All This Every Day: Thoughts on Joanne Kyger
Last week, poets, publishers, and friends gathered at the Poetry Project in New York City to pay tribute to Joanne Kyger, who passed this April. The following is an expanded version of what I said that night.
I met Joanne Kyger about 15 years ago. I had seen the photographs, so I knew of her stunning beauty. I had also read John Wieners’s journals and other documents, so I knew she was tuned in on many levels. Joanne had moved to San Francisco in 1957 at the age of 22, met up with a group of students from the recently-closed Black Mountain College—Ebbe Borregard, Michael Rumaker, and Wieners—and attended sessions, now historic, led by poets Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. The sessions began through the San Francisco Poetry Center, then continued informally, in various North Beach apartments.
As Kyger put it in an interview I did with her in 2015:
That first formalized the idea of the workshop… Spicer would read some poems, Duncan would read some poems. And anybody else who had anything would read something. And there would be either a response or not a response. But the point is it was a very funky place. We’d be sitting on the floor. There were never any glasses. I remember drinking wine out of an egg poacher! Dollar a gallon wine! You had to be serious to be there in the first place. I was asked by John Wieners and Joe Dunn. You couldn’t just arrive. There was never any workshopping. It was, “Is it a poem, or is it not?” That’s Spicer — “Oh, no it’s not. So we don’t have to pick it apart.” Robert would usually have something more interesting to say. He’d always say, “I’m going to tell you something about the line. I’ll tell you next time.” And he never did tell me about the line! I never understood what it was, but it’s something you figure out yourself. … Duncan was very volatile, very passionate, about his things, work, ideas, and Spicer was completely sardonic. Here’s something that Spicer says: “Try to keep all of yourself that is possible out of the poem.”… So you had to figure it out! What was it that made a good poem? What made a bad poem?
Kyger married Gary Snyder in 1960 and lived with him in Japan in the early '60s. They traveled to China, Vietnam, Tibet, and India, where they met up with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. In early 1962, in India, they met the Dalai Lama. As Kyger recounts in her Japan and India Journals: 1960-1964, re-issued by Nightboat Books in 2015:
We met the Dalai Lama last week right after he had been talking with the King of Sikkim, the one who is going to marry an American college girl. The Dal is 27 and lounged on a velvet couch like a gawky adolescent in red robes. I was trying very hard to say witty things to him through the interpreter, but Allen Ginsberg kept hogging the conversation by describing his experiments on drugs… until Gary said, “Really Allen, the inside of your mind is just as boring and just the same as everyone else’s…” That little trauma was eased over by Gary and the Dalai talking guru to guru like about which positions to take when doing meditation and how to breathe and what to do with your hands. “Yes, yes, that’s right,” says the Dalai Lama. And then Allen Ginsberg says to him, “How many hours do you meditate a day?” And he says, “Me? Why, I never mediate, I don’t have to.” Then Ginsberg is very happy because he wants to get instantly enlightened and can’t stand sitting down or discipline of the body… He came to India to find a spiritual teacher. But I think he actually believes he knows it all, but just wishes he felt better about it.
Kyger was not included in Donald Allen’s epoch-making New American Poetry anthology, published in 1960, because she did not have poems ready. But she met up with the editor in Kyoto, and he said he would like to publish her. In 1965, after a year back in San Francisco, Kyger had the poems for her first book, The Tapestry and the Web, published that year by Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation. The poems are based on The Odyssey, but with a special emphasis on Penelope’s side of the story. In particular, Kyger uses an idea she found in Robert Graves, that Penelope gave birth to the god Pan, having been impregnated by one or perhaps all the suitors while she was waiting those many years for Odysseus. Joanne said, “Other people were also working with mythology, Duncan was. It was in the air — classical Greek gods and goddesses. There wasn’t any culture on the West Coast — unless you picked up on Native American culture, as Snyder did.” 1965 was also the year of the Berkeley Poetry Conference, and from that point on, Kyger established herself with an ever-widening resonance, especially on the West Coast, but also in New York City, and at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where she frequently taught.
