Poet in Pakistan: the Flamboyant Carolyn Kizer

14 March, 2021

“Suf­ic Trance IV” by Salma Aras­tu (cour­tesy of the artist).

Mar­i­an Janssen, a Dutch writer, was asked to write the—unauthorized–biography of poet, essay­ist and author Car­olyn Kiz­er (1923–2014). Kiz­er found­ed the jour­nal Poet­ry North­west, became the first Lit­er­a­ture Direc­tor at the NEA, and a mem­ber of the
Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets— from which she soon resigned in protest because it remained a white old boys club. Her life resem­bled a soap opera: she had an affair with Abe For­t­as, Supreme Court Jus­tice and fix­er for Pres­i­dent John­son, as well as with Hubert Humphrey. And when she went to Pak­istan in 1964, she returned not only with trans­la­tions from Urdu, but also with a lover. Most of her affairs were with writ­ers, from Hay­den Car­ruth to Robert Con­quest, David Wag­oner and John Wain. 

Marian Janssen

Try­ing to con­vince me to write the biog­ra­phy of Pulitzer Prize-win­ning fem­i­nist poet and writer Car­olyn Kiz­er, her daugh­ter, Ash­ley Bul­litt, described her moth­er’s life as fol­lows: “…a movie-star gor­geous 6‑foot-tall Ama­zon sex god­dess who fought … her way out of hick­town to go every­where and know every­one, and was also the wit­ti­est woman in the world, and a bril­liant intel­lec­tu­al, teacher and poet, who through her work as a civ­il ser­vant trans­formed the role of cul­ture in the lives of the Amer­i­can people.” 

Clear­ly, I could not pass up the oppor­tu­ni­ty to write about such a female pow­er­house and I am now Car­olyn Kiz­er’s biog­ra­ph­er. Below is part of her story. 

Des­per­ate­ly Leav­ing Seattle

 “Well, it’s hap­pened: I’m free, beige and thir­ty-eight! I get $5,000 ‘sev­er­ance pay’ on the first of Jan­u­ary, and that’s it. The chil­dren are, how­ev­er, well-pro­vid­ed for, for the first time. And they are hilar­i­ous at the thought of free­dom: we’re all released from the court order requir­ing us to live with­in the Seat­tle city lim­its. So onwards with the Guggen­heim. And lay it on thick, will you?” (Unless oth­er­wise indi­cat­ed, quo­ta­tions are from the Car­olyn Kiz­er Col­lec­tion at the Lil­ly Library, Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty. This let­ter is from Car­olyn Kiz­er to Stan­ley and Elise Kunitz, Octo­ber 21, 1963. Kunitz Col­lec­tion, Prince­ton University.) 

Car­olyn Kiz­er, poet and found­ing edi­tor of Poet­ry North­west, was des­per­ate to leave Seat­tle after the deba­cle of her mar­riage to Stim­son Bul­litt, heir to the King Broad­cast­ing Com­pa­ny media con­glom­er­ate, found­ed by his moth­er Dorothy in 1946. In Octo­ber 1963, just a few days after her divorce decree mod­i­fi­ca­tion came through, she had asked Stan­ley Kunitz to be one of her ref­er­ees for a Guggen­heim grant. Kiz­er was lone­ly in small-town Seat­tle with­out her cir­cle of lit­er­ary friends. Theodore Roethke, her beloved bear­like men­tor, had drowned in a swim­ming pool and David Wag­oner, her for­mer suit­or of sev­en years, no longer want­ed to see her now that he was mar­ried. James Wright and Richard Hugo had left the city. She planned to use the Guggen­heim to work on her trans­la­tions of Tang Dynasty mas­ter poet Tu Fu with schol­ars of Chi­nese at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty in New York City for half a year, fol­lowed by a sim­i­lar peri­od in Italy, to per­fect them. Kunitz’s glow­ing ref­er­ence notwith­stand­ing, the Guggen­heim went to one of Kiz­er’s many lovers, edi­tor and essay­ist Emile Capouya. 

In spite of every­thing she con­tem­plat­ed, from mov­ing to New York City to emi­grat­ing to Great Britain, Kiz­er remained stuck in Seat­tle almost a year after she had regained her inde­pen­dence. Robie Macauley—then edi­tor of the pres­ti­gious Keny­on Review, soon bought out by Play­boy magazine—was Kiz­er’s sav­ior. The State Depart­ment had asked him to attend a lit­er­ary con­fer­ence in Pak­istan, but as he was too busy, he sug­gest­ed Kiz­er, who jumped at this chance. With­in weeks of her accep­tance, State improved their offer, propos­ing as an exper­i­ment that Kiz­er become their Spe­cial­ist in Literature—in effect, poet-in-residence—staying for six months (with a pos­si­ble exten­sion of three) at the roy­al salary of $700 a month, some $6,000 today. Kiz­er was hys­ter­i­cal with joy. She could leave small-mind­ed Seat­tle behind; besides, it released her once and for all from her sado­masochis­tic rela­tion­ship with Capouya, “a bril­liant, gift­ed man, but … cra­zier than a bedbug.” 

Carolyn Kizer reads to a rapt audience in Lahore, circa 1964 (clipping courtesy Marian Janssen).

Car­olyn Kiz­er reads to a rapt audi­ence in Lahore, cir­ca 1964 (clip­ping cour­tesy Mar­i­an Janssen).

