Carolyn Kizer Cracks Her Wit: Postcard From Paris

Ethan Gilsdorf

We cant say its the end of irony, said poet Carolyn Kizer, in light of the terrorist attacks on September 11. It's the beginning. But irony is seldom appreciated by American culture.

If the world of verse ever needs an acerbic late-night host, few poets could better fill the post than Pulitzer Prize-winner Carolyn Kizer. Well-respected for her feminist and socially-conscious wit, Kizer visited Paris on October 9 to give a reading at the Village Voice bookshop in support of her new 500-page retrospective tome Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems 1960-2000 (Copper Canyon, 2001).

In his introduction, Adam Zagajewski, longtime Paris resident and perhaps Polands most celebrated contemporary poet, playfully pitted poets against fiction writers: Because we dont get paid, we try to convince others we are better than novelists. Calling himself an honorary American, Zagajewski went on to praise Kizers blessed indecisiveness between the private and the public. And indeed, Kizer held court like an aging Bacall or Dietrich, reading poems and gossiping about her literary past, apparently oblivious to the raucous guitar music issuing from the street. Youre not getting off easy, she deadpanned to the audience. Im going to keep talking. Her reading spanned her career, including selections from the 30-part haibun journal entry poem A Month in Summer and examples of her translations from the Chinese and Urdu.

When asked if she revised any of her earlier work for the new collection, Kizer said she was opposed to it. We dont have the right to change our work. Were different people at age 77 or 20, she said sternly.

Old poems take on an interesting prophetic stance in light of current events, she said. Then she read from her two-decade old poem Exodus, whose refrain coming down the pike is interspersed with the description of a procession of people possibly fleeing some disaster or entering heaven. Kizer then followed with a poem from the 1970s, Dixit Insipiens:

Holy war! Can they be in earnest?
After all, this isn
t the fourteenth century.
Is it the uneasiness we feel, or the remnants
Of ancestral superstition, which makes us ask ourselves,
Can this be Your planned revenge?

Poetry is a comfort in a time of crisis, Kizer said, while signing books and sipping champagne. I feel sorry for people who dont know how to read it. They dont know how to comfort themselves.