Joanne Kyger, Poet of Beat Generation, SF Renaissance, Dies at 82

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Poet Joanne Kyger (Photo: Courtesy of City Lights Books)

One of the Bay Area’s leading poets, Joanne Kyger, died this week at the age of 82.

Kyger, who died at her Bolinas home, was among the last surviving poets from the beat era. She was also a prominent member of the San Francisco Renaissance.

“She was one of the few women to be able to achieve prominence in what was a very male dominated group of writers,” said Garrett Caples, Kyger’s editor at City Lights Books. which published its most recent collection of Kyger’s poetry in 2014. “That may be why recognition came a little later to Joanne than her male colleagues.”

Kyger was deeply influenced in her early writings by Bay Area poets Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and members of the San Francisco Renaissance. She was briefly married to beat writer Gary Snyder.


Kyger published more than 20 collections of poetry, including The Tapestry and the Web (1965), All This Every Day (1975), The Wonderful Focus of You (1979), As Ever: Selected Poems (2002), and About Now: Collected Poems (2007).

“We have lost one of the major poets of this country. Joanne is not just a good regional poet, even though she is embraced by the West Coast, she is an international poet,” Michael Rothenberg said in a phone interview. Rothenberg was a close friend of Kyger's and edited As Ever.

Rothenberg said Kyger has two new books coming out later this year, a new collection of selected poems, and the reissue of Strange Big Moon: Japan and India Journals 1960-1964.

Rothenberg said she always told other poets in need of inspiration to keep a daily record of their thoughts in a journal, and he said Kyger kept them throughout her career.

“She worked out of journals. That was a key in terms of her composition style. It was kind of a meditation,” he said.

“She was very much a poet of daily life and of nature,” Caples said. “And she used those as a vehicle to get in touch with more metaphysical questions."

Caples said there’s no replacing Kyger in American literature. “The place of poetry has shifted so much in our culture versus when the beats were in their heyday,” he said. “So she’s the last in the group of poets thought of as not simply as poets but also commentators on world affairs.”

Here’s a poem from Kyger’s collection About Now: Collected Poems (2007):

"The Crystal in Tamalpais"

In Tamalpais is a big crystal. An acquaintance told
me the story. A Miwok was giving his grandfather’s medicine
bag to the Kroeber Museum in Berkeley. He said this man
took him over the mountain Tamalpais, at a certain time
in the year. I believe it was about the time of the
Winter Solstice, because then the tides are really low.
They stopped and gathered a certain plant on the way over
the mountain. On their way to the Bolinas Beach clam patch,
where there is a big rock way out there.

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 it will fly off
and strike you in the heart
and strike you dead.

And that’s the first story I ever heard about Bolinas.