Joanne Kyger, fearless poet, dies at 82

04/06/2017

Joanne Kyger, a renowned poet who was unafraid to speak her mind and published over 20 books of verse, died late last month at her home in Bolinas. She was 82 years old. 

Ms. Kyger taught writing, both at universities like the Naropa Institute in Boulder and more locally in writing workshops in Bolinas, and she edited the Hearsay News once a week for decades. 

But Ms. Kyger, a practitioner of Zen with an adventurous spirit, was famously known for belonging to the male-dominated Beat scene in San Francisco in the 1960s, with numerous friends and mentors like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. Yet she disavowed the Beat title herself, and her poetry evinced a unique blend of carefully considered spacing on the page, keen observation and humor.

“She was very interested in going her own way,” Steve Heilig, a close friend in Bolinas, said. “She was a great, amused observer of people and life.” 

Ms. Kyger was born in 1934 in Vallejo. Her father, Jacob, was an officer in the Navy, and she spent three years of her childhood in China. The family bounced around the country after returning from Asia, and Ms. Kyger graduated from high school in Santa Barbara and attended college there. 

In 1957 she moved to San Francisco, 23 years old and one credit short of a bachelor’s degree. It was the same year that Mr. Ginsberg’s publisher was on trial for obscenity in the poet’s famous “Howl.”

“The Beat generation, the San Francisco Renaissance, is dramatically in the air, most especially in North Beach, which I visit every night in my red Capezio slippers with silver buckles. I have them reheeled every two weeks. I drink devastating martinis and hear Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti…at The Cellar,” Ms. Kyger wrote for a volume of author autobiographies.

A friend brought her to The Place, a well-known hangout for writers where a coterie of poets coalesced around Mr. Duncan and Mr. Spicer. She was invited to a Sunday poetry group the two hosted, where young poets read their work and drank “large amounts of red wine… in whatever containers were available—jars, saucepans, etc.,” she wrote.

The poetry of the time was experimental, exploratory and forward-looking rather than nostalgic, said Reed Bye, a professor emeritus of writing at Naropa. The movement converged with the cultural pull toward the traditions of East Asia, and Buddhism in particular. The work of many poets at the time “went hand in hand” with a long tradition in East Asian poetry of “direct perception, rather than filtered by a ‘poetic sensibility,’” he said. 

“Joanne emerged as one of the great practitioners in that sense... Her poetry is very notable in that regard. It conveys, with very little personal interference, the immediate event she’s just witnessed or felt, and therefore it’s very personal but it isn’t elaborated unnecessarily,” Mr. Bye said.

In 1960, Ms. Kyger traveled to Japan, where she married Gary Snyder (whom she was dating) because of the customs of the Zen Institute, where he was studying. The couple spent time in that country and in India with Mr. Ginsberg and his partner, the poet Peter Orlovsky. 

According to her writing from the time, which was later collected in a now-lauded book called “Strange Big Moon: The Japan and India Journals,” Ms. Kyger struggled with expectations of wifely duties. She returned to California in 1964, divorcing Mr. Snyder, and the next year published her first book of poetry, “The Tapestry and the Web,” a reworking of the myth of Odysseus and Penelope.

Anne Waldman, a friend, poet and cofounder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, called the journals a “defining feminist book,” displaying Ms. Kyger’s “voice, her wit, her dharmic view... You feel the presence of a very astute and witty person.”

“She is seeing the ego and particularity and peculiarity” of her traveling companions, Ms. Waldman said.

Ms. Kyger taught summer courses at the Jack Kerouac School, which Mr. Ginsberg cofounded, since the ‘70s, as well as at other colleges. She also taught writing occasionally in Bolinas, which is how Mr. Heilig, who has a background in public health and epidemiology, met her. 

He had received a grant in the ‘90s that came with an order to spend some of the money doing something he would not normally do, so he enrolled in one of Ms. Kyger’s classes. 

“It was a very disciplined and structured class” with assigned readings and journaling and pieces read aloud each session, he said. “She was impressive with her vast reading and knowledge from around the world.”

Her perceptivity could be pointed, and she was sometimes tough on people, but was not petty. “It was always with a sense of wit that gave perspective to her response,” Mr. Bye said.

In the late ’60s, Ms. Kyger bought land on the Big Mesa for about $12,000, Mr. Heilig said. A number of well-known writers in the area—Richard Brautigan, Aram Saroyan and Anne Lamott—made Bolinas a fairly significant literary outpost. The town appears in countless of her poems, such as “The Crystal in Tamalpais,” which relates a tale an acquaintance told her about traveling over the mountain with a Miwok man to a clam patch at Bolinas Beach: “Go out to/the rock. Take out of the medicine bag the crystal/that matches the crystal in Tamalpais. And/if your heart is not true/if your heart is not true/when you tap the rock in the clam patch/a little piece of that will fly off/and strike you in the heart/and strike you dead./And that’s the first story I ever heard about Bolinas.”

Ms. Kyger’s poetry is often spacious on the page—she compared it to a tapestry or scoring music—with lines beginning all over and broken up by her sense of breath and rhythm. She considered starting every line of the left-hand margin boring. 

Her poetry is also full of astute, vivid observation; she abhorred too much abstraction. “She said, ‘If you can’t read your poetry down at the bar without getting thrown out, you’re too abstract,’” Mr. Heilig said. He said her work became more political in the 2000s, in response to the George W. Bush administration.

Ms. Kyger was also known as an able reader of her own poetry. Her close friend Jim Nisbet, a Sausalito resident, worked for KPFA in the ’70s, and his job was to record poetry sessions in San Francisco and Berkeley. He said he heard some people who sounded like they had never read their own poem before, but not her. “She was a terrific reader of her own work… Joanne’s voice just jumps off the page for me,” he said.

In the 1970s, while teaching at Naropa, Ms. Kyger met Donald Guravich, an author, artist and arborist, and the two lived together in Bolinas until she died. “They had a wonderful relationship,” Mr. Bye said. Mr. Heilig noted their home was full of books, and poets and writers visited them regularly.

Librarian Jane Silva said Ms. Kyger would come in weekly, checking out many books at a time. “She read widely, of all genres,” she said.

Mr. Nisbet, who said Ms. Kyger accepted with glee a copy of a self-described trashy pulp novel he wrote called “The Gourmet,” echoed that sentiment. “She loved mysteries and thrillers,” he said, adding that she pushed him to read a book called “The Yellow Claw,” by Sax Rohmer, a 1915 sci-fi novel.

Ms. Kyger wrote daily in a journal, a practice she said she started at a young age, and she kept her journals in Ziploc bags, according to an interview with the online publication The Conversant. 

But she logged her bird observations separately. She noticed, for instance, that a particular flock of birds “used to show up like magic on April 23 and leave on September 21,” but that they had “stopped arriving, after almost 40 years of us hosting them locally near my house. At least there is a record.”

For decades, Ms. Kyger also worked as a Wednesday editor for The Hearsay News. Jeff Manson, whom Ms. Kyger helped recruit to the publication several years ago as she was stepping back, said she strongly believed in the importance of The Hearsay to town.  

“She was really into the Hearsay being a very civic institution, a civic service,” with meeting minutes from entities like the Bolinas Community Public Utility District as well as submissions, he said. She strictly maintained its policy of prohibiting anonymous submissions—and she would tell Mr. Manson when she saw something slip by.

“She believed in the value of having a log of the day, which was reflected in her poetry, too,” Mr. Manson said.