So, when we drove up to Bolinas, famous as a poets’ community since the late 1960s, I was a little in awe. As Prince put it, “I wondered if I had enough class.” But Donald Guravich and Joanne welcomed us with such grace and charm that we instantly felt as though we’d been friends forever. So there was that great feeling of being welcomed, and everything I had predicted about Joanne was true—she was very beautiful, she and Donald had a collection of fascinating cultural artifacts arrayed around their home, and I could also see evidence of their commitment to the local community, to living a life according to values, not compromising, and doing one’s work to protect environment and home. I could also sense a deeply-felt Buddhist awareness that seemed simultaneously a simple fact of living one’s life, day to day.
The only thing I was not prepared for, though perhaps I should have been, was that everything Joanne did and said was theatrical, in the best sense of the word. She had an elegance and a glamour, and what she said was intentional and for effect. That whole combination blew me away! And I thought, Joanne is like a movie star, with her scarves and tinted glasses and her wit, which could be cutting, if someone acted or spoke with too much hubris.
Joanne allowed me to publish a book of her poetry, which turned out to be Not Veracruz, published in 2007. There’s an interesting story about the title. Joanne and Donald had been planning a trip to Veracruz in Mexico. In the end, they were not able to go, so Not Veracruz contains the poems Joanne wrote in Bolinas during the time in which she would have been in Veracruz. I found her embrace of what did not happen like a version of negative capability. In Joanne’s poetry, reality and not-reality are accorded an almost equal status.
And this makes me think of something else I wanted to say about her poetry. Joanne’s poetry has the clearest sense of presence, and of being in the present, of any poetry I know. There is only one other poet I know of who has a similar ability to focus on something happening in daily life, and by that careful attention to reveal the extraordinary within the ordinary. He is a poet one wouldn’t normally think of in conjunction with Joanne Kyger, but I believe they have something in common. The poet I am thinking of is James Schuyler. Both Kyger and Schuyler use concentration and attention—to visual detail, but also, in a broader sense, to what is happening—as a method for living. In Kyger’s case, it closely related to her Buddhist practice, part of which is to free the perception from preconception or elaborate intellectual constructs.
In my opinion, Kyger’s poetry has not yet been examined thoroughly enough. You can open any of her books at random and find there a perfect poem. Her poems seem perfectly unpretentious, like normal talking and observations about daily occurrences, with bits of dialogue and news and television thrown in. There’s nothing particularly racy in terms of biography in the poems. But there’s this gentle shifting back and forth between fantasy and reality that one cannot finally fix. It’s a mystery to me how she was able to do this, but I hope someday to figure it out. Here’s a poem I read at her tribute. It’s an untitled poem from her collection, All This Every Day, published in 1975 by Bill Berkson’s Big Sky Press:
It is true, there is power within us. But I am so
improperly trained. Mostly it is
get your own ‘thing’ going, facing
each day’s rise and set.
on de foot afternoon.
I am veering closely back and forth
Oh! Half moon behind the slim holder of the lotus
Oh! she’s a poet. Joanne Kyger
Who was that woman?
Oh come over and visit.
Oh it’s all passed, gone, gone, gone.
Photographs of Joanne, as I mentioned, are legendary. There’s one on the cover of All This Every Day. I’d always known the photo and found it iconic, but it was only recently that I noticed it was taken by anthropologist and critic Francesco Pellizzi. I know Francesco mainly from a visual art context, where, among other things, he edits the scholarly multi-disciplinary journal RES - Anthropology and Aesthetics. I wrote to Francesco and asked him where the photograph was taken and who the man in it was. Francesco replied:
The man is Peter Warshall, who died a couple of years ago. He was an extraordinary anthropologist and ecologist. In the picture, Peter is characteristically crouching to examine flora and fauna at a spring on a natural preserve I had created in the valley of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. Peter was briefly an advisor to Governor Brown and an editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue. He also rallied to get the town and citizens of Bolinas to forego sending waste-water into the ocean. He lived in Arizona and New Mexico in later years and was close to native communities there.
So the photo, which I had always assumed was taken in northern California, actually originated in Mexico, one of the many times Joanne did get to go.
There is much more I would like to ask her. But just as Duncan never explained the line, leaving it for Joanne to discover on her own, I will keep studying the body of poetry she has left for us.
Vincent Katz is a poet, translator, curator, and critic. He earned his BA from the University of Chicago and his MA from Oxford University. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Cabal of Zealots (1988), Understanding Objects (2000), Rapid Departures (2005), Swimming Home (2015), and Southness (2016)....