She quick­ly turned her life around. “She left in a whirl­wind, prepar­ing the next dou­ble issue of Poet­ry North­west with one hand and pack­ing with the oth­er,” co-edi­tor William Match­ett apol­o­gized to David Sand­berg, who won­dered what had hap­pened to his sub­mis­sions. (Octo­ber 7, 1964. Poet­ry North­west Col­lec­tion, Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton, Seat­tle.) Kiz­er dis­cussed Poet­ry North­west­’s edi­tor­ship with sub­sti­tute John Logan in Chica­go, was briefed by the State Depart­ment in Wash­ing­ton D.C., and met with Pres­i­dent John­son’s fix­er, bril­liant lawyer Abe Fortas—with whom she had had a long affair while still mar­ried to Stim­son Bul­litt. Then on to New York City, Lon­don and Paris, end­ing up in Switzer­land (her daugh­ter Ash­ley accom­pa­nied her because she had enrolled at the posh inter­na­tion­al school Mon­ta Rosa in Mon­treux), before fly­ing on to Karachi. 


Arriv­ing in Pakistan

“Pak­istan, Land of Con­trasts!” Kiz­er wrote to her friends just two weeks after her arrival. Although she was gen­er­al­ly far more lib­er­al than her fel­low Amer­i­cans, her let­ter nev­er­the­less shows that she was heav­i­ly influ­enced by the prej­u­dices of her time. “Some­how, I find myself think­ing in cap­tions, rather like a tourist brochure or a trav­el-talk. Behind the hotel, a large old camel teth­ered to a large new Buick; two boys on one bicy­cle, the one not ped­alling [sic] furi­ous­ly is lead­ing a young colt; drink­ing coke on the beach and putting down the Her­ald Tri­bune to watch a snake-charmer or a pair of trained mon­keys… lis­ten­ing to a poet­’s young sis­ter chant­i­ng a poem in Urdu while a hi-fi set plays a Mozart sonata.” Tongue-in-cheek, she added that she want­ed to get her impres­sions down while she was still “an expert on the coun­try: after a few months I won’t know any­thing.” She knew that she had come into con­tact with only a minute num­ber of well-edu­cat­ed and well-off peo­ple in Pak­istan, but could not praise the women high­ly enough. She was sure that once they suc­ceed­ed in break­ing free of the restric­tions placed on them in even the most enlight­ened house­holds, they would “light up Chica­go on a Sat­ur­day night,” because they pos­sessed so much per­son­al elec­tric­i­ty. She was enam­ored, too, of Pak­istan’s archi­tec­ture, its “opu­lence and wide arms, mak[ing] Euro­pean goth­ic seem crammed, over­ly-ver­ti­cal and some­how pursed and puri­tan­i­cal.” Lahore, where she lived, was “Metro-Gold­wyn-Moghul, tacky, tat­ty, crum­bling pas­tel plas­ter, HUGE signs stuck on every­thing… but all it needs is a sign-remover and some buck­ets of plas­ter, and the shot-gun mar­riage of Mohammed and Queen Vic­to­ria would be revealed in all its charm­ing splendor.”

Kiz­er was crit­i­cal of the men, who were far too inter­est­ed in play­ing polit­i­cal games, she judged. She did not take into account that then still-recent Par­ti­tion of India in 1947, with its her­itage of death and des­ti­tu­tion, had left bloody wounds. She reserved her most severe cen­sure for Islam. Naive­ly, again, she believed that Pak­istan should have done every­thing in its pow­er to play down reli­gious fanati­cism after the mass mur­ders, loot­ing, and rap­ing that had tak­en place at the time of Par­ti­tion. Always quick to pass judg­ment, Kiz­er con­demned what she saw as “a fan­tas­tic amount of hypocrisy: Mus­lims don’t touch alco­hol (you should see them lap­ping up Amer­i­can whiskey at pri­vate par­ties); offi­cial stan­dards of chasti­ty and moral­i­ty are so high that rape is the com­mon­est crime here, and no woman, brown, white, or puce, would think of going alone in the streets after twilight.” 

Anoth­er dan­ger­ous ten­den­cy, she con­clud­ed, was cen­sor­ship. The coun­try’s most promi­nent paper, the Pak­istan Times, was a mere instru­ment of gov­ern­ment pro­pa­gan­da, filled with wor­ship­ful pages about the supe­ri­or­i­ty of Islam. As a writer, she balked “at the spec­ta­cle of slaugh­ter and rap­ine com­mit­ted on the Eng­lish lan­guage in every peri­od­i­cal.” As a cit­i­zen of impe­ri­al­ist Amer­i­ca, Kiz­er regard­ed Eng­lish “in the main­stream of world lit­er­a­ture and tech­ni­cal thought,” as the lan­guage in which Asia could and should com­mu­ni­cate with the world. She also took Pak­ista­nis to task for pro­nounc­ing Eng­lish in such a strange way that “one can lis­ten to quite a long state­ment before real­iz­ing that it is in Eng­lish, not in Urdu or one of the dialects.” Even­tu­al­ly Kiz­er stopped her snap judg­ments and bitch­ing, see­ing that her usu­al “eter­nal note of asper­i­ty” had crept in, admit­ting that she would prob­a­bly “blush, should I read it six months hence.” 

Kiser and Aijaz Ahmad (photo courtesy Marian Janssen).

Kiser and Aijaz Ahmad (pho­to cour­tesy Mar­i­an Janssen).

Poet in Pakistan

As Spe­cial­ist in Lit­er­a­ture, Kiz­er intend­ed both to acquaint her host coun­try with lit­er­ary and intel­lec­tu­al trends in the Unit­ed States and to learn about Pak­istani writ­ing and move­ments. She was deter­mined to devote one issue of Poet­ry North­west to works trans­lat­ed from the local lan­guages Urdu, Pash­to, or Ben­gali. Spon­sored by the Amer­i­can Asia Soci­ety, she also hoped to pub­lish a sep­a­rate East-West mag­a­zine con­tain­ing works of writ­ers from both countries. 

