Let’s begin with a poem. Like many of Joanne Kyger’s, this one is untitled:
Morning is such a welcome time. It doesn’t demand
much from the pocket— Some coffee, a cigarette,
and the day starts, full of optimism & clarity of hope
While the Muse holds her head, and the crazy Elementals
hold down their wrath
lightly under the earth’s surface.
Some vague attention
of wind stirs the golden oats
and Ita Siamese drags her breakfast rabbit over
the roof three
times into the house and escorted out
the door. While Adam Saroyan & W.S. Merwin
debate the paucity of their father’s feelings
in New York Times reviews,
coming down the pathway still
are my startled guests as this morning proceeds normally
out of doors.
Asked to summarize the subject matter of her work, Kyger answered that “the shape of the day, the words of the moment, what’s happening around me in the world of interior and exterior space—these are my writing concerns.” This poem fits into the pattern she describes and is representative of her mature work. Here, we follow the poet as she awakes to the day: we become part of what she sees, hears, smells, drinks, eats, and thinks as we follow her steps toward an engaged consciousness. The day will not be invented by the poet; instead, she must feel and observe it and become tuned to its rhythms. The American myth of manifest destiny seeks conquest and control and this is something that Kyger, by making small and large gestures, resists. We should wait for the day’s messages to come our way rather than trying to dance to inorganic inventions. Kyger’s work is artfully transparent and simple; she has said, “there is no such thing as a ‘hidden meaning,’ meaning is always on the surface” (Journals 42). Like her contemporary and friend Philip Whalen, Kyger is a master of “the conversational.”
As she pointed out in interviews, Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” was a key influence. She first read it in Japan when she lived there with Gary Snyder from 1960-1964. As poems are written, Olson reminds us, “one perception must immediately lead to a further perception” as the verse builds thought by thought, and line by line. It is a process that guides Kyger work. Also, Olson promoted the theory of COMPOSITION BY FIELD, an idea that establishes itself in Kyger’s work through how she breaks her lines, and the efforts she makes to visually shape the poem across the “field” of the page. In a way, this Kyger poem is like a net that captures the disparate images that begin the day. Also from Olson and Creeley, she absorbed the idea of breath and how it gives both integrity to the poetic line, and focuses the poet’s energies:
The far off pine whose branches turn yellow
is saying goodbye, and its needles fall
even this June. The blue meets the cloud
banks coming up late afternoon. Radish
flower, coyote bush, the old
stove rusting—were that it would fly
on little wings to the Pt. Reyes Dump.
Oh I am so tired, in this little room,
trying to open
the path of rhythm with rhythm, positively
She is also guided in part by the Beat mantra of First Thought/Best Thought though this is a more complex notion than it might appear. Writing of calligraphy in Lost Japan Alex Kerr argued that “one reason why calligraphy serves as a bridge from mind to mind is that it is a thing of the instant—there is no going back to touch up what you have written.” Kyger’s poems are of the instant while at the same time bearing witness, lightly, to decades of practice. When I enrolled in an East-Asian calligraphy class last year, I learned this lesson on a daily basis. Our instructor told us that we must not correct or touch up our work. If she noticed me trying to correct something, she fixed me with a hard stare. To become a master calligrapher requires a great commitment. In like manner, to write great poems of the instant requires the life-long training in poetry and Zen Buddhism that Kyger committed to. Practice.
Kyger’s work draws from and belongs to some of the most important poetic movements of mid-century America: The Beat Generation, the Black Mountain School of Olson, Levertov, Creeley, and others, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Environmental Movement and stirrings of Eco-Poetics and Eco-Feminist Poetics. She has learned from all of them, and can be attached to them all in various ways. For me, as an admirer of her work, I can say that it is in her work where all these movements converge. At the same time, she remained fiercely independent—living in Bolinas, California, a small town off the beaten track whose residents at one time believed that no public signage be erected to provide directions to their town. Many like-minded people who lived nearby included Richard Brautigan, Donald M. Allen, Robert Creeley, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, and many others who came and went. Though a poet and Buddhist, Kyger found Trumpa’s mantra of “First Thought/Best Thought” to be a difficult rule to follow. In an interview she said, “like Spicer saying you are just the medium, the funnel for the words to go through. The magic syllables, seed syllables … Accepting that the mind is OK as it is … The whole occupation of the poet, if it does exist as an identity in the current society, is one that has to do with a spiritual, cultural practice of words, and can’t be “bought.” No one literary movement owned her. “Why write?” she asked of herself, “I want to write the world upside down.”
