In an interview published in the early 1980’s, Marilyn Hacker defined her stance as a feminist poet: “We are reclaiming the idea that a poet is speaking to and for other people. . . . It doesn’t assume a stance of isolation and defeat. It comes from the necessity for communication and reclamation.” In this self-definition, Hacker identifies some of the strongest features of her poetic work. From her earliest volume her commitment to freshness and originality in language distinguishes her. While the reader is always close to the specific and ordinary details of the life of a mid-twentieth century woman—the dark blue coffee mug, the horrors of transatlantic flights, and the struggles of rearing a daughter in New York City—this closeness to the everyday is never banal or prosaic. Things as usual as eating, arranging meetings, and the loss of a lover are refined and elevated by Hacker’s remarkable technical and verbal skills.
In the interview cited above, Hacker observes thatany writing is composed of words. If we use the words that we have received, we will be talking about the same old things. . . . The subject may be new, revolutionary, but if it’s the same old language, it’s the same old language.
At the heart of Hacker’s work is the presentation of an intimately revolutionary life in a style that matches its subject matter in freshness. While she stresses innovation and reform in her view of society, and in particular the situation of women in that society, she nevertheless belongs to a poetic tradition that reaches back through W. H. Auden, James Wright, and Adrienne Rich to nineteenth century poets such as George Meredith, Robert Browning, and George Gordon, Lord Byron, and finally to troubadour and even earlier classical poetic forms and styles. Hacker’s work affirms and reinforces the traditional poetic heritage and uses it as an instrument to call for political and personal redefinition. Her learning and political seriousness are nevertheless worn with a joyous, wry, and self-mocking air that honors the reader’s intelligence.
Taken as a whole, Hacker’s books of poetry are an optimistic and richly comic version of a troubled and often doctrinaire period in American literary history. She takes strong and deeply felt positions as a feminist, a lesbian, and a formalist. Yet it is as if the very intensity of her commitment leads her to embrace the comic rather than the tragic vision, to cherish the possibility of a private life: “Life’s not forever, love is precarious./ Wherever I live, let me come home to you/ as you are, I as I am, where you/ meet me and walk with me to the river.” Having acknowledged that, one should not forget that virtually her first public act upon becoming editor of the Kenyon Review was to refuse a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts because of the threat of censorship from that organization.
Presentation Piece is exactly that, an introduction of a poet with a distinct voice and a defined intellectual and emotional stance. The presentation is both formal and intimate: “We are creatures of structure,” she writes; yet this is a structure that is far from singular. For Hacker, there is a diverse multitude of possible and intertwined structures. There are structures of language, culture, love, food, politics, nature, sexuality, and, perhaps above all, poetry: Hacker exploits the opportunity for freedom she gains by living fully in as many of these structures as possible.
The tongue comes to represent some of Hacker’s most urgent concerns and most meaningful structures. The tongue is the organ of speech; it can stand for language itself (as in when one speaks of one’s “mother tongue” or one’s “native tongue”); it is the means by which one is able to “taste” food; and, finally, it is an element in erotic play. Each of the significations of the tongue plays a crucial part in Hacker’s vision of the world, and it appears throughout her work. The first poem in the first volume (“Presentation Piece”) establishes this motif: “Meet me tonight under your tongue./ There is no easy way up. Bite/ on your lip. . . . Let me live in your mouth.”
The mood of Presentation Piece is defiant. Images of the mouth and tongue and tasting are vehement, even violent: “In an affluent society/ cannibalism/ is a sexual predilection.” Language too, that most central structure, becomes problematic. While she can say on the one hand that “it is a privilege to learn a language/ a journey into the immediate/ morning. . . . the place of human wonder in a structure,” she must, on the other hand, end the poem with, “I crushed privet leaves/ for the green sap and bitter smell/ and learned on broken weeds/ the pain of fire and water/ which is as real as any other/ language.” Even here one notices the lushly sensual and vivid specificity of Hacker’s writing, and there are interludes where the enjoyment of the lover seems to deflect anger. Here the mouth and tongue are speaking and being heard: “Dancing/ between moving limbs, the slow flowers/ of our friction opened/ together. So quickly/ you were salt and sweet/ on my tongue.”
