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/ lulled/ by the swish and wallow of saucepans.”

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“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 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 re-imagined Homer’s epic as a tale “about men and women, not men and men,” as she wrote in a postscript.

“She would take the old patriarchical myths and tear them apart and remake them,” 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 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 playwright Harold Pinter. Her other siblings include historian Thomas Pakenham, novelist Rachel Billington, and diplomat Michael Pakenham. Another sister, Catherine, a magazine writer, died at 23 in a car crash in 1969. A godson of their parents was journalist and novelist Auberon Waugh.

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

“She was a lifelong socialist,” Roberts said.