Though a Zen Buddhist, we should not think of Kyger’s poems in theological terms because, as Jane Hirschfield points out, “Zen is not about belief. It’s more about what happens when belief is unfastened. One traditional description of Zen is that it is a teaching outside, outside of teachings. The teaching of Zen is: Drink your tea. Find the taste of this moment on your tongue.”(57). Established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, San Francisco Zen Center is where Kyger, Hirschfield, and Whalen studied, and is a cradle of a contemporary American poetry of innovation.
Three books provide an excellent introduction to Joanne Kyger’s work: As Ever: Selected Poems (Penguin Books, 2002); The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964 (Nightboat Books, 2016) and Lo & Behold: Household and Threshold on California’s North Coast (Voices from the American Land, 2009). As Ever is a three-hundred page selection of her work as a poet, including a forward and introduction by poets Michael Rothenberg and David Meltzer, respectively. Originally published in 2000, The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964 chronicles the four years Kyger spent in Kyoto when married to Gary Snyder, their travels together in Japan and India with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, and accounts of meetings with many expatriate writers who showed up in Kyoto during this period. Lo & Behold is a brief verse diary micro-memoir, beginning in 1980 and ending in 1992, of year-by-year life in Bolinas, California.
The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964 is also an account of how a marriage builds and dissolves, and how a woman’s voice as a poet emerges from the many-sided shadow cast by her more famous husband’s. While Snyder carries on his studies with great seriousness at Daitoku-ji and other monasteries, Kyger, very much on the outside looking in, physically and temperamentally, is able to absorb what is useful to her, and reject what does not suit. These journals provide a detailed record of her development as a poet and intellectual. At the same time, she seeks to commit more deeply to Zen Buddhist practice while struggling with its rules and rigors. To the reader’s benefit, Kyger lacks Snyder’s single-mindedness with the result that she provides us with a many-sided view of expatriate life in Kyoto, exploring her other interests such as movies and movie stars, fashion, gossip, always displaying keen eyes and ears for fakery. That the vital and the frivolous can be in effective free play is a feature of Kyger’s world view and poetics. At a meeting with the twenty-seven year old Dalia Lama (Kyger refers to him as “the Dal”), she recounts, “Allen Ginsberg says to him how many hours do you meditate a day, and he says me? Why I never meditate, I don’t have to.” The formal shape of the Kyoto and India volume is similar to Bashō’s Oku-no-hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North), also an account of a four-year journey (1690-94), including prose interspersed with poetry. Sam Hamill has written about “the sense of elemental loneliness present in Bashō’s work (sabishisa) and this is also a feature of Kyger’s journals of her life in Japan and India.
A clear feature of Kyger’s work is humor, no better example of this than the poem she wrote about her great friend, fellow poet, and mentor Philip Whalen:
I woke up about 2:30 this morning and thought about Philip’s
It is bright lemon yellow, with a little brim
all the way around, and a lime green hat band, printed
with tropical plants.
It sits on top
of his shaved head. It upstages everything and every body.
He bought it at Walgreen’s himself.
I mean it fortunately wasn’t a gift from an admirer.
Otherwise he is dressed in soft blues. And in his hands
a long wooden string of Buddhist Rosary beads, which he keeps
moving. I ask him which mantra he is doing—but he tells me
in Zen, you don’t have to bother with any of that.
You can just play with the beads. (“Philip Whalen’s Hat”)
The finely-tuned observational skills that Kyger displays when looking at the natural world are lightly switched to built environments such as the interiors of houses and such non-remarkable items as mass produced hats. Whelan is also a Buddhist monk and Kyger’s poem insists on the simplicity of both the monk and Buddhism itself: it is hard for me to imagine a devout Catholic speaking of an honored priest-friend in this way. Whalen’s answer to Kyger’s query regarding his beads is as disarming as the Dalia Lama’s. Though “Philip Whalen’s Hat” is not a dream poem because it is composed after the poet has awoken, it is a work that straddles the divide between sleeping and waking, night and day, dream and vision. Also, in the tenderness of its tone, it reminds me of the aubade—the classical dawn song of longing for the departed lover. Like many of her contemporaries in American poetry, Kyger wrote a great deal about her dreams, not analyzing them but rather accepting them as gifts from her unconscious. She was very interested in the work of Carl Jung.
