Diane Wakoski

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770

Diane Wakoski was born in Whittier, California, in 1937 to parents who shaped not only her life but also her poetry. Shortly after her birth, her father, John Joseph Wakoski, reenlisted in the U.S. Navy and made it his career. Her contact with the “Prince Charming” figure, as she describes him in an autobiographical account, was infrequent and unfulfilling, leaving her with a sense of loss she later explored in her poetry. Her relations with her mother were equally unsatisfying and stressful; by the time she left high school, Wakoski says, she found her mother, whom her father had divorced, a “burden.” Speaking of her childhood, Wakoski claims that she was born into a “world of silence,” that she was “surrounded by silent people.” She was poor, emotionally isolated (she also had few friends), and—from her own point of view—physically unattractive. These factors surely relate to the fixation with male figures and subsequent betrayal in her poems and explain, to some extent, the compulsive need to analyze, to dissect, and to communicate at length in a prolific body of work.

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The only positive reinforcement she received in high school was from sympathetic teachers who encouraged the development of her academic talents. She also discovered that she enjoyed performing for an audience. (This “exhibitionistic” tendency, as she has described it, is reflected in her poetry readings, which are very much “performances.”) After graduation from high school, she passed up a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, and attended Fullerton Junior College because she expected her high school sweetheart to enroll there as well. When he attended a different college and responded dutifully, not supportively, to the news of her pregnancy, she experienced a “betrayal,” rejected his marriage proposal, and subsequently gave up her baby for adoption.

In the fall of 1956, after attending a poetry class at Whittier College, she enrolled at Berkeley, where she began writing poetry in earnest, publishing some of it in Occident, the campus literary magazine. Wakoski believes that her career was launched when her student poetry reading at the San Francisco Poetry Center resulted in another reading there, this time as a “real” poet. Before she left Berkeley, she was pregnant again, this time by a fellow artist-musician with whom she later moved to New York; since marriage did not seem appropriate and both were career-minded, she again gave up her baby for adoption.

In New York, Wakoski continued to write poetry and give poetry readings, while she became acquainted with several established writers, one of whom, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), published some of her poems in Four Young Lady Poets in 1962. Coins and Coffins, her first book of poems, was also published in 1962, but it was not until 1966, with the publication of Discrepancies and Apparitions by a major publishing house, Doubleday, that she became an established poet. In rapid succession, she published two of her most important books, The George Washington Poems and Inside the Blood Factory, as well as the first four parts of Greed. During the late 1960’s, she also experienced a failed first marriage and a few failed romantic relationships, one of which produced the raw material for The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, her most publicized collection of verse.

The 1970’s were a productive decade for Wakoski, who published regularly, maintained an almost frenetic pace with poetry readings, and gained at the University of Virginia the first of many academic posts as writer-in-residence. She also began a long-standing association with Black Sparrow Press, which has published many of her books. Of particular interest in this decade is the appearance of two collections of poetry concerning yet another mythological figure, the King of Spain. During this period, she turned her attention to criticism, writing a regular column for American Poetry Review and publishing a collection of her criticism in Toward a New Poetry.

Wakoski’s personal life continued to provide content for her verse: Her second marriage ended in divorce in 1975. The following year, she began teaching at Michigan State University, where she would remain. In 1977, she renewed her friendship with poet Robert Turney and was married to him in 1982. The 1980’s also saw the completion of Greed, which she had begun in 1968, and other books of poetry, though her productivity decreased. Other significant publications included The Rings of Saturn and Medea the Sorceress, two volumes that rework old themes and myths but also extend Wakoski’s “universe,” which is at once personal and all-inclusive. Medea the Sorceress became the first of four books that make up her series The Archaeology of Movies and Books, her major endeavor of the 1990’s.

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