Judith Kazantzis, British Feminist Poet and Activist, Dies at 78

LONDON — Before she found her voice as a feminist poet, Judith Kazantzis, who grew up in one of Britain’s most prominent literary families, began writing as an escape from the humdrum life of a housewife.

“Trapped” was one way she described it, in her early poem “Home.”

Another poem, “One a.m., November,” published in 1977, evoked a kind of domestic isolation:

the vibrant, experienced dishwasher

drums in the night

the cat bunches on the very edge of the ping-pong table


by the swish and wallow of saucepans

“I began to write to remedy the despair of a young housebound mother,” she wrote in an author statement submitted to the British Council, an organization that promotes culture abroad.

In a career that spanned nearly four decades, Ms. Kazantzis, who died on Sept. 18 at 78, published 12 collections of poetry, numerous essays and a novel, “Of Love and Terror,” published in 2002.

Her writing explored themes like the power relations between men and women and the abuses of power against the weak, and when it was first published in the 1970s, it resonated with an emerging new feminism — one that was giving a platform to women to express their repressed anger toward patriarchy, find a place in the literary establishment and, perhaps more important, connect with one another.

In their book “A History of Twentieth-Century British Women’s Poetry,” Jane Dowson and Alice Entwistle wrote that in her 1980 poem “The Long-Haired Woman,” Ms. Kazantzis observed how women use “a kind of underground communication system which defiantly uses public places and channels to cut through the isolation of female life, allowing women surreptitiously to ‘move out of place’ both as individuals and in concert.”

It is a kind of network, they wrote, that Ms. Kazantzis described in these lines:

listening from woman to woman

from house to pub to flat to cafe to house

on the phone

to the next woman

Ms. Kazantzis wrote in free verse, her language intelligent but not didactic, powerful but not polemic. It could be witty, with traces of sarcasm. She portrayed women as complex, to correct literature’s pigeonholing them in one-dimensional characterizations as goddess or villain.

For example, in her volume “The Odysseus Poems” (1999), she reimagined Homer’s epic as a tale “about men and women, not men and men,” as she wrote in a postscript. In her poem “Queen Clytemnestra,” which was included in her collection “The Wicked Queen” (1980), the vengeful wife of Agamemnon was presented “not as a crazy bitch, but as a human being with strong passions and good reasons,” the poet and novelist Michèle Roberts wrote in an obituary in The Guardian in October.

“She would take the old patriarchical myths and tear them apart and remake them,” Ms. Roberts, a friend of Ms. Kazantzis’, said in a telephone interview.

She added, “Her writing always felt like something new.”

Ms. Kazantzis also wrote about motherhood, love and aging, as she did in 2004 in “The Mary Stanford Disaster,” about the loss of much of a fishing village’s male population in 1928 when a lifeboat carrying 17 men capsized:

This is the story I tried to tell you in August

and failed, that difficult white week

when the children splashed and swam

in the mouth of the Rother, in the harbour,

and I struggled down too, a lame mermaid,

and overweight, but the only grown woman

to take on the no of the quick strong current.

Judith Elizabeth Pakenham was born on Aug. 14, 1940, in Oxford, England, and grew up in Sussex. She was the fourth child of Elizabeth (Harman) Pakenham, a historian and biographer who wrote as Elizabeth Longford, and Frank Pakenham, a Labour politician and eventually a peer as the 7th Earl of Longford.

Her parents became Lord and Lady Longford in 1961, and in England the family became known as the “literary Longfords.”

Judith’s oldest sister is Antonia Fraser, the biographer and novelist and widow of the playwright Harold Pinter. Her other siblings include the historian Thomas Pakenham, the novelist Rachel Billington and the diplomat Michael Pakenham. Another sister, Catherine, a magazine writer, died at 23 in a car crash in 1969. A godson of their parents was the journalist and novelist Auberon Waugh.

“All the children turned out clever,” her mother was quoted as saying in The New York Times Magazine in 1984.

Ms. Kazantzis refused to use her hereditary title of lady.

“She was a lifelong socialist,” Ms. Roberts said, adding, “I think she didn’t think it was right to use any sort of class privilege.”

Ms. Kazantzis studied history at Somerville College, at the University of Oxford, and married Alec Kazantzis, a maritime lawyer and son of Greek immigrants, in 1963; the marriage ended in divorce in 1982. (He died in 2014.)

Sixteen years later she married Irving Weinman, an American lawyer and writer who died in 2015. She is survived by two children from her first marriage, Miranda and Arthur; and her four siblings.

Her death was confirmed by Andy Croft, who runs Smokestack Books, the publisher of “Sister Intervention” (2014), Ms. Kazantzis’ last collection of poetry. He did not specify the cause or where she died.

Ms. Kazantzis turned to political activism later in her writing career. She, Mr. Weinman, who was Jewish, and the writer Naomi Foyle founded an organization called British Writers in Support of Palestine.

She said her activism was fueled in part by her opposition to the conservative policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and in part by frequent trips to the United States, where she was introduced to “new politics and new landscapes,” she once said.

Those political leanings were expressed in her poems. She wrote, for example, about the experience of women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in “In Memory, 1978,” and about the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans in the 1980s in “A Poem for Guatemala” (1988).

Later in life Ms. Kazantzis described herself as a “gadfly poet against injustice.”

“Often obliquely, by myth satirically retold,” she explained, or more intimately through “my own dreams and sorrows.”

Follow Iliana Magra on Twitter: @magraki.

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