In common with Snyder, Kyger looked across the Pacific toward Japan for adventure and enlightenment, breaking with literary tradition by turning her back on Europe, the destination of choice for American writers for close on two centuries. This turning away also served as a gesture of resistance to the new critical orthodoxies of the time that prescribed how poetry should be written and received, orthodoxies and attitudes rooted in Anglo-American traditions and anxieties. Both Snyder and Kyger, and other poets of their generation sought to change how they thought and what they believed. As Brenda Knight has noted, Kyger was part of a generation who sought to create “a literature in celebration of the open mind and the open road.” Kyger’s and Snyder’s work is deeply and equally rooted in American place and Zen Buddhism rather than in euro-centric thought and belief. Andrew Schelling has written of Kyger’s work:
For nearly four decades Joanne Kyger has been writing what I think the best poetry our raw, optimistic, troubled North American civilization has to offer. Her poems, her classic 1960s journals of travel in Japan and India, and later journals from Mexico, provide keen examples of how to live “close to the bone.” To have a feel for the land—as she does—means to use earth’s resources wisely. Which means in poetry to stay close to dry humor, ordinary speech, and finely tuned understatement. Outside the poem, it means to pack lightly, to live on the earth with precision, and then to turn each day of the calendar year into a celebration of “the real people of wind and rain.”
A bright expression of this feel for the land is revealed in her description of working in her Kyoto garden, “Gary and I occupy ourselves entirely with our gardens. I have planted cosmos, zinnia, gysophilia, coreopsis, morning glory. A red rose bush bought last week. Pick weeds from the moss everyday. Sun burned from laying in the garden yesterday. Feels like summer rainy season has started today. The cat lays on his side in hot weather fashion.” Kyger is an environmental poet who does not privilege the human over the non-human as is clear from how she honors flowers by naming them, and also the presence of the cat by including her/him. To weed is to be attentive and is tender and tendering while the gardener’s body blooms in the sun with her flowers. Such organic work will teach us how to be more human. In this respect, gardens are not merely ornamental, though this is part of their aesthetic appeal, but they are zones of learning at its most elemental. Of course we learn about poetry from reading it and writing it but, following Kyger’s example, interactions with the natural world should also help each of us develop our art poetica.
Growing up in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s and the product of a traditional education, I was never directed to nature in its truest sense. Nature was created by God so, like a formal garden in a park or home, it was an invention. In primary school, we were not taught science so we did not learn how the rich things of our world grew. Decades later, I delighted at the indoor gardens placed in classroom corners at my children’s elementary schools, what journeys they bore witness to from seed to vegetable or flower. My father was a great gardener and I think now that I should have paid more attention to him as he worked or sought to join him. At the same time, the world of flowers and vegetables was for him, as I suspect, an escape from the responsibilities of being a father to many children, and he was such a perfectionist that working with him made me anxious and awkward. I was also too much of a “townie,” too schooled in the idea that culture was superior to science as gleaned from the pedagogy of the CBS. In this respect, discovering Kyger’s work and following her way of seeing the world has been both a revelation and an ongoing education for me that has allowed me to live a more integrated life.
Though their marriage ended when Kyger left Kyoto in 1964 to return to San Francisco, Kyger and Snyder share much in beliefs, poetics, and achievement. Of course, Snyder is better known (Turtle Island alone has sold over 100,000 copies) and he remains still the mythic Japhy Ryder from Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums whereas, to a degree, Kyger has suffered the fate of being labeled a writer’s writer. Snyder, among other contemporizes, provides a most generous blurb for As Ever, “a superb poetic sensibility effortlessly playing like the shadows passing on a far mountain range: and yet so intimate!” Anne Waldman, of the generation of Beat poets that follows Kyger’s, calls the volume “a major collection by a legendary figure and muse whose exemplary writing reflects her discerning Buddhist sensibility.” Poetry writing does not benefit from being seen as an Olympic sport defined by gold, silver, bronze, and also-rans. To my mind, Joanne Kyger has written wonderful work of the highest quality that has been a great companion and guiding light for me across the decades. One of the great periods of my life was following Kyger’s footsteps through Kyoto, sitting quietly in places she had visited and noted in her journals (Diatoku-ji, Nijo Castle, the Silver Pavilion, to recall some obvious examples), and giving brief thanks for all she has taught me.