Lahore is sit­u­at­ed in the east­ern part of Pak­istan, close to Kashmir—the apple of con­tin­u­ing ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­cord after Par­ti­tion. This city was Pak­istan’s old cul­tur­al cen­ter, sim­i­lar to Boston, Kiz­er thought, because it, too, was a self-obsessed, strat­i­fied soci­ety, closed to strangers. And if its lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty was thriv­ing, it was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly very dif­fuse, most mem­bers being edu­ca­tors, lawyers, civ­il ser­vants, and doc­tors, who wrote on the side. They were divid­ed into cliques, spend­ing much of their intel­lec­tu­al ener­gy on infight­ing. As Kiz­er was the first state-spon­sored writer to stay in Pak­istan for an extend­ed peri­od of time, she was thrust into this hor­net’s nest with­out being ade­quate­ly briefed before­hand. She also had to face the fact that Pak­istan’s inter­est in west­ern lit­er­a­ture, which was not all that keen to begin with, was British-oriented. 

Her first pub­lic appear­ance was inauspicious. 

“I went to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Karachi, pre­pared to deliv­er a lec­ture on cur­rent trends in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. I think I shall quote my intro­duc­tion, by a young woman pro­fes­sor in the Eng­lish Depart­ment, more or less ver­ba­tim: ‘Due no doubt to our British her­itage, we Pak­ista­nis believe that Amer­i­cans have no cul­ture.’ Miss Kizer”—she con­tin­ued, “gulped a few times, and men­tal­ly cast her lec­ture out of the win­dow.” Instead, she read pas­sages from Anne Brad­street, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, Ralph Wal­do Emer­son, and Hen­ry David Thore­au, “com­ing at last to the safe har­bor in the ample arms of Walt Whit­man.” She may have man­aged to con­vince a few in that audi­ence that Amer­i­cans have some cul­ture, but she soon found that intel­lec­tu­al­ly and cul­tur­al­ly, Amer­i­ca was held in low regard. Indeed, in the ear­ly 1960s there were no cours­es in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at any uni­ver­si­ty in Pakistan. 

As there had been only a short peri­od between Kiz­er’s being offered her job and her hasty depar­ture for Pak­istan, she had not had time to learn any of its lan­guages. Under­stand­ably, this, too, made the local literati look down upon her. How dare this per­son, who spoke Eng­lish only, pre­tend to under­stand their poet­ic tra­di­tions, which were thou­sands of years old and vast­ly supe­ri­or to those of Amer­i­ca? Even worse, she was a mere woman. Before she was select­ed, there had indeed been vig­or­ous debate on the advis­abil­i­ty of send­ing a woman—a fem­i­nist to boot—to a strict Mus­lim coun­try. Kiz­er, who hard­ly ever ques­tioned her own judg­ment, was con­vinced that it was imper­a­tive to do so, “whether or not they want lib­er­at­ed women to vis­it the sub­con­ti­nent, they cer­tain­ly need them!”

As was her habit in deal­ing with prob­lems, she brought sex and humor into play: “Any woman talk­ing before an audi­ence at a male col­lege has no wor­ries about hold­ing their atten­tion. Many of them are hav­ing their first view of the female leg, and one has to resist the impulse to crouch down so as to meet them on eye lev­el.” Truth to tell, she was dis­tressed to find that “the social and sex­u­al mores of this soci­ety are so utter­ly dif­fer­ent from our own that—at least until they become used to the idea of a woman on her own…it was sim­pler to behave as if I did­n’t exist.” 

Being under­val­ued and over­looked made her first weeks in Lahore extreme­ly tough on Kiz­er, who was used to being the cen­ter of atten­tion. A seri­ous case of dysentery—though it had the one advan­tage, she thought, that it made her lose twen­ty pounds—upset her fur­ther. Dis­traught because the Unit­ed States Infor­ma­tion Ser­vice (USIS) left her to floun­der, she sent a mis­sive to the high­est offi­cial she knew, Abe For­t­as. He was keen to rush to her res­cue: “I hope that you are no longer being neglect­ed. What a stu­pid waste of great nat­ur­al resources. When you get this let­ter, if things are not straight­ened out, send me a cable … and say, ‘Please do something.’ ” 

In the end, his inter­ven­tion was not nec­es­sary, for Kiz­er had found her way: she had secured a male chap­er­one, a young and hand­some writer, Aijaz Ahmad.

After she had over­come her dysen­tery, USIS helped orga­nize numer­ous intro­duc­to­ry teas, din­ners, recep­tions, and read­ings. Often, these gath­er­ings were sep­a­rate for men and women—the larg­er ones main­ly for men only. In the course of her stay, the invi­ta­tions came to include vis­its to sculp­ture exhi­bi­tions, touristy trips to the ancient archi­tec­tur­al splen­dors of Mughal Fort Lahore and the par­a­disi­a­cal Sha­la­mar Gar­dens, as well as to the Nation­al Horse and Cat­tle show. She loved the mushairas—inter­ac­tive poet­ry per­for­mances where Urdu poet­ry was spo­ken or sung—the most. For although Kiz­er did not under­stand the lan­guage, poet­ry, for her, was first and fore­most musi­cal. USIS also arranged her poet­ry read­ings and lec­tures. While she was ini­tial­ly regard­ed with sus­pi­cion, she soon became a source of fas­ci­na­tion. USIS not­ed with sat­is­fac­tion that her read­ing in Lahore attract­ed its largest audi­ence ever. She even won over the head of the Eng­lish depart­ment of a men’s col­lege, “who was known to feel strong­ly that Matthew Arnold was the last great poet of the Eng­lish lan­guage,” but who, after hear­ing her, decid­ed to give a tea in her honor—and asked for more lectures.