Hacker senses a danger in the background of individual human relations that is echoed and magnified in the danger and violence of the political world. In an important poem called “Iceplants: Army Beach,” the two elements, the personal and the political, come together. Two lovers are sunbathing on the beach, “Your body glistens like a new/ subway token. . . . Your/ wet shoulders incite me to spurious literature/ while jeweled ice spatters my belly and thighs.” The “spurious literature” and the playful corporeality are overshadowed by the realization that the lovers are on a beach that has been used, presumably in World War II, as a line of defense against invasion from the sea. Inside the concrete fortress, contemporary lewd graffiti indicates the hostility and alienation of language and sensuality. The poem is an answer both to the obscenity of the inscription and to the obscenity of controlled, sanctioned violence: “There is,” she writes, “a poem in touching/ or in not touching. The poem/ defines the tension between skin and skin,/ increasing, decreasing, rhythmically/ changing the space it defines.”
The tension Hacker associates with her poetry comes (as she observes in an interview) “from the diction of ordinary speech playing against a form. When there is an internal or external form to be worked with and worked against, unexpected and illuminating things can happen in the piece of writing.” “Forage Sestina” is, perhaps, the most impressive example of this illuminating tension in Presentation Piece. The sestina form is the most intricate of the forms devised by the troubadours in the twelfth century in southern France. It consists of six stanzas of six lines each, and the final word of each line appears in each stanza at the end of new lines and in a new regular order; the final three-line stanza is a coda that uses some of the repeated words. To call a sestina (the most sophisticated and premeditated of forms) a “forage sestina” is immediately to manifest the tension between formal intricacy and emotional spontaneity. Hacker has her lovers picking through a ruined house in what seems to be a ruined city: “This is for your body hidden in words/ moving through a crumbling structure.” The two seem to be the ruin themselves: “I want to touch you, but you are the wall/ crumbling, the report over the wire/ service that there were no survivors.” The elegant form of the poem does not erase the destruction. Indeed, language has had a part in the devastation: “Falling words” are responsible for erosion in a wall. Yet the breaking and collapse in the poem and of the poem open some new and living possibility in the last line: “Over the last beam/ keeping the sky from the walls, vines drip into the room.”
Hacker’s “Elegy: For Janis Joplin,” which is addressed to the singer from the poet’s exile, is a harsh and brutal evocation of a style of singing and an attitude of defiant self-destruction that resembles the poet’s own. It follows the traditional elegiac form, beginning with a realization of the death of the young artist and working through the process of mourning and grief to some condition of reconciliation with the loss. It is written “from exile”—a motif that becomes increasingly important in Hacker’s work: “A man told me you died; he was/ foreign.” The awareness of Joplin’s death allows the poet to see herself as an artist called upon to perpetuate the singer’s message of pain and anger: “Stay in my gut, woman lover I never/ touched, tongued, or sang to; stay/ in back of my/ throat, sandpaper/ velvet, Janis.” Joplin, with her combination of emotional authenticity, unabashed sensuality, poignant vulnerability, and singing style conspicuous for its stridently raucous assault on both her vocal cords and the audience, represents an important side of Hacker’s own work. Hacker uses a Joplin-like emotional recklessness to animate and revivify inherited poetic forms. She writes in the final stanza of “Elegy”: “You got me through/ long nights with your coalscuttle/ panic, don’t be scared/ to scream when it hurts.” Just as the tradition of the elegy focuses on the recovery of the poet from mourning, Hacker becomes herself the voice of the singer: “oh mother it hurts, tonight/ we are twenty-seven, we are/ alone, you are dead.”
Separations, the next volume of poetry, continues Hacker’s concern with the condition of the female artist who follows the life of exile, erotic adventures, and artistic experimentation. The bohemian life followed routinely by male poets as an education in the ways of the world is much more problematic for a woman, as she suggests in “The Life of a Female Artist Is Full of Vicissitudes.” The artistic creation is experienced as an explosion: In “oils thick as a sapling . . . seventeen/ shades of green, the crucified woman burgeons to power.” The poem is a register of the alternating, changing social and biological dimensions that inevitably belong to the life of a woman. Like “Elegy: For Janis Joplin,” however, this poem underscores the significant extent to which a woman artist’s life continues to be the setting or background against which “vicissitudes,” especially male vicissitudes, manifest their more significant activities: “Lucky if she doesn’t/ die of cancer at fifty-two, a/...
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