Feature > Memoir
Donald Keene

Donald Keene

Donald Keene is a Japanologist, scholar, teacher, writer, translator and interpreter of Japanese literature and culture. Keene was University Professor Emeritus and Shincho Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University, where he taught for over fifty years. He lives in Japan.

Carolyn Kizer

I first "met" Carolyn Kizer in 1943. At the time I was stationed in Hawaii where, as a member of the Joint Intelligence Center, my job was to translate captured Japanese documents. I shared a house in Honolulu with five or six other junior naval officers. I rarely saw magazines, except for Time which I hated, but I happened to see an issue of The New Yorker. I was so struck by a poem about wartime separations that I wrote a letter to the poet, Carolyn Kizer. I did not know this, but she was still under twenty, a student at Sarah Lawrence College. She answered my letter, and revealed, an unbelievable coincidence, that she knew and seemed to be in love with one of the other officers in my house. For some reason, he did not answer her letters, and for a time I served as a postman who delivered letters that she enclosed.

We continued to correspond, with increasing friendliness, until 1946 when I was released from the Navy and returned as a civilian to New York. I got in touch with Carolyn soon afterwards. She was living with her mother in a Greenwich Village apartment. I was dazzled by both of them—by Carolyn's beauty and wit and by her mother's strong, vital expression of her opinions. Their conversation was not like anything I had experienced during the war or, for that matter, before then.

I have a vivid set of remembrances of that period, even to the name of the owner of the apartment in which Carolyn and her mother lived, but I have no recollection of the sequence of major events. I don't remember, for example, when Carolyn's father was sent to China with a relief mission or whether Carolyn studied Chinese at Columbia in anticipation of joining her father. Her Chinese never became fluent enough to translate a Chinese poem unaided, but she had a feeling for the poetry and a gift of English expression that made her translations stand out. I don't think she learned any foreign language, but she could sense in the literal translations of other people the potential truths, waiting to be turned into appropriate English.

She subsequently joined her father, but I forget how long she remained in China. In the meantime, I spent a year as a graduate student at Harvard, followed by five years in England at Cambridge. We continued to write regularly. I don't think I threw away a single letter or postcard that she sent, but at some point, when I changed residence in New York, I left the letters in a friend's house and they are presumably there.

Carolyn never failed to send me her books, and it was through her poetry that I felt I knew her. I recall being inspired by her poems to write one about my lonely life in England, where sometimes I did not speak to anyone for a whole week. I sent her the poem, and she responded with something like, "I'm glad you got that off your chest." She was right; it was a terrible poem and I never wrote another.

As I recall, but perhaps quite mistakenly, when I got back to New York, I learned that she was to marry Stimson Bullitt. I remember the lunch we had at their hotel, the Lafayette, an old, wooden building on Fifth Avenue about 10th Street, long since demolished. I remember that when Stim went out to get a newspaper, the only one available was the Daily Worker. This is typical of my memories of the small rather than the big.

Scattered memories do not suggest that I thought of Carolyn often as a friend I could count on. On several occasions I asked her to do what I could not ask of anyone else. For example, when a student of mine attempted suicide, I asked Carolyn to look after her, and she did so, taking the girl into her family and preserving her life.

It was not only on unhappy occasions that I turned to her. When the Bunraku troupe came to Seattle, I asked her to give a party for some of the members. It proved to be a memorable event for everyone, especially the performers, who otherwise would not have had the chance to enter an American house.

Carolyn's reputation as a poet continued to grow. I suppose the high point was winning the Pulitzer Prize, but the tributes for her poetry from other poets and from critics were strong and sincere. At a time when literature by women was first being considered seriously by men, she was a valiant fighter. Her fame extended even to portrayal on baseball cards (I forget what they are called). Her lectures in the universities where she taught and through the country were always excellent and she had disciples everywhere. I remember particularly one lecture (sermon?) on water, a typically unusual subject, given at St. John the Divine in New York, but her readings of her poetry were equally effective.

Probably at her suggestion, we began about thirty years ago to send each other ugly postcards. She had the advantage of giving lectures in places like West Virginia or North Dakota where unintentionally ugly postcards abound; but she managed to find ugly postcards even in Paris.

We shared a love of music. I remember especially with my quirky memory a concert in Carnegie Hall conducted by Leonard Bernstein. We had obtained seats close to the conductor by pretending to be hard of hearing, and we could see his every expression as he conducted. At a certain point Carolyn had all she could take of his emoting and removed her glasses. Or, on a much earlier occasion, I was wearing a hat, as young men did in those days. Before the concert began I removed my hat and placed it under my seat. Carolyn, hating the hat, trampled it to death. I never again wore a hat, and was glad she had made the decision for me.

The postcards reveal many otherwise forgotten moments in our long friendship. Perhaps some day a biographer will put together the little pieces of information they provide and make a rounded portrayal of an unforgettable person, but I am too reticent by nature to attempt one. I have become something Carolyn could never be—a boring rememberer of the past.