Kiz­er spent much ener­gy on her trans­la­tion project. At the time, hard­ly any Pak­istani poet­ry had been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish and, accord­ing to Kiz­er’s chap­er­one, the qual­i­ty of trans­la­tions was almost always lam­en­ta­ble. For access to Urdu poet­ry, Aijaz Ahmad told me in an inter­view, “she relied almost exclu­sive­ly on me.” Kiz­er trav­eled all over the coun­try, delight­ing in the fact that every lit­tle town had its own poet­ry club, Pak­istan being “one of those places where you may be bare­foot and pen­ni­less, but you know a lot of poet­ry and you can recite it by heart.” Because she spoke noth­ing but Eng­lish, it was impos­si­ble for her to pin­point poems wor­thy of trans­la­tion, the more so because most Pak­istani poets rec­om­mend­ed their friends’ work and were offend­ed if Kiz­er met their rivals. They were hap­py that, thanks to Kiz­er, their work was final­ly attract­ing inter­na­tion­al atten­tion, but not suf­fi­cient­ly moti­vat­ed to trans­late them­selves, even though Kiz­er had obtained a grant from the Asia Soci­ety to pay for such contributions. 

Carolyn Kizer and Pakistani poet Khan Abdul Ghani Khan (photo courtesy Marian Janssen).

Car­olyn Kiz­er and Pak­istani poet Khan Abdul Ghani Khan (pho­to cour­tesy Mar­i­an Janssen).

Only a very few poets were admired by almost every­one. One was Pak­istan’s pet show­piece, the inter­na­tion­al­ly famous and for­mi­da­ble Urdu writer Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The peo­ple at USIS were grate­ful when Kiz­er con­tact­ed him and the two became fast friends. Faiz, who spoke Eng­lish, helped her trans­late his work. They were far less pleased, though, when Kiz­er decid­ed to meet anoth­er of Pak­istan’s well-known poets, Khan Abdul Ghani Khan, who wrote in Pash­to. Ghani Khan had spent much of his life in prison (most­ly under British rule) because of his polit­i­cal activism. His gov­ern­ment was silenc­ing him and much of his poet­ry remained unpub­lished at the time. He was obsessed with art and poet­ry and not at all inter­est­ed in lead­ing a trib­al upris­ing; besides, his years in prison, drink and drugs had dam­aged him. Nev­er­the­less, the Amer­i­can embassy, tread­ing very care­ful­ly, feared a diplo­mat­ic inci­dent and refused Kiz­er per­mis­sion to visit. 

Kiz­er did not care and met Ghani Khan secret­ly in the begin­ning of 1965, though not so secret­ly that the con­sul did not find out: fear­ing reper­cus­sions, he was furi­ous with her. Ghani Khan and Kiz­er also became friends and after their meet­ing he wrote her long, some­times para­noid let­ters about his addic­tions, her cow­ard­ly, stu­pid gov­ern­ment, and spine­less Amer­i­cans in gen­er­al. One of his let­ters end­ed on a ray of hope, though: he felt like a poet again, for new poems were “get­ting ready in my bones.”

By that time Kiz­er had her own poet. She had been very lone­ly dur­ing the first few weeks of her stay, for Kiz­er nev­er could func­tion with­out a man. She fell for Aijaz Ahmad, who was movie-star hand­some, well-edu­cat­ed, and an invet­er­ate read­er, almost as soon as she met him. Ahmad was—like many oth­er Pak­istani men—fascinated by Kiz­er. Tall, blonde, and brash, she was the antipode of Pak­istani women. “She is a god­dess!” a poet exclaimed after attend­ing one of her read­ings at a mushaira, “She is mighty!” (quot­ed by Bar­bara Thomp­son, “Car­olyn Kiz­er: The Art of Poet­ry,” Paris Review, Spring 2000.) Kiz­er’s true inter­est in their poet­ry and cul­ture (though prej­u­diced, she was far less hege­mon­ic than most of her fel­low Amer­i­cans) and her rav­ish­ing read­ing in a rich con­tral­to in a coun­try where the oral tra­di­tion was vital endeared her to Pak­istani writ­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly Ahmad. Soon, they had become insep­a­ra­ble, Ahmad trans­port­ing her every­where, usu­al­ly on the back of his scoot­er. Kiz­er need­ed an escort, for it was unwise to go about unchap­er­oned any­where. As it was, she was stared and jeered at, and even beat­en with sticks on her bare legs. 

Ahmad’s and Kiz­er’s rela­tion­ship turned sex­u­al. Theirs seemed like a very unequal alliance, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Pak­istan’s cul­tur­al con­text where women were sub­servient, self-effac­ing, and soft-spoken—everything Kiz­er was not. Few Pak­istani men would have been able to cope with her, yet Ahmad was. (Amer­i­can men also found it dif­fi­cult to deal with Kiz­er’s self-assur­ance and sense of enti­tle­ment, her con­vic­tion that she was more bril­liant than most of them—as indeed she was.) Fur­ther­more, she was taller than he, some­thing most men would have found threat­en­ing to their mas­culin­i­ty. Final­ly, Ahmad was not yet thir­ty, while Kiz­er was in her ear­ly for­ties. Did Kiz­er regard him as a pret­ty boy toy to pass the time with? Ini­tial­ly that may have been the case, but their cor­re­spon­dence after Kiz­er left Pak­istan and Ahmad behind reveals that they devel­oped deep feel­ings for each other.

Carolyn Kizer at home in Lahore (photo courtesy Marian Janssen).

Car­olyn Kiz­er at home in Lahore (pho­to cour­tesy Mar­i­an Janssen).

