Joanne Kyger: An Appreciation

The bio in the back of On Time, Joanne Kyger’s collection of poems written between 2005 and 2014, describes her as, “One of the major women poets of the SF Renaissance.” That is, of course, correct, but I would make a case for removing the word “women” from the sentence. While I’m sure the intention of including that gender signifier was to emphasize the importance of her position as a woman in what was largely a man’s world/boy’s club, its placement before “poets” in the sentence diminishes rather than enhances her standing. It reeks of “pretty good for a girl” condescension, unintended as that may be.

Joanne Kyger was one of the major poets of the San Francisco Renaissance coterie, period. She was a woman. She was a woman who, despite operating in what was largely a man’s world/boy’s club, became a major member of that club. But even that SF Renaissance signifier, while more accurate than the Beat Generation designation emphasized in her New York Times obituary and useful in placing her in time and place and lineage, seems unnecessarily limiting. In his introduction to As Ever, her selected poems released in 2002, Kyger’s longtime friend and fellow poet, David Meltzer, says of the atmosphere in the late ’50s when they first met:

It’s important to remember (or realize) that those days were before literary academicians freeze-framed them into “movements” or “generations.” The slickest, surest way to defang dissent and creative doubt is to accept it and (ugh) incorporate it into glossy narratives circulated throughout institutional castle culture. (A big irony many tapdance around.) Even then, Joanne was a thoughtful and thinking (and self-effacing) poet of deep innate knowing. Her early work was distinctly complex, personal, and resistant to expectations.

So how about something like this: Joanne Kyger was a thoughtful and thinking and self-effacing poet whose distinctly complex and personal work made her a major figure in the SF Renaissance/Beat Generation orbit. That self-effacing quality is what gives poems such as “Town Hall Reading With Beat Poets” and “Bob Marley Night Saturday Downtown” and “Fact Checking” their charm. Her poems are at once deep and learned yet casual and conversational. They are also often quite funny. She comes across as a poet who took her poetry seriously while not overly-concerned with being taken seriously herself.

There is more to her poetry than self-deprecating humor, of course. A great sense of reverence is on display throughout her work when engaging with mythological themes, her Zen Buddhist studies, interactions with the natural world, and considerations of the lives and deaths of friends. From the poems in her first book, The Tapestry and the Web, published in 1965, to the late work collected in On Time, Kyger’s writing displays a marvelous way of finding the mythic in the mundane and revealing the mundane in the mythic. Here is how “Pan as the Son of Penelope,” probably her best-known poem, begins:

In his thought-provoking essay, “The Great(ness) Game,” David Orr discusses how Elizabeth Bishop’s stature has risen posthumously while her friend Robert Lowell’s once-towering reputation has been in decline. It would not surprise me to find Joanne Kyger’s stature ratcheted upward by a similar recalibration of reputations in years to come while those of some of her better-known male peers and predecessors in the SF Renaissance/Beat pantheon are demoted. As a stunningly lovely, yet delicate, voice like Billie Holiday’s or Karen Dalton’s would be difficult to hear when a big booming voice like Pavarotti’s was bellowing nearby, so, too, a subtle poetic sensibility, like Joanne Kyger’s, can get drowned out when there’s a big personality like her friend Ginsberg Howling nearby. Not to mention Duncan and Spicer and Snyder and Whalen and McClure and Berrigan and di Prima and Waldman. She moved in serious circles.

But life is life and death is death. Reading the books of dead poets after their time has passed and their legends have cooled is a different thing than reading the living. Sometimes the poet of the moment isn’t a poet for the ages. Tastes change and change again. Who knows what the literary landscape of the late-Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries will look like to readers a hundred years hence? In his essay, Orr quotes a passage from J. D. McClatchy wondering how Bishop could be claimed as the favorite predecessor poet of contemporary poets as varied as John Ashbery, James Merrill, and Mark Strand. Orr takes a stab at an answer: “It’s possible, one might answer, because Bishop was a great poet, if we take ‘great’ to mean something like ‘demonstrating the qualities that make poetry seem interesting and worthwhile to such a degree that subsequent practitioners of the art form have found her work a more useful resource than the work of most if not all of her peers.’” I predict that Kyger’s work will be similarly deemed a useful resource by poets to come.

The Times obituary includes Kyger’s poem “Night Palace” but, for some reason, they did not format the poem, which was composed in projective breath units and spaced on the page in the composition by field manner, as written. That’s a shame. The spacing, in large part, makes the poem the poem it is. It’s not unusual to come across poems laid out in the composition by field manner for which reformatting them with a standard left margin justification doesn’t detract much from the poem. Sometimes it’s little more than ornament. This is not the case with “Night Palace,” a fine example of how much emotional information can be conveyed by spacing and placement on the page in the hands of someone who fully understands the approach.

Here is her poem “Elegant Simplicity” written May 22, 2007:

Joanne Kyger’s real counterpart animal spirit died in March of this year, so that was it, but her poetry will live on and, I suspect, gain greater prominence in the years to come.