Authors: Carolyn Kizer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


The Ungrateful Garden, 1961

Knock upon Silence, 1965

Midnight Was My Cry: New and Selected Poems, 1971

Mermaids in the Basement: Poems for Women, 1984

Yin: New Poems, 1984

The Nearness of You, 1986

Harping On: Poems, 1985-1995, 1996

Pro Femina, 2000

Cool, Calm, and Collected, 2001


Proses: On Poems and Poets, 1993

Picking and Choosing: Essays on Prose, 1995


Carrying Over: Poems from the Chinese, Urdu, Macedonian, Yiddish, and French African, 1988

A Splintered Mirror: Chinese Poetry from the Democracy Movement, 1991 (with Donald Finkel)

Edited Texts:

Woman Poet, Vol. 1: The West, 1980 (with Elaine Dallman and Barbara Gelpi)

The Essential Clare, 1992

One Hundred Great Poems by Women, 1995


Carolyn Kizer was born in 1925 to remarkable parents. In “The Stories of My Life” she traces her father’s dogged pursuit of a career in law: Without benefit of an undergraduate education, he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School Phi Beta Kappa in 1902, then returned to Spokane, where he practiced for the rest of his life, dying at age ninety-nine. Her mother received a doctorate in biology from Stanford University in 1904 and taught at Mills College and San Francisco State, living “a bohemian life” before working as a labor organizer in the Pacific Northwest.{$I[AN]9810001781}{$I[A]Kizer, Carolyn}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Kizer, Carolyn}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kizer, Carolyn}{$I[tim]1925;Kizer, Carolyn}

Carolyn Kizer

Kizer has noted the awkwardness of having parents about the same age as her friends’ grandparents–her father was forty-seven when she was born–but has also described the rich social and intellectual atmosphere in which she grew up as an only child. The poet Vachel Lindsay was a household guest, but Kizer argues that a more important influence on her decision to become a poet was Lindsay’s sister, Olive Wakefield, a missionary in China. Through her mother’s reading to her of Arthur Waley’s translations, Kizer acquired what she terms “an unending devotion to Chinese poetry.” This devotion is evident in her second book, Knock upon Silence, the title of which is drawn from a poem by Lu Chi. More than half the poems of that book are in the sections “Chinese Imitations” and “Translations of Tu Fu.”

Kizer describes both her parents as skilled raconteurs; she preferred her mother’s “creamy, deep, and resonant” voice to that of her father, which “throbbed with feeling.” In the prose section of Yin entitled “A Muse,” Kizer elaborates on her mother’s influence, portraying her as talented and sensitive but “riddled with self-doubt,” and she sees herself as both motivated and exhausted by her mother’s nervous energy. Kizer describes herself as spoiled, and she concludes that she has always written for her mother.

Partly in order to escape the powerful parental influence, Kizer went East to college, graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945 and doing graduate work at Columbia University for a year and then at the University of Washington. As she sums up those years at the end of “A Muse,” she published one poem in The New Yorker and one in The Atlantic, got married in 1948, had three children in three years (two daughters and a son), and was divorced in 1954; her mother died in 1955. Then Kizer’s “serious life as a poet” began.

In 1959 Kizer cofounded Poetry Northwest, which she edited until 1965. Although her commentaries on modern poets make scarce reference to Theodore Roethke, who made the University of Washington a hub of modern poetry, her third book includes a poem entitled “A Poet’s Household,” inscribed “Three for Theodore Roethke.” Her first full-length collection of poems, The Ungrateful Garden, was published in 1961, and in 1964 she served as a specialist on Pakistan with the U.S. State Department. Between 1965, when her second book, Knock upon Silence, appeared, and 1970 Kizer directed literature programs for the newly established National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Kizer’s versatility and love of craft are evident in her third book, Midnight Was My Cry: New and Selected Poems, which appeared in 1971. The sixty poems in that collection include thirty-five from her first book and eight from her second, and they range in form from the challenging villanelle form to the open forms that prevail in her later work. The poems contain allusions ranging from Sophocles, Persephone, and Dionysus to Heinrich Heine, Bernard Malamud, and James Wright. The sites of the poems range from Rotterdam, Istanbul, and Shanghai in “Where I’ve Been All My Life” to Spokane in “By the Riverside.” One of her most frequently anthologized poems, “The Great Blue Heron,” an elegy for her mother, is often praised as a “nature poem,” but several poems, including “The First of June Again,” which concerns the war in Vietnam, are distinctly “political.”

In 1975 Kizer married John Marshall Woodbridge, an architect, and moved to California. Yin (the female principle in Taoist thought), which won for her the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, includes “Fanny,” a powerful long poem that recounts the years spent in Samoa around the beginning of the twentieth century by Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife; she coped with a primitive environment, an obstreperous mother-in-law, and a dying husband by gardening on what one might call an obsessive scale. Mermaids in the Basement: Poems for Women, also published in 1984, includes only six or seven new poems, but it reprints her three-part satire, “Pro Femina,” from Knock upon Silence and adds “Fanny” as the fourth and concluding section.

Kizer’s 1986 collection The Nearness of You is dedicated to “the men I love, especially John.” Also consisting largely of poems from previous books, it is intended as a companion volume to Mermaids in the Basement. Harping On is a collection of a decade’s worth of poems, consisting of Kizer’s “harping” on the cruelties of the twentieth century and, more intimately, the pains of personal experience, such as the death of a friend. Pro Femina is yet another version of her satirical take on women’s experience, this time augmented by a section on “The Erotic Philosophers” in addition to the original three parts plus “Fanny.” Cool, Calm, and Collected is a voluminous collection of work from Kizer’s entire career, a selection of new poems, a complete reprint of the translations in Carrying Over, all supplemented by prose and autobiographical material.

A rigorous proponent of craft, Kizer has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of North Carolina and at summer poetry workshops held at Port Townsend, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

BibliographyFinch, Annie, Johanna Keller, and Candace McClelland, eds. Caroline Kizer: Perspectives on Life and Her 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 foremost 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.” The New York Times Book Review 89 (November 25, 1984): 36. This essay-review of Mermaids in the Basement and Yin praises Kizer for having the courage of her early feminism but finds “Pro Femina” a less satisfying poem than others that are more lyrical and personal, such as “Thrall” and “Where I’ve Been All My Life.” In some of her poems Kizer’s humor seems forced and her tone uneven, but in her prose memoir “A Muse,” humor and tone are perfectly managed.Kizer, Carolyn. “Intensity and Effect: An Interview with Carolyn Kizer.” Interview by Michelle Boisseau. New Letters 64, no. 3 (1998): 80-92. This interview had its first life on National Public Radio and is included in Finch et al., above. It provides an entertaining glance at Kizer’s career as well as insights into the persona projected by the title of Harping On. Kizer addresses her years as literary-programs director at the National Endowment for the Arts and her fondness for Chinese poetry.O’Connell, Nicolas. At the Field’s End: Interviews with Twenty Pacific Northwest Writers. Seattle: Madrona, 1987. Kizer discusses the influence of her teacher and mentor Theodore Roethke in her development as a poet and credits him with making her a serious writer. She explains the importance of revision in writing, why reading poetry aloud is of supreme importance to her, why she believes that Asian influence on Western writers is good, and what being a feminist means.Rigsbee, David, ed. An Answering Music: On the Poetry of Carolyn Kizer. Boston: Ford-Brown, 1991. Includes poems by Kizer, an interview, a detailed publishing history, and a group of enthusiastic responses to her work by such writers as Judith Johnson, John Montague, Laura Jensen, and Fred Chappell.
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