I first heard Joanne kyger read her poetry in December of 1969 at somebody's house in Bolinas; it was the first contact I'd had with her poetry (I'd heard she was very "fast"), so I've never known her words apart from her voice. But I can't imagine any reader not hearing it: that her poetry is vocally scultped is its most overwhelming characteristic. I mean that not all poetries are. There are some in which letters and words stand firm and dare the voice to make them give in: this is a nice masculine way to write; or there are uniquely-voiced poets who pronounce/choose each word so carefully that one hears the voice of a playful but domineering general (Stein comes to mind), organizing the words into formation. In Kyger's poems the voice bends the words, but Voice is not a pseudonym for Emotion or Character, Voice is very close to being Voice. Here is a short light poem I remember her reading in that living room in 1969:
Unified School District.
I'm still going to school.
to be personal in the most elevated
State of the Union
(from All This Every Day, 1975)
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An important poetry experience for me was hearing Kyger read the title sequence from The Wonderful Focus of You at St. Mark's Church in the late 70s. This event was held in the main sanctuary where one's voice echoed and traveled under eaves, and where a reader could look either preacherly or alone, standing near the pulpit. Kyger looked very solitary, performing poems about the lone self facing time and being cured of hurt and fear in time's process; she seemed alone with her voice, which as is characteristic with her, made unexpected turns and changes of both tone and pace rather than observing a consistent mood or metric. This reading seemed, and still seems to me, as deeply serious as a reading can be -- which point I make to aver that it's not the bombastic or declamatory, or abstract or otherwise difficult, voice which presses deeply, it's the one committed to the truth. The truth tends to be something faced, rather than owned or explored: it doesn't always like you either, even when it can still be joked with and hung out with. A quiet voice is better then (in that circumstance), though quiet doesn't mean that quiet. Kyger has a lively, even extraordinarily quick mind-in-voice. It can shout too [. . .], though not in order to dominate.
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. . . In Just Space she has evolved a form of poem that contains more of name and event than before, but is also more subtle and compact and quick in meaning than before
Just Space is not presented as sequence except chronologically but it is very much a book as well as a collection. It isn't laid out like a journal, but it's shaped as any journal is by the story time makes in a life, with people passing through, dying, being recalled, the seasons passsing, wisdom being acquired and sometimes lost: all of that is a natural narrative. Any small town like Bolinas, where Kyger has continued to live since the 60s, as well mirrors the nation, so to keep track of one is to keep track of both. But notice how the book begins:
I know it's a detective story of passions,
dinners, blood stuff around which the history of our lives
The poem, which is untitled, becomes a disclaimer of modern disciplines -- scholarly, historical -- which try to make what's wild in us go away so we can be "in the know." One deduces ("Out of this we deduce," I'm afraid) that what's wild is what happens, and what happens is what this book is about to tell you.
. . . Phenomenology is a concentration on the outer world as phenomena appearing to a mind; as so Kyger is a phenomenologist, and hintss that she is from time to time: one poem is called "Narrative as Attention on a Rainy Sunday's Phenomenology." She is more overtly a Buddhist, and her practice ornaments the poetry with references and more importantly provides the awareness of "space" in the title Just Space, the real backround of the pomes, the considerable expanse of white paper from which these short-ish poems emerge, as the daily phenomena of Bolinas materialize and group into poem-forms.
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When I began this essay I thought I wouldn't discuss Kyger's lineage and influences, the extent of her own influence, "poetry-school" affilitations, and so on. I now think to, but here at the end and briefly. No poet is those things, and the poetry's the thing, as we all know; furthermore, such labeling by association is frequently detrimental to women poets. Poetry movements are generally man-made; women seen in light of such movements always appear secondary. However, Kyger has a lovely poem in Just Space about her lineage, which I can quote in full:
. . . or as dinner approaches I become hasty
do I mean PERFECTION?
September 17, 1986
Besides her connection to Duncan and to the Beats, Kyger is connected by style and personal relationships to the other Black Mountain Poets (Olson's Essay "Projective Verse" is an avowed influence) and to the New York School Poets, particularly to the Second Generation new York School. She is an exact contemporary of Ted Berrigan (both born in November, 1934), another celebrated conversationalist. Being known as a glorious and fascination talker can obscure the value of your work, at least during your lifetime. I certainhly hope to have shown that Kyger's work lives up to her conversation, which I also know something about. Kyger's influence on my own practice has been considerable -- and on many other women -- she's one of the women who's shown me how to speak as myself, to be intelligent in the wya I wish and am, rather than suiting the requirements of established intellectuality. Universities are firghtfully conservative because they love their traditions and especially their language; idiomatic truth can't get born there, or anything that has to be new, not just wants to be.
Kyger was recently omitted from Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (a very useful book except for the omissions any anthology's prone to). One must assume this is at least partly because she's stayed away from the centers of Poetry's meager power; to wield power would be counter to the logic and even the technique of her poetry, would be for her a spiritually poor choice. But not calling attention to herself, she isn't always included. As her books show, her daily life involves, besides poetry, domestic chores, community service, local jobs in stores, frequent teaching at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, extensive trips to Mexico, and poetry reading trips to the East Coast. Thisw in not at all an insular existence, but it somehow hasn't brought her the notice she deserves. A certain poetry isn't always fasionable. However, each poet's poetry is, or should be, its own world; you cross borders, you get to know it, you read it being there, not bringing a lot of baggage from outside it, and it works. Poetry's supposed to be lived in no assessed. . . .