A few months after her arrival, the Amer­i­can con­sul had decid­ed the house Kiz­er shared with two Ful­bright ladies was sim­ply not good enough for her. He allowed her the use of one of the most lux­u­ri­ous hous­es in all of Lahore. Its pre­vi­ous, high-placed Amer­i­can inhab­i­tant had been found in fla­grante with some­one else’s wife and had there­fore been sent back to Amer­i­ca in shame. Hav­ing a whole house to her­self opened up myr­i­ad pos­si­bil­i­ties for the bur­geon­ing romance between Kiz­er and Ahmad, away from both the pry­ing eyes of her for­mer house­mates and the local and expat com­mu­ni­ties in Lahore. Con­sid­er­ing the cir­cum­stances under which Kiz­er had been assigned her new home, it is prob­a­ble that they kept their rela­tion­ship a secret. USIS would not have been so approv­ing of their first long-term Spe­cial­ist in Lit­er­a­ture, had they known that she was frat­er­niz­ing with a left­ist local poet. Many of Ahmad’s anti-Amer­i­can friends would have looked askance at their liai­son, too. When she returned to Seat­tle, their cor­re­spon­dence was often veiled— Ahmad fear­ing that his gov­ern­ment was spy­ing on him. Nev­er­the­less, his first let­ter end­ed: “[t]here will be noth­ing and nobody in my life whom I may love so much, so ful­ly, with so much ten­der­ness and gratitude—nothing that will make me hap­pi­er or a bet­ter man.” He was sore, though, that Kiz­er had not tak­en the three-month exten­sion, which USIS had urged her to accept. 

In the spring of 1965, in her debrief­ing, Kiz­er explained that she had turned the exten­sion down because of the esca­la­tion of the Viet­nam war, lec­tur­ing State Depart­ment offi­cials on how ruinous their Viet­nam pol­i­cy was. (The head of its Bureau of Edu­ca­tion­al and Cul­tur­al Affairs did not mind: he thought she was “the great­est thing since col­or TV.”) Kiz­er’s offi­cial “Report on Pak­istan” shows that her  half year in her host coun­try  had opened her eyes polit­i­cal­ly. Before, she had not under­stood the anti-Amer­i­can­ism of both Pak­istan’s intel­lec­tu­al left and its gov­ern­ment. All con­demned what they saw as Amer­i­ca’s naivete in sup­port­ing Indi­a’s aggres­sion towards Pak­istan; all con­demned its unco­op­er­a­tive stance in the smol­der­ing Kash­mir con­flict. Amer­i­ca’s impe­ri­al­ist involve­ment in Viet­nam had only aggra­vat­ed those hos­tile sen­ti­ments. Its coca-col­o­niza­tion as well as, con­verse­ly, the “bands of rov­ing Beat­niks and assort­ed intel­lec­tu­al poor white trash … search­ing for thrills from drugs, reli­gious men­di­cants and sex­u­al exotics” fur­ther vio­lat­ed the cus­toms of the host coun­try. (“Report on Pakistan.”)

Dur­ing her stay, how­ev­er, Kiz­er’s opin­ion of Pak­istani women had changed for the worse. In her final report she described them as “extreme­ly dull,” because, she stat­ed, they were under­e­d­u­cat­ed and underexposed—but then, to her, most Amer­i­can house­wives were not wor­thy of atten­tion, either. As she had pre­dict­ed in that first long let­ter home, she now real­ized that it was hard to eval­u­ate the qual­i­ties of Pak­istani cul­ture, because it was in such con­trast to her own. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, then, her advice to the State Depart­ment was to send more long-term spe­cial­ists. Their main task should not be to try and impose Amer­i­can val­ues (stan­dard USIS pol­i­cy), but instead, “to become famil­iar with Pak­istani cul­ture, to sym­pa­thize, to iden­ti­fy, to appre­ci­ate” and (like the Rus­sians, she goad­ed) to give aid in the preser­va­tion of their culture. 

Though some of Kiz­er’s remarks in her fif­teen-page offi­cial report were patron­iz­ing, in all, she was at least as crit­i­cal of her own coun­try. Yet, USIS laud­ed her imag­i­na­tive and prac­ti­cal ideas for cul­tur­al pro­gram­ming. “She per­son­al­ly could reach an audi­ence which is, in gen­er­al, polit­i­cal­ly alien­at­ed from the U.S. at this time,” USIS not­ed. “She is a dynam­ic, stim­u­lat­ing per­son, an extreme­ly out­spo­ken and artic­u­late woman,” they praised. “Being a woman and with­out a knowl­edge of Urdu she would have been sub­merged here with­out some of her force­ful­ness and a mar­velous sense of humor.” They also remarked that her con­tacts were far more mean­ing­ful than those of the usu­al three-day vis­it­ing spe­cial­ists, sur­pris­ing­ly men­tion­ing that her pres­ence had been of par­tic­u­lar encour­age­ment to women writers. 

Kiz­er did not cor­re­spond with, pub­lish, or trans­late Pak­istani women after her return. 

Painting of 1965 Indo-Pak War on the Punjab front by Gp. Cptn. SMA Hussaini (courtesy of the artist).

Paint­ing of 1965 Indo-Pak War on the Pun­jab front by Gp. Cptn. SMA Hus­sai­ni (cour­tesy of the artist).

Back in the U.S.A.

