November 23, 2011
‘The name is Joanne Kyger, yes, with a “y.” As in “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright.” She was with the Beats. And she knew some Japanese — she’d learned it when she went to Kyoto with her husband to study Zen Buddhism.”
I was having lunch at the Thomson House, the graduate student union at McGill University (a magnificent building on a very steep hill). The seven of us were going around the table, talking about our projects. Klara du Plessis was the first to go: she was clearly psyched, and clearly wanted her topic to be engraved on our minds, but she was taking her time, holding back that crucial bit of information for as long as possible.
In fact I had never heard of Joanne Kyger. Yet I had done considerable work on Gary Synder, had read many of the poems and essays he wrote while studying at the Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. She was there with him. And the two of them joined Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky on their trip to India in 1962, meeting with the Dalai Lama. It’s not as if the marriage was a secret – the Wikipedia entry on Snyder has quite a detailed reference to Kyger — but somehow her name and her twenty volumes of poetry and prose don’t seem to be part of the record when we think about the Beats.
Some of Kyger’s poems are now available online at the Poetry Foundation, and ten unpublished ones are on the Michael McClure/ Ray Manzarek website (http://www.mcclure-manzarek.com/kyger.html). I can’t say I prefer these poems to Synder’s, but they are stranger than his. Kyger’s “The Pigs for Circe at May” interweaves a camping trip at Yosemite with the old story of Circe and Odysseus, a story about shifting boundaries, about humans turning easily into beasts, and not always bitter about it either. Is there some Zen Buddhism in there? Probably, but only a small dose of it, enough to update Homer’s epic, turning it into a twentieth-century American story.