Obituaries

Carolyn Kizer at 89; Pulitzer-winning poet

Harry Naltchayan/Washington Post

NEW YORK — Carolyn Kizer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose verse, overtly political and bitingly satirical, came, as she fondly put it, with “a sting in the tail,” died Thursday in Sonoma, Calif. She was 89. The cause was complications of dementia, said the poet David Rigsbee, a friend and former student.

Ms. Kizer’s poetry is known for its wit, deep intellectualism and rigorous craftsmanship; its stylistic hallmarks include impeccably calibrated rhyme, near-rhyme and meter. It is unsentimental, at times unsettling, but also luminous and warm.

As a result of her painstaking way of working, and the length to which her poems could run, Ms. Kizer published fewer than a dozen collections in her lifetime. Composing, revising and assembling enough poems to fill a single volume could take a decade.

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She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her collection “Yin.” In a poem from the collection, “Food of Love,” she wrote:

I’m going to murder you with love;

I’m going to suffocate you with embraces;

I’m going to hug you, bone by bone,

Till you’re dead all over.

Then I will dine on your delectable marrow.

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Ms. Kizer’s work ranged over subjects so broad that it could confound critics bent on tidy classification. It was unmistakably feminist — she was writing as early as the 1950s about the conflict for women between the creative imperative and social expectations — but it was far different in character from that of her contemporary Adrienne Rich.

Where the poems of Rich, who died in 2012, landed like bombs flung from the barricades, those of Ms. Kizer felt more like a stiletto slipped between the ribs.

Ms. Kizer’s poetry could be autobiographical, spanning her childhood, her two marriages, the births of her three children and her friendships. But there was a steeliness to it, and a keen sense of humor, that distinguished it from the self-reflexive work of the confessional poets.

She was sometimes called a poet of love and loss, a description whose murky universality irritated her greatly, for what poet’s work, at bottom, is not about those things?

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What she was actually concerned with, as Ms. Kizer said in an interview published in The Paris Review in 2000, was “the impact of character upon character, how people rub against one another and alter one another.”

Her poem “Twelve O’Clock,” published in her 1996 collection, “Harping On,” is about precisely this. Rooted in a real incident in which the 17-year-old Ms. Kizer, visiting Princeton, caught sight of Albert Einstein in the university library, it interweaves scenes of World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima, forming a sinuous strand of historical contingency:

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.

Carolyn Ashley Kizer was born in Spokane, Wash., the only child of parents to whom intellectual achievement was coin of the realm. Her mother, the former Mabel Ashley, was a biologist; her father, Benjamin Hamilton Kizer, was a lawyer.

In her stark poem “Thrall,” Ms. Kizer wrote of her father’s inability to forge an emotional connection with his child. It opens, “The room is sparsely furnished:/A chair, a table, and a father.”

At 17, Ms. Kizer had a poem, “When You Are Distant,” published in The New Yorker. But at the time, she later said, poetry was merely one of the many disciplines in which her parents had drilled her.

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She earned a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945 and afterward did graduate work in Chinese at Columbia. She married Stimson Bullitt, the scion of a wealthy Seattle family, in 1946 and had three children in quick succession. During this time, she all but abandoned poetry.

“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,” Ms. Kizer told The Los Angeles Times in 2001. “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.”

Ms. Kizer and Bullitt were divorced in 1954. By this time she had resumed her poetic life, studying at the University of Washington, first with Theodore Roethke and later with Stanley Kunitz. It was only at Roethke’s urging, Ms. Kizer said, that she decided in earnest to become a poet.

In 1959, Ms. Kizer helped found the journal Poetry Northwest, serving as its editor until 1965. From 1964 to 1965, under the aegis of the State Department, she taught in Pakistan; from 1966 to 1970, she was the first director of literary programs for the National Endowment for the Arts.

She went on to teach at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and elsewhere.

Ms. Kizer’s politics were not confined to paper. In 1998, for instance, she and Maxine Kumin resigned as chancellors of the Academy of American Poets to protest the lack of women and minority group members in its leadership. The organization has since diversified as a result.

A resident of Sonoma, Ms. Kizer leaves two daughters, Ashley Bullitt and Jill Bullitt, and a son, Fred Nemo, all from her first marriage; two stepchildren, Larry Woodbridge and Pamela Woodbridge; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Her second husband, the architect John Marshall Woodbridge, whom she married in 1975, died in June.