 “When you were here,” Ahmad rem­i­nisced a few weeks after she had left, “we rarely talked of any­thing oth­er than poet­ry, or crit­i­cism of poet­ry. That was main­ly because I want­ed to be wor­thy of what inter­est­ed you.” He hoped she would either return to Pak­istan soon, or that he could come to Amer­i­ca.  From the Kiz­er Col­lec­tion at the Lil­ly Library, it is appar­ent that Kiz­er did her utmost to find a Ful­bright or a posi­tion for Ahmad (“the most bril­liant young man that I met in the course of my stay”), while he was usu­al­ly too depressed to under­take any action him­self, pre­fer­ring that Kiz­er return to Pak­istan. But she had left just in time: the Indo-Pak­istan war of 1965 broke out soon after her depar­ture. Cities were bombed and Amer­i­can women and chil­dren evac­u­at­ed. Fierce­ly patri­ot­ic, in the midst of death and destruc­tion, feel­ing he was writ­ing in a vac­u­um as mail came through only very inter­mit­tent­ly, Ahmad gave up on Kiz­er. He was sure he would nev­er see her again.

Kiz­er, mean­while, increased her cam­paign to have Ahmad come to Amer­i­ca. She even wrote Sen­a­tor Ful­bright per­son­al­ly, empha­siz­ing that the State Depart­ment might be cut out for putting “togeth­er pro­grams for farm­ers and sci­en­tists (watch­ing chick­ens or cyclotrons),” but should not have a say with respect to pro­grams for cul­tur­al appointees. One of her exam­ples was of a reporter from the Pak­istan Times, “who wan­dered lone­ly as a rather dark-com­plex­ioned rain cloud, get­ting him­self turned away from, or thrown out of, South­ern whites-only restau­rants by irate pro­pri­etors.” Obvi­ous­ly, she com­ment­ed, his ordeal made splen­did copy in the Pak­istani anti-Amer­i­can papers, thus entire­ly defeat­ing the pur­pose of the Ful­bright program. 

There are gaps in the—one-sided—correspondence at the Lil­ly Library and I am not sure whether Kiz­er’s per­son­al appeal helped Ahmad gain entry to the Unit­ed States. They were reunit­ed in Novem­ber 1966, about a year and a half after they had last seen each oth­er. By that time, Kiz­er’s career had tak­en off spec­tac­u­lar­ly. Pres­i­dent John­son had cre­at­ed the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts (NEA) and its first direc­tor had made her direc­tor of its lit­er­ary program—with a nepo­tis­tic nudge from Abe For­t­as. Self-styled “cul­tur­al cza­ri­na,” Kiz­er found her­self shad­owed by the FBI. From the hun­dreds of (often par­tial­ly blacked out) pages of the Bureau’s reports it is clear that Kizer—anti Viet­nam, a left-lib­er­al sus­pect­ed of com­mu­nist tendencies—underwent a full field inves­ti­ga­tion. Not only were her col­lege class­mates inter­viewed, but also var­i­ous land­lords, as well as her Seat­tle neigh­bors. One of those com­plained that Kiz­er “had spent a good deal of time dur­ing warmer weath­er sit­ting or work­ing in her front yard scant­i­ly clad” which was “improp­er and illus­trat­ed [her] unsta­ble­ness.” Indeed, not only Kiz­er’s alle­giance to the Unit­ed States, but her career, char­ac­ter, and love-life all under­went seri­ous scruti­ny. FBI’s final, bureau­cratese ver­dict was affir­ma­tive, how­ev­er: “She is con­sid­ered loy­al to Unit­ed States although non-con­formist.” Con­fi­dent of a pos­i­tive out­come, and eager as always to flee from Seat­tle, Kiz­er had already moved mid-term to Wash­ing­ton D.C. with her two younger chil­dren, Scott and Jill. Ahmad joined them there and came to live in her base­ment apartment.

Kiz­er had nev­er made a secret of the fact that she had lovers—her teenage daugh­ter Ash­ley was her con­fi­dante, some­times even wingwoman—but Scott and Jill did not seem to real­ize that the rela­tion­ship between their moth­er and Ahmad was more than that of men­tor and mentee, lessor and lessee. Kiz­er intro­duced him every­where, tak­ing him to par­ties where they hob­nobbed with Wash­ing­ton lumi­nar­ies such as Bob­by and Ted­dy Kennedy (accord­ing to Kiz­er “a fer­ret” and “gor­geous,” respec­tive­ly), but also, often, with Wash­ing­ton’s “col­ored” estab­lish­ment. Ahmad nev­er held back his impas­sioned polit­i­cal views. When, at a din­ner par­ty, promi­nent black jour­nal­ist Chuck Stone, decry­ing the con­tin­u­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion of Blacks and won­der­ing where peo­ple of col­or were ever “going to get the TROOPS to fight the Whites,” Ahmad answered: “Asia, of course, bud­dy. We have plen­ty of dark Asians who will fight on your side.” Kiz­er observed that she was glad he was not talk­ing with activist Rap Brown (now Jamil Abdul­lah Al-Amin, impris­oned for mur­der), oth­er­wise the two of them would have marched on George­town right then and there. 

Their polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences were small, how­ev­er, Kiz­er being just slight­ly less vocal than Ahmad. For though she was now work­ing for the John­son admin­is­tra­tion, she remained out­spo­ken in her oppo­si­tion to his war in Viet­nam. But in Amer­i­ca the con­trasts between their two utter­ly dif­fer­ent cul­tures were mag­ni­fied. Depen­dent on queen bee Kiz­er, in her coun­try, in her social cir­cle, Ahmad, a landown­er used to being served, accus­tomed to def­er­ence, was humil­i­at­ed. Liv­ing in her base­ment did not help. Kiz­er prid­ed her­self on giv­ing him a foot­ing among the intel­li­gentsia, on sup­ply­ing him with books, paint­ings, and even clothes. She stamped him all over with her Amer­i­can way of life. Her well-inten­tioned gen­eros­i­ty (if with a pater­nal­is­tic whiff), proved too much for his sense of self-worth. For some two years, though, they man­aged to make both worlds meet. They worked togeth­er on trans­lat­ing Urdu poet­ry, intro­duc­ing its now so beloved ghaz­al to Amer­i­ca. “If I Were Cer­tain,” one of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s ghaz­als which they had (freely) trans­lat­ed togeth­er was par­tic­u­lar­ly per­ti­nent. It ends:

No song of mine can be a panacea
For suf­fer­ing, though it may soothe your grief. 

