Hacker, Marilyn 1942–
An American poet now living in England, Hacker is a recipient of the National Book Award. Her poems, which are highly personal and often surrealistic in nature, have been acclaimed for their deft rhymes and juxtapositions. (See also CLC, Vol. 5.)
Marilyn Hacker's poems have a breezy, loquacious, bouncy toughness to them, ingratiating in spite of their faults, which very likely accounts in part for the two important prizes, the Lamont and the National Book, given to her first volume only last year. It was called "Presentation Piece," and now already we have this new one, "Separations." A case of striking while the iron is hot? Is the new book made up of poems that were left out of the first one? Or does she really write so much and so fast? I have no idea, and probably it doesn't matter.
Except that the new book does contain, unmistakably, poems she might have been well advised to withhold. Dull poems, too long, and some damnably obscure. It is obscurity of both kinds: the kind that comes from reticence about private affairs (in which case why publish at all?) and the kind that comes from insufficient thought (in which case why not wait till the materials become clearer?). One can't help thinking another year or two between books would have been a good idea.
But the annoying poems are a minority, and one shouldn't, at this point anyway, dwell on them. I think all readers who aren't categorically opposed to traditional forms will find most of her new book a real pleasure. Hacker writes in free forms sometimes, but she especially likes sonnets, she writes a lot of them, tough sonnets, humorous or half-humorous, with very skillful interweaving of true rhymes, off-rhymes, and no rhymes, and she likes sestinas too, and villanelles, and even canzones, the hardest of all foreign forms. I don't see how anyone who knows versification can help but admire and relish her abilities. Notice, for instance, how remarkably well she disguises the padding needed in any rhymed poem to make the lines come out right. With great syntactical diversity and with an immense vocabulary from which to choose her padded words, she makes the unnecessary seem not only necessary but natural, which is half the art of the poetic artificer.
Add to this her thematic adultness and intelligence, her compelling poems of lust, anger and grief, her sense of experience truly lived, and you have a formidable poet to contend with. "Separations" is the work of a woman whose body and mind are functioning at high intensity, perfectly coordinated. You can't draw the line between sensation and idea—a rare achievement. (p. 12)
Hayden Carruth, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 8, 1976.
Marilyn Hacker writes too much, doesn't blot many lines (or at least many poems) and adopts at times, perhaps unconsciously, a hopped-up early Lowell manner ("What do you know of me? I am alone. / The turning sockets on the rack of bone / rotate like the cogged hubs of jointed wheels.") and a tough-sexy lyricism which isn't irresistible ("I kissed his eyes, mouth, feet. I kissed his knees, / Ate honey from the flower between his thighs / and felt it rise with sap against my tongue. He was so young …"). But more often than not she cares about the figures her poems make, and writes urgently, sometimes delicately, about separation, a state peculiarly interesting for the poet who not only—as woman or as man—is separated from somebody else, but must also write about being separated from somebody else. The poem where this situation is treated most complicatedly and movingly is "Somewhere in a Turret," too long to quote in full but which begins like this:
Somewhere in a turret in time,
castied and catacombed in but
still on a tan street that
ends with a blue-and-white gingerbread house,
those rooms are still filled
with our pictures and books. On the sill
our black-and-white cat hums after a fly.
It is getting light. When we come in,
no one will ask you to leave, no one will send me away….
There are enough good moments in these poems [in Separations], enough feel of and for cities, rooms, textures, to convince me that Marilyn Hacker is somebody to be reckoned with who will give us more and better. (pp. 456-57)
William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Autumn, 1976.
Although there are still a few poems which betray her apprenticeship, sounding like exercises or baring influences, Hacker extends her technical mastery and increases her self-confidence measurably in Separations. Spinning out sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, canzones, couplets, fixed and free forms, lyrics and narratives in generous portions, she displays an impressive virtuosity and vitality of language.
All of this technical skill is in the service of a dark, somewhat sordid urban vision which is sometimes lightened, but more often further darkened, by love. Raking her forms across the separations of death, distance, and unreturned love, Hacker attempts, as she says, to "maul the pain / to shape":
… Hating words, I fumble words
into a bridge, a path, a wall.
The book is pervaded by a sense of disappointed aubade, a wakening to a cold and grimy morning after a night of love remembered more for its pain than for its comfort…. (p. 292)
Hacker can strike other notes as well, as in Imaginary Translation, After Catullus, the marvelous sestina La Vie de Chateau, or … in Occasional Verses…. But despite these other tones and voices, the great preponderance of poems are somber and preoccupied with loss, most of them winding their way around eventually to the same conclusion—"Predictably, it's cold." And it is in this preoccupation and narrowness of vision that my troubles with this poetry lie; for while I admire the sureness of technique, I keep asking myself why it must be all that damp and dreary, unrelieved by any of the ordinary compensations of life. These poems have, as Richard Howard has said of another poet's work, "the conviction of sordor without the conviction of grandeur", and so, exhausted by all the mauling and fumbling, dirtied by stained sheets and grimy streets, I come away from the book feeling as if I should take a bath. Hacker, in short, takes her losses too seriously, nursing her grievances and dwelling on them with the single-mindedness of a Malvolio, and Olivia's advice would seem to apply to her as well: "To be generous, guiltless, and of free disposition, is to take those things for birdbolts which you deem cannon bullets." The power of language that Hacker possesses deserves a more balanced vision. (p. 293)
Robert Holland, in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1977.