Diane Wakoski 1937–
American poet, essayist, and critic.
Wakoski's unified poetic vision has earned her a distinguished position in contemporary American literature. Her poems are personal narratives through which she weaves repeated images and themes, forming a rich texture of metaphor and critical reflection based in individual experience. Wakoski describes the poet's mission as "carving out a territory, creating the subject matter or content which helps to the reader to identify his voice or style as poet." For Wakoski, this poetic territory is based on the events of her own life, but the resulting work transcends the limitations of factual representation in order to emphasize the most interesting and universal qualities related to the experience. Her work is inhabited by such fantastic characters as George Washington, The King of Spain, and The Man Who Shook Hands, all of whom attain mythical stature and embody the concepts central to Wakoski's vision.
Wakoski speaks frequently of her difficult childhood and adolescence in a poor working-class family in Southern California. She recalls being one of the poorest children in her schools, but also one of the most academically gifted. Her father had made a career of the Navy and was frequently away from home, leaving her mother to care for Wakoski and her sister. Eventually, her parents divorced, and the failure of Wakoski's father to provide the nurturing attention she needed figures significantly in many of her poetic works. In her high school and college years, she endured other significant experiences, including two unwanted pregnancies. In both cases, she gave the babies up for adoption and continued to pursue her education. After earning a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960 she relocated to New York City and immersed herself in the artistic circles of the city. While developing her poetic skills and attaining her first publications, she worked as a clerk in a bookstore and, later, as a teacher in the New York Public Schools. Beginning in the late 1960s, she supported herself by giving poetry readings and teaching workshops around the country. These activities developed into a series of temporary positions at various universities. In 1975 she accepted a permanent position at Michigan State University, where she continues to teach.
Wakoski's first two volumes, Coins and Coffins and Discrepancies and Apparitions, established her, according to Sheila Weller, as a "poet of fierce imagination." In The George Washington Poems, published in 1967, Wakoski uses the figure of George Washington to develop a number
of themes, including that of an absent father who is romanticized by his daughter. In an interview, Wakoski called her next major collection, Inside the Blood Factory, "the turning point in my career from being a young poet, perhaps talented and perhaps accomplished, in certain ways, to someone who… had established a real and original voice, different from anyone else." In this book, Wakoski explores rejection and betrayal, themes further expanded upon in The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems. The latter volume also contains the poem "I Have Had to Learn to Live with This Face," in which Wakoski develops another of her primary concerns—what she perceives as her lack of physical beauty. With Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands and The Man Who Shook Hands, music becomes a dominant theme in Wakoski's work. In many of the poems in these volumes, Wakoski employs a digressive technique similar to that in musical compositions, allowing her naturally associative verse to wander away from its central concerns then eventually return to its main themes. The publication of The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13 in 1984 represented the culmination of an ongoing project. The "Greed" poems had previously been published in four separate volumes, at irregular intervals, beginning in 1968. The series documents Wakoski's struggles with self-definition and with her sometimes conflicting desires. In the 1990s, the poet undertook another multi-volume series of related poems. The series, including the collections Medea the Sorceress, Jason the Sailor, and The Emerald City of Las Vegas, intersperses poems with letters and prose fragments in order to consider the metaphoric implications of a wide range of topics, including popular films, literature, and quantum physics.
Wakoski's poetry generates extreme reactions. Her detractors accuse her of adopting a sometimes irritating tone of self-pity and for obsessively reworking her favorite themes of betrayal, anger, and envy. She has also been criticized of overwriting, of producing poems that are too long and are too great in number, with the result that her best imagery and most important ideas are lost in the sheer mass of words. Several feminist critics have complained about the persona put forth in her work, a female "victim" who requires a man to make her life meaningful. On the other hand, a large number of critics have praised her work for its intelligence, wit, and imagination and for its fantastic, often surreal, imagery. Others emphasize the determined, resilient persona in her work who, while often emotionally wounded or angry, also possesses a wry sense of humor. Wakoski's ongoing experimentation with form and mythic archetypes are frequently viewed as complex and innovative, and the powerful intensity of her poetic voice has been appreciated by supporters and detractors alike.