A key term in environmentalism associated with Gary Snyder is “reinhabitation.” It is a call to us to find a place on this earth and settle in there for the long term. We should not abuse the earth, animals, or other people. Most important, we should research the history of the place where we have settled, living in a manner that connects us to those who have gone before us and whose work we honor. Snyder settled in an area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California that had been brutalized by mining, in part to restore it to what it once had been, while Kyger made her home in Bolinas, near the ocean, north of San Francisco. For the poet, re-inhabitation also embraces and acknowledges the work of poets that have preceded and influenced her as Kyger makes clear in a poem from 1986:
You know when you write poetry you find
the architecture of your lineage your teachers
like Robert Duncan for me gave me some glue for the heart
Beats which gave me confidence
to the Images of Perfection
. . . or as dinner approaches I become hasty
do I mean PERFECTION!
In addition to tending to the home place, the poet/citizen is required to tend to the work and memory of the poets that have passed this way before us. Robert Duncan was a key figure for Kyger when she first arrived In San Francisco and her first collection, The Tapestry and the Web, is written in the cool, precise, softly surrealistic neo-classical style that Duncan was a master of:
I saw the
dead bird on the sidewalk
his neck uncovered
At seven in the morning
my hair was bound
against the fish in the air
who begged for the ocean
I longed for their place (“The Maze”)
By this time, as I have already pointed out, Kyger had made a deep dive in Olson’s and Creeley’s “Projective Verse,” and this guides how the poem is presented on the page, or visual field, as well as how precisely one thought follows another, line to line or line by line.
Joanne Kyger is precise in how she defines her own absorption in Zen thought:
The “Square Zen” Alan Watts spoke of, the Zen of the established tradition, was not an accessible practice for me. But the sheer caprice of “Beat Zen” with its “digging of the universe” seemed out of hand too. Sitting with the Sangha at Suzuki’s San Francisco Zen Center when I returned, I was struck with the simplicity of zazen, nothing to prove, nothing to gain. But I was also grateful for the established traditional rules of the zendo, unquestioned, that allowed one’s mind freedom within the form.”
Of course, in addition to zazen and zendo, Kyger developed her work as poet though literary study. After arriving in San Francisco in 1957, he studied informally with Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer and took part in the literary world at an exciting time. Two years before on Friday, October 7, 1955, the Six Gallery reading had taken place where Allen Ginsberg, reading Howl aloud for the first time, and other poets set off the phenomenon of the Beat Generation and put San Francisco at the center of the poetry universe. Introduced by Kenneth Rexroth, the reading also featured Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. Kyger’s arrival in St. Francisco coincided with the Howl obscenity trial.
Through the past decades poetry in America has become professionalized and housed in large institutions, primarily universities. In contrast, the Six Gallery was a North Beach car repair shop before becoming an art space. Going back a few generations, we can say that writers who came of age with William Stafford were among the first to have been trained as poets on college campuses, earning post-graduate degrees in writing. For writers, the university has been an attractive landing place given the salaries and good conditions of work and the fact that, then and now, it is virtually impossible to make a living writing poems and contributing fugitive articles and reviews to journals. But Joanne Kyger, except for summer teaching at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, resisted the institution’s call. Instead, in 1969 she retreated to Bolinas, California, where she settled into small town life helping out, among other duties, in the local food cooperative and serving as editor of the local newspaper. It is not that she lacked for talent, ambition, or desire but that she felt she belonged to the more organic community of a town rather than to the more artificial one of an institution. Also, I suspect that Kyger felt that her own practice as a poet, one that was inseparable from her Zen Buddhism, could not be accommodated within a traditional institution. Like Corso, Weiners, Blazer, Di Prima, she tied her future to the margin to remain free of institutional convention. In this respect, she was a 1960s dropout who did not feel that the world owed her anything, who smoked pot, wrote poems, and went her own way. Her practice is important in many respects not least as a guide to the writer who seeks to or has been forced to remain, unattached or who feels cut-loose. Kyger provides us with another path to follow, an alternative road map. Jane Hirschfield, another poet who studied at the San Franciso Zen Center, puts it another way, “The model of intensive training and return to regular life, its fidelity to the ordinary, is something that I appreciated in Zen. I liked that the ‘spiritual’ isn’t something allocated to specialists, but is regarded as a thing more like water — plain, free-flowing, available, already ubiquitous.”
