The Japan and India Journals 1960-1964 is a minor classic. It is also one of the finest books ever in the genre of "journal writing." It is - in part - in the tradition of Lady Nijo's Diary, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, Basho's Oku no Hosomichi. In spite of the resemblance to these culturally distinct Japanese texts and although written primarily in Kyoto, the Journals is an uniquely contemporary American product. It is rhizomatic in structure, multi-directional. The writer agonizes over the need to "share parts of my life with the other parts - each clump wants to act independently and ignore the existence of anything else." The Journals weaves these disparate alluring "selves" together in a stunning tapestry. Irony abounds. Kyger is "self" conscious enough to laugh at herself. She never stoops to sentimentalizing, never drifts into writing-as-therapy, as so much current "journaling" (hideous word) does. Yet the writing of these pages is her salvation.
The Journals reads like a novel. It has the gait of a love story. A heartbreaking love story set in an exotic Kyoto still somewhat steeped in the past. A Surprisingly (surreptitiously) feminist tract as well: woman artist struggles for identity and independence. Likewise a poetics meditation. Poetry fragments tumble in and out of the narrative, as do canny dreams. It is a spiritual account as one of the poet's selves struggles with the axiomatic truths of Buddhism and her own difficulty to sit still. The Journals has a wide enough compass to include quotidian accounts of food and drink, wild socializing, lists of birthday presents. It is a study of ritual domesticity, of local plant lore, of flower-arranging, of relationships with Americans abroad as well as Japanese friends and dignitaries within the Japanese Zen community. It names people and things, clearly, precisely. It is myriad stories within the Story of poet Joanne Kyger's life of four years, caught yet energized by a temperamental marriage to the already celebrated poet Gary Snyder. Kyger, our brave and elegant heroine-raconteur, must make and have her own way within the dynamics and constraints of marriage to a famous "Zen student" in an alien culture. She stands tall in her "much reheeled black suede shoes." Yet at its core, the book is essentially about being a writer. "Why write. I want to write the world upsidedown."
Where does Kyger, poet, fit? Then and now, one might ask. Twenty-six years old when the Journals opens, she has already been at the center of a literary life in San Francisco, been close to Robert Duncan, and one of the young writers included in Jack Spicer's exacting gnostic circle. She is bosom pal to Philip Whalen. She fits awkwardly alongside the confessionalism and publicized indulgences of The Beats. In the highly competitive gossipy community around The Place, a bar in North Beach, she is known as "Miss Kids." Her poetic alignments are with myth with memory with dream. There's a distinctly feminine strength and humility both to the tone and the look of her poems on the page. She already has a singular style in the grace of her line and breath, and she is a master of arrangement. She follows mind's restless patternings. She has yet to publish her first book of poems, The Tapestry and The Web, hints and murmurs of which resonate through the poetry and thinking of the Journals. Her writing is not at all like the hipness and frankness of Diane Di Prima's, her nearest female contemporary. When the Journals moves to India, Kyger is horrified by Allen Ginsberg's ego as perceived first hand (he wants to read Howl to everyone he meets, including the Dalai Lama). These India travels provide the source of her campiest wit as she writes to her friend Nemi Frost in a <a href="http://www.epc.edu/authors/kyger/japan.html">letter</a>
that has been famously quoted from the book: "The thing is, I am sounding rather bitter because its been years since I've been able to get any wild martini attention. All I do is stand around in this black drip dry dress in India." Joanne Kyger the Writer forms both a public and a private identity here. Taking the measure of her male poet-companions, she is most definitively in a different "space." Perhaps the initial publication of this book in 1981 and the enthusiastic response to it gave Kyger permission to write her own poetry in a way that was closer to this original looseness and bravado.
Joanne Kyger is commonly linked to both the San Francisco Renaissance through her association to Duncan and Spicer, and the Beat literary movement through her marriage and friendships, yet never seems to get her due on either front. She shares with the Beats their proverbial wanderlust - mental, psychological, spiritual. Her politics are environmental. She locates the world in tangibles. She is very much a poet of place. Through friendships in the late 60s and early 70s with Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Bill Berkson and others, she also shares an affinity with the New York School. She has been a major figure in the Bolinas literary renaissance. Yet she remains in a category of her own design and making. Absent from many of the current anthologies of contemporary poets, Kyger's work also suffers from being outside the ken of the critical attention given Language-centered writing. I would argue that it is now time for her work to be given the close reading it deserves. She has been an active, consistently engaged, engaging poet for over forty years. Her public readings are legendary. She is a brilliant and generous teacher. May the re-publication of the Journals spark some serious consideration of her life and work.
Her story reminds us that in the 1960s there was still the bohemian possibility of a serious writer living on very little money. That was before "experimental" poetry became an academic pursuit and was funded primarily by grants and university positions. Those years also were a time when poets seemed deeply immersed in non-Western spiritual traditions and to looked Asia instead of Europe to expand their sensibilities.
The Japan and India Journals has an honorable place in the annals of the New American Poetry. It is one of the most salient and valuable documents of a writer's life and mind, written during a decisive and exciting time for American poetry. The perspicacity, honesty, struggles and charms of its heroine survive in its pages. It is a happy occasion that this marvelous book finally be brought back into print.
The Jack Kerouac School
Boulder, Colorado 1/1/2000