Goddess and Femme Fatale

“She moved easily between projecting images of the ‘Goddess’ and the ‘femme fatale,'” one of my interviewees told me; another spoke of Kizer as a “fertility goddess.”  A letter, addressed to “The White Goddess at Chapel Hill” was neatly delivered to Kizer. And then there was this stunning white snow goddess that Kizer made with her children in the late 1950s–to the anger of her conservative Seattle neigborhood:

Snow woman Seattle

My former title of this blog, “Carolyn Kizer: White Goddess” sparked indignation, too:  my labelling her a White Goddess might, according to some, inadvertently link Kizer to white supremacism, while Kizer as the White Goddess was “a white guys’ fantasy” to boot.  But others talked of Kizer as “being the White Goddess, utterly free.” I think it is wonderful that, even after her death, Kizer calls up so many strong emotions.  Or did I call up these emotions by using  that “White Goddess” title?  Fine with me, too.  For now, though, because of the omnipre[si]dent racist and misogynist political atmosphere in America, I have decided to change my subtitle to Queen Bee, which is how Kizer described herself in an early, uncollected poem, “Apis Americanus,” which ends:

” Sometimes with irritation, yet pleased to see

All bow to my supreme nonentity

Rank is important here . . . and I the queen, queen bee.”

More on Kizer as the Queen Bee next time.





A dirty Fascist lie: Kizer and ARTFORUM

You are “opinionated, a stirrer up of strife, nasty, given to enormous enthusiasms and equally enormous hatreds, capricious, arbitrary and difficult to work with.” This is how Philip Leider, editor of the newly founded ARTFORUM, tried to seduce Carolyn Kizer into writing a monthly column from Seattle for his magazine.  Kizer had been suggested to him (in the above terms) by Betty Bowen of the Seattle Art Museum, for Kizer was an early connoisseur–and personal friend–of  many of the great visual artists  of the Pacific Northwest, among them Richard Gilkey, Morris Graves, Carl and Hilda Morris, and Mark Tobey. By return of post Kizer answered: “Everything Betty Bowen told you about me is a dirty Fascist lie; ask any of my three friends, and they will tell you how easy I am to get along with (and I don’t normally end sentences  with propositions.)”  And, of course, she gladly accepted his proposal and sent her first column soon after.  Kizer had written the article in the first person, and though Leider loved its critical content, he disliked its style, re-wrote it–and asked Kizer for her next contribution.  Kizer proved indeed to be difficult to work with: she was so enormously angry that Leider had re-written her column that she refused to have anything further to do with ARTFORUM. 

Many readers have asked me for more pictures: here is one from the early 1960s, with thanks to the Lilly Library at Indiana University.


Carolyn Kizer looking askance at her lover, writer David Wagoner.

 A Rather Large, Lousy Novel

“I wish my goddamned life would quit trying to resemble a rather large, lousy novel,” Carolyn Kizer wrote to Hayden Carruth in 1962, after having been cut up for cancer, after having lost both a baby and a violent French lover, and, probably most painfully, after having a poem about this lover, “Condemned Craft,” rejected.  Kizer’s life did indeed resemble a large novel, with almost too many exciting twists and turns.  She had a long love affair with Abe Fortas, Supreme Court Justice and trusted advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson, but also a one-night stand with Johnson’s vice-president Hubert Humphrey.  And in 1964 Kizer went to Pakistan as a U.S. State Department specialist, returned just before the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 not only with poems and translations from the Urdu, but also with a much younger Pakistani lover, whom she hid in the basement of her house in Washington DC.  Most of her affairs were with writers, though, and while I was reading the wonderful Kizer collection at the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, I had to refrain several times from crying out loud: “surely, not him, too?”   Well, usually, yes.  With the exception of only a very few, Kizer took many literary men, both in Britain and America, as lovers, from Hayden Carruth to Robert Conquest, from—I am almost sure–Theodore Roethke to Ruthven Todd, and from David Wagoner to John Wain.  Tall, blonde, and beautiful, at mid-century Kizer was poet, Robert Graves’ white goddess, and every male poet’s muse and wet dream all rolled into one.  But what was in it for Kizer herself?  Was she, in the male-dominated mid-century literary scene perhaps sleeping her way to the top of the literary pyramid?  And, if yes, how does this rhyme with Kizer’s being a proto-feminist, whose most anthologized poem is her radical “Pro Femina?”  Here is an excerpt from that poem, which Kizer started in the nineteen-fifties.

Now, if we struggle abnormally, we may almost seem normal;

If we submerge our self-pity in disciplined industry;

If we stand up and be hated, and swear not to sleep with editors;

If we regard ourselves formally, respecting our true limitations

Without making an unseemly show of trying to unfreeze our assets;

Keeping our heads and our pride while remaining unmarried;

And if wedded, kill guilt in its tracks when we stack up the dishes

And defect to the typewriter.  And if mothers, believe in the luck of our children,

Whom we forbid to devour us, whom we shall not devour,

And the luck of our husbands and lovers, who keep free women.


Kizer on women, men and sex at age 22

Carolyn Kizer to Lewis Mumford,  May 11, 1946.

“Now I understand men so much better; why so many of them have the perfectly hideous point of view that they have on women, on sex, and on the compartment which each topic occupies. I have always wondered why the majority of men treat women either like animated plumbing-fixtures or porcelain rabbits, depending on whether they are layable or marriable (no one can be both of course!), and why they treat sex with the former as if it were something you wrote on the wall of a man’s lavatory, and with the latter as if it didn’t exist at all. I’m beginning to find out.”  From the wonderful Carolyn Kizer Collection at the Lilly Library, Indiana University.  Written more than 70 years ago, and oh so topical.

And I promised more pictures.  Here is Mabel Ashley Kizer with baby Carolyn Kizer. Photo also from the Lilly Library.  My next blog will be on Kizer as White Goddess.


Finally . . .

Just over a year ago I started research for my new biography on Pulitzer Prize winning poet and feminist avant la lettre Carolyn Kizer (1923-2014).  My plans were to begin a blog immediately, but that obviously didn’t work out.   Carolyn Kizer’s birthday, yesterday, December 10, made me realize that time flies, so today I decided to begin at the beginning.


Here is Carolyn’s mother, Mabel Ashley, who married her father, Benjamin Kizer, in 1922.  And below is a mini-booklet (less than 1 square inch), written and illustrated by poet Vachel Lindsay for Christmas 1924.


More pictures soon.