My song is not a lancet but a salve
Touch­ing the famous sor­rows of your life. 

Only a knife can end your agony,
Killing, redeem­ing. I can­not ful­fill you.

Nor any breath­ing being on this earth
Except your­self, except your­self, except yourself.

The Nation, Novem­ber 4, 1968 

Com­ing to Amer­i­ca: The Ghazal 

Kizer at home in Lahore, Pakistan, 1965 (photo courtesy Marian Janssen).

Kiz­er at home in Lahore, Pak­istan, 1965 (pho­to cour­tesy Mar­i­an Janssen).

As ear­ly as March 1965, Kiz­er had writ­ten poet Hay­den Car­ruth that she was work­ing on ghaz­als with help from native trans­la­tors. She was enchant­ed by the ghaz­a­l’s for­mal restric­tions, espe­cial­ly the sec­ond line, which “always ends with the same word, usu­al­ly with the same phrase; and some­times the whole line is repeat­ed, prefer­ably with the same slight twist which you give a repeat­ed line in a vil­lanelle. The fun comes in decid­ing on the refrain line” (Car­olyn Kiz­er to Hay­den Car­ruth, March 12, 1965. Hay­den Car­ruth Papers, Uni­ver­si­ty of Ver­mont). She also was busy work­ing on her spe­cial Poet­ry North­west issue on Pak­istan. In the end, she pub­lished an inter­na­tion­al issue with poems by three Pak­istani poets—Zulfikar Ghose, Shahid Hosain, and Salim-Ur-Rahman—squeezed in between trans­la­tions and impres­sions from Chi­nese and Japan­ese poet­ry. In her con­trib­u­tor’s notes, Kiz­er list­ed opti­misti­cal­ly that Sal­im-Ur-Rah­man was “indus­tri­ous­ly and elo­quent­ly trans­lat­ing con­tem­po­rary Urdu poet­ry into Eng­lish for a spe­cial issue of this mag­a­zine” (Poet­ry North­west, 1965–1966, Vol 6,4 p. 48). That was not to be, because Sal­im-Ur-Rah­man, bat­tered by the war, had become not only vio­lent­ly anti-India, but also anti-America—and anti-Kiz­er: “It is this mass-killing [in Kash­mir] which nev­er gets report­ed in Amer­i­can Press. You don’t care, do you?” he scold­ed in Novem­ber 1965. He now was against the idea of a spe­cial issue, think­ing this a step down from a gen­er­al one. A few months lat­er, in Feb­ru­ary, he was no longer in the mood for trans­lat­ing, either, hav­ing come to regard it as “trou­ble­some and unre­ward­ing work. No offense intend­ed.” In the end, the East-West mag­a­zine for the Asia Soci­ety also failed to materialize.

 In Jan­u­ary 1968, Ahmad and Kiz­er did per­form togeth­er on a pro­gram for the Asia Soci­ety, “when he and I will read Urdu poet­ry and his and my trans­la­tions of same. All sorts of promi­nent peo­ple have been invit­ed, so I am anx­ious that we be a suc­cess.” (To Ben­jamin Kiz­er, Jan­u­ary 19, 1968. Lil­ly.) Indeed, Kiz­er had not only writ­ten to numer­ous peo­ple on Ahmad’s behalf, try­ing to find him a grad­u­ate pro­gram, a teach­ing assist­ant­ship, or a job as a trans­la­tor, but had also intro­duced him to her enor­mous net­work of lit­er­ary friends. Ahmad’s bril­liance, dri­ve, and his love for his native poet­ry res­onat­ed with a num­ber of poets—among them William Stafford, already estab­lished and, on the brink of fame, William Mer­win and Adri­enne Rich. He con­vinced them to write ver­sions of Ghal­ib’s time­less ghaz­als for the cen­ten­ni­al of his death. Fol­low­ing the method Kiz­er and he had worked out togeth­er, Ahmad trans­lat­ed and anno­tat­ed the ghaz­als, and the Amer­i­can poets then wrote their free “trans­mis­sions.” The ghaz­als’ music, lan­guage of loss and love, their oth­er­ness, and abstract mul­ti­va­lence rang fresh with poets and a read­ing pub­lic that, at the begin­ning of the hip 1970s, were look­ing for an escape from lit­er­ary mod­ernism and cul­tur­al-polit­i­cal iso­la­tion­ism. Ahmad’s Ghaz­als of Ghal­ib (Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1971) is now gen­er­al­ly regard­ed as hav­ing intro­duced ghaz­als to Amer­i­ca, where they almost imme­di­ate­ly became embed­ded in its lit­er­ary tradition. 

The glar­ing omis­sion in this col­lec­tion is Kizer. 

Carolyn Kizer's  Harping On , collected poems from 1985-1995, is available from  Copper Canyon Press , as are several other of her titles.

Car­olyn Kiz­er’s Harp­ing On, col­lect­ed poems from 1985–1995, is avail­able from Cop­per Canyon Press, as are sev­er­al oth­er of her titles.

