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Picking and Choosing: Essays on Prose
Her illustrious career as a poet (her most recent honor has been her election by her peers to the position of Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets) has properly caused readers, students, friends, and critics to think of Carolyn Kizer as one of the nation's finest virtuosos in the difficult art of poetry—giving the passions of her time and place a permanent voice.
Throughout her career, however, this singularly honest, passionate voice has also spoken out in prose on a great many topics, not only the concerns of women and the art of poetry but also her lifelong studies in oriental literature, her direct, personal involvement in a broad range of contemporary literary and political mises-en-scènes, and her Sapphie impatience with the tawdry and the unworthy in any corner of public or private life.
Picking & Choosing has been gathered—at the eager insistence of readers and friends—from among her numerous contributions to The New York Times and a representative sampling of national and regional periodicals. This selection makes a companion volume to Prose: Essays on Verse, Copper Canyon Press, 1994, in which this generous spirit celebrates the rich diversity of contemporary poetry, beginning with an autobiographical account of how her gifts and tastes were fostered by her parents and, from her earliest years, her contacts and friendships with other poets. Picking & Choosing, Essays on Prose, continues with themes in the same fine spirited way, concluding with an essay about Theodore Roethke as a teacher.
Her commentaries on the women and men of her time and ours, the writers and the characters in their writing, are threaded through with the temerity, energy, and wit by which Carolyn Kizer has earned her distinguished place in contemporary letters. Only she could hold an audience of graduates rapt with a commencement address on failure.
The centerpiece of this volume is a two-part essay on Japanese fiction, a profound consideration of Donald Keene's great gift to Western readers, his many surveys, anthologies, critiques, appreciations, and translations from the Japanese, which have given us an understanding of the people and the culture of Japan which we otherwise, quite simply, would not have. Her tribute to Keene is all the more cogent, considering her own work in bringing the attention of American readers to her spiritual companions, the writers of China, Pakistan, Bulgaria, and other distant territories of the mind and heart.
Carolyn Kizer was born in Spokane, Washington, where her parents were leading figures in the social and cultural life of the city. Her education included attendance at Lewis & Clark High School in Spokane, Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University (where she was a Fellow of the Chinese Government in Comparative Literatures), and the University of Washington, where she was founding editor of Poetry Northwest (1959-65).
In 1964-65 she was Specialist in Literature for the U.S. State Department in Pakistan, and in 1966 she became the first Director of Literary Programs for the newly created National Endowment for the Arts. She resigned the post in 1970, when the Chairman of the N.E.A., Roger L. Stevens, was fired by President Richard Nixon. She was a Consultant to the N.E.A. for the following year.
Throughout the '70s and '80s, she held appointments as distinguished poet-in-residence, lecturer at major universities throughout the nation, and has been a visiting writer at literary conferences and events throughout the U.S., as well as in Dublin, Ireland, and Paris, France.
Her many awards for her poetry include The Pulizer Prize, 1985; the Frost Medal and Masefield Prize of the Poetry Society of America; The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1985; The Award of Honor of the San Francisco Arts Commission; The Borestone Award (six times); the Pushcart Prize (three times); The Theodore Roethke Poetry Prize, 1988; The Governor's Award for best book of the year, State of Washington, 1965, 1985; Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Whitman College, 1988; and Chancellor, American Academy of Poetry, 1995.
In addition to Picking & Choosing, she has published six collections of poems, a book of translations, and a volume of essays on verse. She is married to the distinguished architect-historian, John Marshall Woodbridge. When she is not teaching and lecturing, she divides her time between their home in Sonoma, California, and their apartment in Paris.
The brilliant and various essays and reviews of Picking and Choosing offer us the same qualities that have made Carolyn Kizer one of our finest writers (in prose as well as poetry): a graceful style and an inimitable voice; intellectual rigor and integrity; wit and compassion and an elegant, almost athletic, sense of control. Picking and Choosing is a genuine contribution to contemporary letters.
It's true. Carolyn Kizer hung the moon. Hung it right over these wry, feisty reviews, the joyful reclamation of children's poetry, the wisest and most tonic graduation speech ever, over a fine and elegiac conversation about Theodore Roethke. It's all pure gold, bathed in vintage Kizer moonshine: that intoxicating, insightful voice full of sass and scintillation.
Carolyn Kizer's perceptiveness, wit, and strength of statement have never been presented more clearly than in these essays, reviews, and reminiscences. Her discussion of books and topics relating to women's problems and achievements are splendidly lucid and persuasive; her study of the work of Donald Keene and of Japanese fiction is illuminating and trenchant, while her account of the teaching methods of Theodore Roethke, Stanley Kunitz and others is fascinating. In all these essays there is humor; the author's use of asides is particularly engaging. This is a superb self-portrait of the author as well as a collection of entrancing essays.
To purchase Picking and Choosing by Carolyn Kizer, please contact our distributor, University Press of New England toll free at 1-800-421-1561 or by fax at 1-603-448-9729. The book is also available online at UPNE, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine retailers.
To request a copy for review, please contact the Carnegie Mellon University Press Editorial Offices at (412) 268-2861 or by email at CarnegieMellonUniversityPress@gmail.com.