There are Irish connections to the San Francisco literary and cultural milieu that Kyger emerged from. In 1955, a young John Montague had a teaching position in Berkeley and attended the first reading of Howl at the 6 Gallery. Montague has described riding as a pillion passenger on Gary Snyder’s motorcycle crossing the Oakland-Bay Bridge. In the 1960’s James Liddy arrived to teach at San Francisco State University where he befriended many of the writers who belonged to Kyger’s network including Philip Whalen, John Weiners, John Allen Ryan, and others. For many years, Liddy taught a course, “Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation,” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, that high-lighted Kyger’s work and it was he, at my request, in the 1970s, who brought back to Wexford hand-to-find Joanne Kyger books. Liddy has recalled the excitement he felt at first seeing City Lights Books on sale in Hodges-Figgis in the early 1960s and traced the connections and mutual esteem shared by the Beat Writers and Patrick Kavanagh. If we are inclined to recall 1950s Dublin as a dour Archbishop McQuaid run zone of desolation, Liddy will offer this correction:
Bohemia thrived in the mid-1950s in Dublin and San Francisco, though by my day The Catacombs [shebeen in Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin] had gone and The Brazen Head of Beckett had become infested with Royal Irish Constabulary pensioners. Under the high ceiling of McDaid’s pub we were in a San Francisco of our own … (55).
In “The Architects of the Victory of Love: Patrick Kavanagh and the Beat Generation,” Liddy discusses the roles played by Kavanagh and Edna O’ Brien in the “reawakening” of Ireland during this period (culturally, spiritually, and sexually) and notes of Kavanagh who admired the Beats and was admired by them:
In his later verse, which I have always held to be the better part, his poetics is like Kerouac’s or Spicer’s or Wiener’s: flighty, muted, warily innocent, and technically always coming back to spontaneity, the first draft, which is the first law of Beat writing: first thought, best thought (58).
For Liddy, Yeats too was Beat as he shows in a quote from his prose, “I took the Indian hemp … on the ground floor of a house in the Latin Quarter” in Yeats’ explorations of the use of drugs and interest in esoteric beliefs. It is intriguing for me to match Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls with Joanne Kyger’s poetry and prose: two women writers coming of age at the same time who wrote a new literature underlined by radical and fiery simplicity and fire. Breaking new ground thousands of miles apart.
To conclude. “September” is a Joanne Kyger poem that is often praised.
The grasses are light brown
and ocean comes in
long shimmering lines
under the fleet from last night
which dozes now in the early morning
Here and there horses graze
on somebody’s acreage
Strangely, it was not my desire
that bade me speak in church to be released
but memory of the way it used to be in
careless and exotic play
when characters were promises
then recognitions. The world of transformation
is real and not real but trusting.
Enough of these lessons? I mean
didactic phrases to take you in and out of
love’s mysterious bonds?
Well, I myself am not myself.
and which power of survival I speak
for is not made of houses.
It is inner luxury, of golden figures
that breathe like mountains do
and whose skin is made dusky stars.
Bashō, Matsuo. Narrow Road to the Interior. Sam Hamill trans. Boston: Shambala, 1991.
Kaminsky, Ilya & Katherine Towler Eds. A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith.
North Adams, Mass: Tupelo Press, 2012.
Kerr, Alex. Lost Japan. New York: Penguin, 2015.
Knight, Brenda. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a
Revolution. 2nd ed. Miami: Conari Press, 1998.
Kyger. Joanne. As Ever: Selected Poems. New York: Penguin, 2002.
… The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964. New York: Nightboat Books, 2016.
… Lo & Behold. Placitas, New Mexico. Voiced from the American Land, 2009.
… Joanne Kyger, There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera. Cesar Sigo ed. Seattle
and New York: Wave Books, 2017.
Liddy, James. On American Literature and Diasporas. Eamonn Wall ed. Dublin: Arlen House,
Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. New York: New Directions, 1966.
Montague, John. The Figure in the Cave and Other Essays. Antoinette Quinn ed. Syracuse:
Syracuse UP, 1989.
Eamonn Wall’s recent publications include From Oven Lane to Sun Prairie: In Search of Irish America (Arlen House, 2019) and Junction City: New and Selected Poems 1990-2015 (Salmon Poetry, 2015). A native of Co. Wexford, he has lived in the USA since 1982—currently in St. Louis, Missouri.