Marilyn Hacker Essay - Hacker, Marilyn (Vol. 5)

Hacker, Marilyn (Vol. 5)

Hacker, Marilyn 1942–

Ms Hacker, an American poet now living in England, won both the Lamont Poetry Prize and the National Book Award for Presentation Piece, her first collection.

The titles of the poems [in Presentation Piece] are fashionable ("Pornographic Poem," "Landscape for Insurrection," "She Bitches about Boys"), but a close look reveals a collection of technical exercises: villanelles, sestinas, perfect iambic pentameters and far from perfect free verse. The poems seem created, not with urgency or commitment, but to display craftsmanship. Yet, it is the craftsmanship which distorts. Hacker's world of sexual liberation sounds somewhat ludicrous propped by 17th-century verse forms…. Hacker also has a predilection for the recondite. How can the reader respond to [her] grab bag of images, set in what passes as free verse? (p. 3)

Norma Procopiow, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 26, 1974.

Presentation Piece … [is] a very good book….

The American poetry scene is so large and diffuse that it's hard, perhaps impossible, to generalize about it. But there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in tight, formal poetry and Marilyn Hacker's poems show the rich possibilities inherent in structure; her book is filled with sonnets, sestinas (61), villanelles, blank verse, even heroic couplets (but with distinctly modern tone)….

The poems are personal, intense, often oblique and sliding toward the surreal; these last, though sometimes interesting, are the least successful, hardest to get at…. But the book is filled with poems not only strongly realized but which say something about and to the human condition. "The Navigators" is a fine long poem about the complicated, sexual relationship of three people. "The Dark Twin," "Exiles," "She Bitches about Boys," "Imaginary Translations" and "Elegy for Janis Joplin" are poems with deep feelings controlled and directed by technical skill and wit reminiscent of Howard Nemerov's poems. I suppose it is still fashionable to think that intellect and wit are somehow incompatible with deeply felt poetry—one can't be romantic and ironic at the same time—but Presentation Piece encourages me to think that the fashion may be changing. (p. 24)

Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 7, 1974.

Marilyn Hacker stands squarely, and very elegantly, in the indirect T. S. Eliot line. She is sharp-eyed and -edged, cool, very acute about sophistication and its falsities, and very witty. Her wit is at its best when it is at one with her humor and her good humor. "Presentation Piece" shows a great many skills, and doesn't just show them off. At times, it does wax philosophical about what poetry deeply is—but then elsewhere it furnishes the best sort of self-criticism: poems which are likewise about poetry but are rich with comedy and insinuation. The exquisitely sinister sestina, "Untoward Occurrence at Embassy Poetry Reading," for instance, which pays back its tacit debt to W. H. Auden tenfold; or the sardonic sonnet "Apologia pro opere suo"….

She is a most deft rhymestress—the feminine form of "rhymester," which Marilyn Hacker may dislike (when she lists her interests and causes, she juxtaposes houseplants and radical feminism), compresses rhythm and prosody ("stress") with rhyme. There is a weird amplitude of spirit in her steely erotic poetry, as in the cheerful city grubbiness of "Elektra on Third Avenue"; or the mock-prim suggestive silence (total, just where you least expect it) of "Pornographic Poem"; or the laconic crackle of "Imaginary Translation II"; or the seductive accents of "Nimue to Merlin"; or (best of all) the rhythmic disintegration into a hurrying longing, which gives itself away, of "She Bitches About Boys"…. (p. 2)

Christopher Ricks, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1975.

Marilyn Hacker … is a poet of emerging womanhood and the decaying American city. Her lines have a nervous intensity and a taut, glutted texture expressive of their subject. (p. 46)

Miss Hacker's dense line makes for interest and sometimes high adventure; but it also makes for strain and for an opacity which at times seems willful. More than most first volumes, Presentation Piece demands to be read in its entirety, since the poems reflect on one another, and with repeated readings a vocabulary of images begins to emerge. Over and again one encounters images of the body, especially the tongue; of salt upon the tongue; of the sea, cliffs, a beach; of lovers awakening. And it becomes apparent that the poet is attempting to formulate, in these and related images, a language of instinct and feeling—of a woman's bodily awareness—and to express the body's longings, including its "inadmissible longings", as they are shaped and repressed in personal relationships. That such a language has yet to be created, or yet to be discovered, is both exhilarating and a cause for anguish. (pp. 46-7)

These poems grope not only through languages but also through forms, as though nothing quite sufficed to express the pain of isolation. About half of the poems employ traditional forms: sonnets, villanelles, sestinas. When these pieces succeed, as does a poem entitled Forage Sestina, they express powerful emotions powerfully restrained; and they seem to confirm the traditional forms. Often, however, the sonnets and sestinas fall victim to artifice and do not confirm much of anything. Whatever their origin might have been, they read like formal exercises. On the whole, the poems in freer forms are more convincing. If, like the shrill, unreadable Elegy for Janis Joplin, they sometimes fail, it is not for lack of insight or feeling but for lack of the restraint so evident in the more traditional pieces. (p. 47)

Ben Howard, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1975.

[Marilyn Hacker's] anger forms [her] work, and in each case is set against a delicate lyricism; this tension is what makes [her] poetry extraordinary. Marilyn Hacker, with her complex imagery and mastery of rhyme and conventional poetic forms, seems to be creating word puzzles against chaos. (p. 48)

[The poems in Presentation Piece] seem … to be autobiographical, but as I read more deeply, they seemed as much about language as life. There is something very disturbing about her images, the kind of disturbance you feel jostling through an unfamiliar street: everything is too vivid. And there is her uncontemporary love of tight forms. Hacker ends Presentation Piece with a sonnet sequence called "A Christmas Crown," but her favorite form seems to be the sestina; the book has seven.

In a sestina the last words of the six lines of the first stanza are repeated in a different order to end the lines of the other five stanzas. The limitation this places on the poet adds to the excitement of writing a poem. (p. 113)

Honor Moore, in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), April, 1975.