina,” she calls women “the custodians of the world’s best-kept secret: Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity.” That line dates to 1964. Recent work sustains her commitment to equality. In “Union of Women,” a 1998 poem about Los Angeles poet FrancEYE (she goes by just the one name), Kizer identifies with FrancEYE’s support for women hotel workers “in struggle / With the terrible Sheraton, it’s unfair labor practices / Concerning the ladies who change the beds and mop the bathrooms / And fold the ends of the toilet paper / Into those stupid triangles, and put the mints on the pillow.”
Tough without being cold, sometimes satirical (she’s a great admirer of Alexander Pope), her work expresses a wordly largeness that repeatedly focuses on the points at which lives meet. “That’s my subject,” she says. “No matter how brief an encounter you have with anybody, you both change.”
She draws my attention to “Twelve O’Clock,” a poem with a powerful pacifist undercurrent, framed by her resonating glimpse of Albert Einstein at the main library as a 17-year-old visiting Princeton. She creates a collage of times and places, Princeton, Berkeley, Spokane. We see her stargazing with her mother. It’s night in a meadow near the Kizers’ summer home in Hayden Lake, Idaho. For the mother, the stars display an ordered, quite certain universe. To the daughter, they radiate uncertainty. Family scenes mingle with a growing awareness of physics. An orderly sense of anxiety spreads across time, until she walks past the Lawrence Lab in Berkeley, at noon, on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima:
Everywhere, all over Japan / And Germany, people are lighting candles / It’s dark in Germany and Japan, on different days, / But here in Berkeley, it is twelve o’clock.
Kizer’s voice is subdued but strong, as she reads her concluding lines about seeing Einstein:
I stand in the center of the library
And he appears. Are we witnesses or actors?
The old man and the girl, smiling at each other,
He fixed by fame, she fluid, still without identity.
An instant which changes nothing.
And everything, forever, everything is changed.
Change, when one makes it, is activism. And translation becomes a subtle, literary vessel for Kizer’s activist ideal, as she gives 150 pages of her book to bringing other poets into English. Her international focus helped shape her management of literary programs at the NEA, from 1965 to 1970. She’s particularly proud about having persuaded Lyndon Johnson to lift a ban against the late Chilean poet and Communist Pablo Nerudo from entering the United States. “I told Roger Stevens, head of the NEA, that this man was simply the greatest living poet in the world.”
Of the NEA today, she has little good to say. “LBJ was the last person who cared about the NEA. Clinton certainly didn’t. He put a lot of political types on the board. When I was head of the literary board, we had Gregory Peck. Helen Hayes. Ralph Ellison. We had leaders in all the arts. And then it became a procession of nonentities, a matter of paying political debts, which we all know now is Mr. Clinton’s favorite activity, alas. The whole quality of the people involved in the NEA went down steadily, and that includes staff as well.”
Johnson, she says, while no culture vulture, believed it was “something he thought he ought to care about. It was a principle that the arts contributed to the welfare of everybody.”
Her best-known rebellion on behalf of that ideal came in 1998, when she and her friend, poet Maxine Kumin, resigned chancellorships at the Academy of American Poets, a hub of the American poetry establishment, charging that its board of chancellors, an important advisory board composed of poets who served lifetime terms, failed to include enough women and minorities. Though academy officials called some of their claims unfair, the organization soon added poets from diverse backgrounds.
“It was in many ways an extreme gesture on her part, but ultimately a constructive one on the part of the organization,” said Bill Wadsworth, executive director of the academy. He said the chancellors now include a more diverse, younger group of poets who serve staggered six-year terms.
Words and Images of Global Strife
Kizer’s house is filled with sculpture, pottery and even toys from Mexico, and she speaks of the increasingly important cultural exchange between that country and the United States. She recently returned from a writers conference there, where she met with young Mexican poets, like Victor Manuel Mandiola and Manuel Ulacia.
She read them her poem to the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, full of references to Federico Garcia Lorca and Neruda. Her connections to the Spanish-speaking world flow back to her childhood, and the Spanish Civil War. “It was the first public event on a world scale that I think I knew about,” Kizer recalled. Then she read “The Valley of the Fallen,” again a weaving of public and personal history:
When I say I wouldn’t go to Spain
Till Franco died, I’ve told a whole
Biography: my age, my politics,
My Red--and red-haired--mother whose green eyes
Sparked at the sins of tyrants anywhere;
My father, who was counsel for the poor
And radical, against the bigot and the hater,
Burnt up the courtroom with his tongue of flame
(McCarthy got around to us much later.)
So Spain burst in while I was still a child:
My introduction to the world.
She reveals that becoming the outspoken, independent Carolyn Kizer people know was not easy. Kizer, mother of two girls and a boy, grandmother to five, married twice. The first union was a “very conventional” marriage of the 1950s, to a lawyer from a leading Spokane family. “I tell people I never got to hear Dylan Thomas read because my husband wouldn’t let me because he thought it would be a sort of bad influence. People say, ‘And you didn’t go?’ They’re so surprised because the me they know would have gone. And I say I was very much a ‘yes, dear,’ wife.
“Part of the reason,” she explained, “was that I realized quite early that I was much stronger than he was, and therefore I played the submissive wife. Because he needed that, and I think that is true of many millions of women. . . . You are protecting him from his weakness.”
She stayed with her first husband largely because she had three children. “Every time I’d think of leaving him, I’d find out I was pregnant again. It is hard to leave a man when you have little children. You feel bad about it. You feel bad about it in any case.”
After she left her first husband, poetry became the center of her life. “It was like a cork coming out of a champagne bottle, it was such a joy.” In all, she’s written eight books of her own poetry, done two books of translations, two books of essays and edited three anthologies. She met her second husband, architect John Woodbridge, in 1975 when he came to hear her read at the Library of Congress. It was “pretty close to love at first sight,” and they soon married.
She plans to read in Los Angeles, at Elixir Tonics and Teas, a teahouse in West Hollywood, on March 16. One person who has marked the date is FrancEYE, who says she and Kizer have a mutual interest in a five-line poetic form, the cinquain, invented almost a hundred years ago by American Adelaide Crapsey. Later, Kizer wrote “Union of Women,” celebrating labor organizing, the cinquain and FrancEYE.
Describing the woman who wrote about her, FrancEYE said simply, “She’s brave,” letting the following silence form as eloquently as poetry.
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