Carolyn Kizer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was perhaps best known for her wry, unsentimental verse about the experiences of women, expressed with formal precision and detachment, died Oct. 9 at a nursing home in Sonoma, Calif. She was 89.
She had complications from dementia, said poet David Rigsbee, her literary executor.
Ms. Kizer was a formidable presence in literary circles for decades and was addressing the concerns of women in her early work in the 1950s, before the term “feminism” became popular. She won the Pulitzer in 1985 for “Yin,” named for the feminine principle in the Chinese concept of yin and yang.
One of her most memorable lines came in “Pro Femina,” a series of poems that Ms. Kizer revised over a period of more than 30 years before it was published in its final version in 2000: “We are the custodians of the world’s best-kept secret: Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity.”
Ms. Kizer, who spent a year in Pakistan teaching and as a cultural emissary for the State Department in the 1960s, translated works from Urdu, Chinese and other languages and sometimes addressed her interest in Asian culture in her writing. At times, she explored overtly political themes, as in her 1971 collection “Midnight Was My Cry,” which includes poems about sit-ins, the Vietnam war and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
These self-consciously historical or formal works tended to receive more tepid reviews than her poems drawn from personal experience or observations.
“Poems, to me, do not come from ideas,” Ms. Kizer said in a 2000 interview with the Paris Review, “they come from a series of images that you tuck away in the back of your brain. Little photographic snapshots.”
In her poem “Twelve O’Clock,” she drew on a mental snapshot from the age of 17, when she encountered Albert Einstein in the library at Princeton University.
I stand in the center of the library
And he appears. Are we witnesses or actors?
The old man and the girl, smiling at each other,
He fixed by fame, she fluid, still without identity.
An instant which changes nothing.
And everything, forever, everything is changed.
Throughout her career, she wrote with a rigor of form and viewpoint that reflected her interest in Latin verse and the English poetry of John Dryden and Alexander Pope. Even when writing in a conversational style, she usually followed traditional poetic rules of meter. The classic rhythm of iambic pentameter, she told the Paris Review, “is as natural to me as breathing.”
The result, novelist Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in The Washington Post in 1985, was that “her poetry is intensely, splendidly oral, wanting to be read aloud, best of all to be read or roared by the lion herself.”
In 1984, Ms. Kizer published two collections, “Yin” and “Mermaids in the Basement,” that helped secure her reputation. “Yin” included a 224-line poem called “Fanny” about Frances “Fanny” Osbourne Stevenson, the wife of 19th-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who died of tuberculosis in the South Seas:
I will leave here as soon as I can, and never return,
Except to be buried beside him. I will live like a gipsy
in my wild, ragged clothes, until I am old, old.
“One could never say with certainty what ‘a Carolyn Kizer poem’ was – until now,” critic Robert Phillips wrote in Poetry magazine in his review of “Yin.” “Now we know a Kizer poem is brave, witty, passionate, and not easily forgotten.”
Carolyn Ashley Kizer was born Dec. 10, 1924, in Spokane, Wash. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a biologist and college professor.
“No evening of my childhood passed without my being read to,” Ms. Kizer later said.
She had her first — and only — poem published in the New Yorker magazine when she was 17. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., in 1945, did graduate work at Columbia University and later at the University of Washington, where the poet Theodore Roethke encouraged her career.
“Most women poets of my generation didn’t dare take themselves seriously, because the men didn’t take us seriously,” she told the Paris Review. “I was almost middle-aged before the idea penetrated.”
From 1959 to 1965, Ms. Kizer edited the literary journal Poetry Northwest. She lived in Washington from 1966 to 1970, when she was the first literary director of the National Endowment for the Arts.
After teaching at the University of North Carolina in the early 1970s, she returned to Washington, where she lived until the early 1980s.
Her first marriage, to Charles Stimson Bullitt, ended in divorce. Her husband of 39 years, John M. Woodbridge, an architect who worked on the redesign of Pennyslvania Avenue in the 1970s, died in June.
Survivors include three children from her first marriage, Ashley Bullitt of Seattle, Fred Nemo of Portland, Ore., and Jill Bullitt of Hudson, N.Y.; two stepchildren, Larry Woodbridge of Brooklyn and Pamela Woodbridge of Berkeley, Calif.; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In 1998, Ms. Kizer resigned as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets to protest the lack minorities on the academy’s board. Her final collection, “Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000,” appeared in 2001.
After living in California for many years, she wrote tongue-in-cheek about her newfound contentment in a late poem, “Afternoon Happiness”:
Doctor, I’ll say, I’m supposed to be a poet
All life’s awfulness has been grist to me.
We learn that happiness is a Chinese meal,
While sorrow is a nourishment forever.
My new environment is California Dreamer.
I’m fearful I’m forgetting how to brood.
And, Doctor, another thing has got me worried:
I’m not drinking as much as I should.