Marilyn Hacker 1942–
American poet and editor.
Hacker usually employs traditional forms, notably the sonnet, in her highly personal poems. Some critics praise her work for showing the potential richness of structured poetry, but others find her free-form poems most effective. Presentation Piece won the National Book Award in 1975. Her recent Taking Notice confirms her sensitivity to the varied concerns of women, especially the title sequence, which centers on a lesbian relationship.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 9 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
[Taking Notice] is an impressive work of art, and Marilyn Hacker is an artist with a sharp, crystalline mind. She is never fashionable—and poetry these days is too too dangerously a world in which fashion seems to fascinate….
Technically she is a superb artisan. This was true in her first two books and is now more true than ever. Probably the other most important characteristic she possesses as a writer is a discerning eye for truth, however unpleasant, however against the grain, however out of vogue. She has her artistic eye trained on what is actually happening, however murky the gestalt may be, and she keeps it right there until the drama is played out. Her determination to speak truth and her technical skill combine to produce an epigrammatic quality, an epigrammatic wisdom in Taking Notice. Any given line or couple of lines is likely to be at least as interesting and maybe more memorable than a particular poem. Or to put it another way, the cumulative effect is there, but the parts too are gems. The result of this is that as a reader you reach for your pen to underline or to lift out quotes for a notebook. It's not only what she has to say but the phrasing, "the way" she says what she has to say, "the way" she has with words, that is strikingly original, highly compelling. (p. 73)
It goes almost without saying that there is much in the book that addresses in particular women and the women's movement, that this book is a significant event in the history of that movement. But this is not a book about women nearly so much as it is a book about living, and it is this richness, this breadth of scope I want to stress. It is appropriate that the book's title is Taking Notice because that is...
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["Taking Notice"] is the work of a highly skilled, conscious artisan. Several poems are dedicated to other writers, but [Marilyn Hacker's] daughter also receives some witty, celebratory attention. Miss Hacker directly discusses the rigors and discipline of writing, but she often addresses friends in a seemingly offhanded way, and some poems have a quotidian, even improvised, quality. One section of the book is called "Occasions," but Miss Hacker is never involved in merely "occasional poetry."… The long sequence, "Taking Notice," consists of 25 sonnets that deal principally with a lesbian relationship, and uses an epigraph from Adrienne Rich, who has written in a similar vein in "XXI Love Poems." We hear a complex voice, riddled with wry self-doubt and longing….
This book's center is hard to characterize, for it has a [wide and complex] range of feeling and language…. Perhaps we must be content to refer to that autobiographical impulse that occurs so frequently in our poetry. The poem has become, among other things, a record of "how we live now." But the keen attention evident in Marilyn Hacker's poetry shows us that such domestic and inward concerns needn't become mere note-taking, and the vigor of speech needn't turn prosaic when shaped into a personal testament….
[This book demonstrates], positively and negatively, that oldest truth about American poetry: That since Whitman and Dickinson our lyric flourishes when it focuses on the near at hand and sings unabashedly its self-centered song.
Charles Molesworth; "Fondled Memories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1980, p. 37.∗
With Taking Notice …, Marilyn Hacker has written what constitutes the last volume in a trilogy. Her concerns are basically the same—esthetic and sexual confrontation—as they were in Presentation Piece and Separations. It is their sequence that swells a progress. Their titles, effectively, speak for themselves. The first book is an introduction to and exploration of relationships, friendly and familial; the second centers on the difficulty and eventual disintegration of a long-distance marriage. This third book, a taking and nailing-up of notice, begins with "one man, not some indifferent Muse to me" and ends with "the woman I love, as old, as new to me / as any moment of delight."
Running in a kind of counterpoint beneath those major chords is the poet's relationship with her child, Iva Alyxander, her birth, babyhood, and growth….
Loving and mothering, feeling and form. These are Hacker's preoccupations. It should be said at the outset that at her best no one handles the colloquial sublime—a language that is both common and classical in forms both strict and serial—better than Marilyn Hacker. She is a master of progressive pentameter, of measuring, interrupting and holding the line, and of letting it go on, of letting it pile into sentences and juxtapositions.
There are few poems in the present volume that free her of this formal bias, and when we run across them ("Up...
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It is no wonder that Marilyn Hacker's Presentation Piece was greeted with such éclat—and swept several prizes—a half dozen years ago. At a time when so many of her more touted peers had settled for the studied simplicities of workshop murk, she knew how much more difficult it is to be precise than profound. And her precision was manifest, first, in her prosody. She had a prodigious talent for verse, and lavished it with gusto and flair: the straw of experience was woven, as if overnight, into the pure gold of canzone and sonnet, sestina and villanelle … even free verse. But she was no mere littérateuse. Like Dorothy Parker, who once said that she followed the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay in a pair of old sneakers, Hacker laced her prosodic skill with salty topics, a novelist's eye for wry or sour details, and a sparkling, rakish tone. If there was a fault, it was that her verse sometimes rose merely to the occasional, the light, the louche. The challenge offered Hacker by her own talent was to emulate Auden rather than Parker, to broaden her intellectual range and intensify her heart's reasoning. Separations (1976) went a good way toward that. Though still often a miscellany of passing fancies, there is a thematic unity to this book that gives it more shape than her first. It opens with an affecting elegy for a dead lover, and later poems move backward in time through an affair's "gossip, magic, plots and food," back through his and her sex's joy and juices, back toward love's first flush and the hundred "separations" it—like its aftermath—opens up. Hacker was there—is...
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Thematically, the poems in Taking Notice, by Marilyn Hacker, betray their imprisonment in the material present. Although there is much talk about the merging of affectionate bodies and the approach to others as objects of adoration and desire, the poems do not imitate the transport to which they frequently refer. Neither are they meditations at one remove from the experience; the mood of the volume is one of manic vigilance before the monotony of the present. The most characteristic rhetorical device is the catalogue of highly textured, usually exotic things, arranged in a kind of glossy ad for poetic "taste"…. There is here no beauty that makes the heart yearn, no broad consciousness guiding the verses, and no spiritual truth. There are only things.
The tyranny of objects is marked not only by the prevalence of the catalogue, but also by the propensity of the poet's diction to clog. "My cleats crunch / the crumble"; "the undulant flat belly / whorled and rose carapaces glimmer under"; "eye-sockets blackberry blotches"; "I fudge a hurt / guess, stir sludge on a page"; "Invoke whatever you can use; / sebaceous pores, querulous gut, / nostalgic genitalia." This last quotation suggests another problem in Taking Notice, that of overreaching the propriety of the phrase: "Leaf-shapes ripple a patterned snake / safe through pied grass." Intransitive verbs are made transitive: a girl "clambers a bench"; two friends are "leafing...
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