Oppo­sites attract and after their reunion Ahmad had even men­tioned mat­ri­mo­ny. How­ev­er, after her first, prison-like mar­riage, Kiz­er cher­ished her free­dom; besides she thought Ahmad deserved start­ing a family—and she was not will­ing to bur­den her­self with more chil­dren. Clash­ing cul­tures, con­trast­ing views of the roles of women and men, in com­bi­na­tion with their proud, fiery char­ac­ters became a recipe for dis­as­ter. They broke up at the end of 1968. In her vit­ri­olic farewell let­ter, Kiz­er men­tioned their sex­u­al incompatibility—managing to emas­cu­late him, Ahmad must have felt, by telling him that she had been total­ly frus­trat­ed. Kiz­er was embit­tered that Ahmad had trad­ed her for Adri­enne Rich, only a few years younger than her and a sim­i­lar­ly unfit can­di­date to have chil­dren with. Kiz­er her­self was two-tim­ing him, too, though, with an Aus­tri­an-Aus­tralian opera singer and pro­duc­er, who had the advan­tage of being mar­ried and liv­ing abroad. Ahmad, for all his attrac­tive oth­er­ness, was part of her dai­ly life, and there­fore just too close. Rec­og­niz­ing that Kiz­er had tried to pave the way for him in Amer­i­ca, and still car­ing for her, Ahmad tru­ly hoped to remain friends, but Kiz­er excised him from her life. 

Kiz­er’s love for Urdu poet­ry and the ghaz­al remained stead­fast. While most Amer­i­can poets were fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of those pub­lished in Ahmad’s col­lec­tion and played with the ghaz­a­l’s rules, Kiz­er adhered to its orig­i­nal con­ven­tions. Kash­miri Amer­i­can Mus­lim poet Agha Shahid Ali con­sid­ered the free verse ghaz­al a con­tra­dic­tion in terms. In Sep­tem­ber 1996, he implored Kiz­er to write a real ghaz­al, as she was “some­one who knows forms intu­itive­ly.” “Let’s—please—put this thing called ghaz­al, float­ing from so many Amer­i­can month­lies to quar­ter­lies, in its prop­er place, for it is noth­ing of the kind,” he start­ed his “Trans­par­ent­ly Invis­i­ble: An Invi­ta­tion from the Real Ghaz­al.” “When I com­plained to Car­olyn Kiz­er (as a trans­la­tor of Faiz Ahmad Faiz she knows the real thing) that the Amer­i­cans have got the ghaz­al quite wrong, she, in extrav­a­gant despair, respond­ed: ‘Have they ever’ ” (Poet­ry Pilot, Win­ter 1995–1996, p. 34). 

Kiz­er had trans­lat­ed real ghaz­als such as “Among the Trees” by Nazir Kaz­mi  with Sal­im-Ur ‑Rah­man:

 Yel­low and white and red and blue and green—
No end to col­or there among the trees. 

The sad and lovelorn princess of per­fumes,
I appre­hend­ed her last night among the trees. 

For an inter­val, so bril­liant were her eyes
There was a kind of glow among the trees. 

The path of lights ran straight, then sud­den­ly
For some dark rea­son, swerved into the trees. 

The denizens of the gar­den were amazed
Last night: There was a man among the trees.

            Car­bon copy, Kiz­er col­lec­tion, cour­tesy Lil­ly Library 

Ali’s anthol­o­gy Rav­ish­ing Dis­Uni­ties: Real Ghaz­als in Eng­lish (2000) caused anoth­er explo­sion of inter­est in this verse form. Iron­i­cal­ly, Kiz­er nev­er con­tributed to this daz­zling array of over a hun­dred poets writ­ing real ghaz­als either. It is under­stand­able, there­fore, that her indi­rect but sub­stan­tial role in bring­ing the ghaz­al to Amer­i­ca has been forgotten. 


Poets in Pakistan

Kiz­er’s affair with Aijaz Ahmad can be seen as emblem­at­ic of her rela­tion­ship with his home coun­try. If as an Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment emis­sary in Pak­istan, she had been much more appre­cia­tive of its cul­ture than most gov­ern­ment offi­cials, in the end, she favored her own. But where­as she fell out of love with every­day Ahmad, she con­tin­ued to roman­ti­cize far­away Pak­istan. She had end­ed her report in 1965: “And I know I’ll go back to Pak­istan one day, with or with­out help from Uncle, to see my friends, Pak­istani and Amer­i­can, and that crazy mixed-up coun­try that I pity, deplore, and love.” 

In the fall of 1969, Uncle Sam asked her to attend a con­fer­ence in Pak­istan. Kiz­er accept­ed glad­ly: “I was a Lahore-wal­lah, and this feels more like com­ing home than it would to, say, Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, where I spent fif­teen years of my life feel­ing like a tran­sient,” she not­ed in “Pak­istan Jour­nal,” pub­lished in her col­lec­tion of trans­la­tions, Car­ry­ing Over (1988). “I lived there just long enough to know how lit­tle I knew,” she now admit­ted. Her jour­nal anonymized most of her sources and friends, to pro­tect them in a coun­try that had become even more anti-Amer­i­can than four years ear­li­er. Ghani Khan, already hound­ed, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, too famous, per­haps to suf­fer pros­e­cu­tion, were excep­tions. With Faiz she sat at the hotel bar, drink­ing gin and going over trans­la­tions. When her fel­low-con­fer­ence­go­ers looked for her, the hotel staff refused to tell them her where­abouts. “They damn well weren’t going to inter­rupt us. They know how to treat poets in this country.”

ghazalNEAPakistanpoetry and literature

Marian Janssen received her PhD cum laude from Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Her first book was The Kenyon Review (1939-1970): A Critical History. She received a post-doctoral fellowship for a biography of the poet Isabella Gardner. When she became full-time head of Radboud University’s International Office, her research was relegated to a backburner. After giving a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Marian was asked when she was going to finish her planned biography. When Marian said that writing a biography and her current position did not mix, she was offered, on the spot, a grant for a year’s sabbatical. This led to her Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner (2010).  She is now at work on a biography of the flamboyant American poet Carolyn Kizer.


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