Carolyn Kizer: Feminist Poet

carolyn-kizer Contemporary poet and Pulitzer Prize winner, Carolyn Kizer, is a Pacific Northwest native, born in Spokane, Washington in 1925. After graduating from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Carolyn Kizer went on to study at Sarah Lawrence College and graduated in 1945. She then pursued graduate studies at Columbia University and the University of Washington. Due to strong encouragement from both her mother and father to study poetry during her childhood, Kizer elected to study poetry at the University of Washington under the direction of Theodore Roethke. In an interview, Kizer spoke of the years she spent studying poetry:

“I was then in my late twenties, living in Seattle. I had never taken myself seriously as a poet, and at that point the poetry didn’t deserve it. But then, most women poets of my generation didn’t dare take themselves seriously, because the men didn’t take us seriously—-I was almost middle-aged before the idea penetrated.”

Kizer moved to Pakistan in 1964 and served as a U.S. Department specialist teaching at the Kinnaird College for Women, as well as at several other institutions, eventually serving as the first Director of Programs for the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966. Through this position, Kizer promoted programs that distributed aid to struggling writers, as well as promoting poetry to be read aloud in schools. Kizer was an up-and-coming poet in a male-dominated world during the 1950s and 60s, and feminist ideology had a strong influence on her work. Kizer’s poems were consistent in speaking out against the inequality between men and women, both at work and at home, and offered a window into the historical changes that were taking place throughout her career. Carolyn Kizer went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her poem Yin, and has been recognized as one of the most influential feminist writers of the century.

pro-femina

Excerpt from Carolyn Kizer’s poem Pro Femina

I take as my theme “The Independent Woman,”
Independent but maimed: observe the exigent neckties
Choking violet writers; the sad slacks of stipple-faced matrons;
Indigo intellectuals, crop-haired and callus-toed,
Cute spectacles, chewed cuticles, aced out by full-time beauties
In the race for a male. Retreating to drabness, bad manners,
And sleeping with manuscripts. Forgive our transgressions
Of old gallantries as we hitch in chairs, light our own cigarettes,
Not expecting your care, having forfeited it by trying to get even.

But we need dependency, cosseting, and well-treatment.
So do men sometimes. Why don’t they admit it?
We will be cows for a while, because babies howl for us,
Be kittens or bitches, who want to eat grass now and then
For the sake of our health. But the role of pastoral heroine
Is not permanent, Jack. We want to get back to the meeting.

Knitting booties and brows, tartars or termagants, ancient
Fertility symbols, chained to our cycle, released
Only in part by devices of hygiene and personal daintiness,
Strapped into our girdles, held down, yet uplifted by man’s
Ingenious constructions, holding coiffures in a breeze,
Hobbled and swathed in whimsy, tripping on feminine
Shoes with fool heels, losing our lipsticks, you, me,
In ephemeral stockings, clutching our handbags and packages.
Our masks, always in peril of smearing or cracking,
In need of continuous check in the mirror or silverware,
Keep us in thrall to ourselves, concerned with our surfaces.
Look at man’s uniform drabness, his impersonal envelope!
Over chicken wrists or meek shoulders, a formal, hard-fibered assurance.
The drape of the male is designed to achieve self-forgetfulness.

So, Sister, forget yourself a few times and see where it gets you:
Up the creek, alone with your talent, sans everything else.
You can wait for the menopause, and catch up on your reading.
So primp, preen, prink, pluck, and prize your flesh,
All posturings! All ravishment! All sensibility!
Meanwhile, have you used your mind today?
What pomegranate raised you from the dead,
Springing, full-grown, from your own head, Athena?

For more information about Caorlyn Kizer, please visit http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/carolyn-kizer and http://flavorwire.com/290406/10-feminist-poets-you-should-know/9.

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