Diane Wakoski Wakoski, Diane - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Coins and Coffins 1962

Four Young Lady Poets [with Rochelle Owens, Barbara Moraff, and Carol Berge] 1962

Discrepancies and Apparitions 1966

The George Washington Poems 1967

The Diamond Merchant 1968

Greed, Parts 1 and 2 1968

Inside the Blood Factory 1968

Greed, Parts 3 and 4 1969

The Lament of the Lady Bank Dick 1969

The Moon Has a Complicated Geography 1969

Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons 1969

Greed, Parts 5-7 1970

Love, You Big Fat Snail 1970

The Magellanic Clouds 1970

Exorcism 1971

The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems 1971

On Barbara's Shore 1971

This Water Baby: For Tony 1971

The Purple Finch Song 1972

Smudging 1972

Sometimes A Poet Will Hijack the Moon 1972

Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch 1973

Greed, Parts 8, 9, 11 1973

The Owl and the Snake: A Fable 1973

Stillife: Michael, Silver Flutes, and Violets 1973

Winter Sequences 1973

Abalone 1974

Looking for the King of Spain 1974

The Wandering Tattler 1974

The Fable of the Lion and the Scorpion 1975

Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands 1974

George Washington's Camp Cups 1976

The Laguna Contract 1976

The Last Poem 1976

Waiting for the King of Spain 1976

Overnight Projects with Wood 1977

The Ring 1977

Spending Christmas with the Man from Receiving at Sears 1977

The Man Who Shook Hands 1978

Pachelbel's Canon 1978

Trophies 1979

Cap of Darkness 1980

Making A Sacher Torte: Nine Poems, Twelve Illustrations [with Ellen Lanyon] 1981

Divers 1982

The Lady Who Drove Me to the Airport 1982

The Magician's Feastletters 1982

Saturn's Rings 1982

The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13 1984

Why My Mother Likes Liberace 1985

Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987 1988

Medea the Sorceress 1991

Jason the Sailor 1991

The Emerald City of Las Vegas 1995

Other Major Works

Toward a New Poetry (essays and interviews) 1979

Dick Allen (essay date 1966)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Of Exhibitionist Poetry, Redwoods, and the Fluid Narrative Dramatic," in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1966, pp. 265-80.

[In this excerpt, Allen reviews Discrepancies and Apparitions, admiring the directness of Wakoski's work and calling her "our most exciting younger American poetess."]

Surely when Diane Wakoski says, "I think it [poetry] is only interesting in proportion to how interesting the person who writes it is," she is attacking new criticism at one of its weakest stomachs. I don't fully agree with her, but the nerve of the girl! The happy thing is, most of her poems [in Discrepancies and Apparitions] work wonderfully, work because they are direct perceptions of a sensitive contemporary female, because this particular woman is terribly interesting. For her, "the sense of disguise is a / rattle-snake and / it's easy to wake up and find it curled in your shoe"—as she says beginning a poem called "Follow that Stagecoach."

This poem, one of the best in Discrepancies and Apparitions, shows her "swimming in Dry Gulch Hollow thinking of Sheriff / Stanley / who did not love me but left to start the Pony Express." It is a weird and beautiful mixture of fantasy and open reaction to the basic unreality of the Other. The poem concludes:

We notice, of course, the freedom of the line, the tone of natural...

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Paul Hannigan (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Word about Diane Wakoski," in Sumac, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall, 1969, pp. 141-42.

[In the following review, Hannigan discusses several of Wakoski's collections and pronounces her "a first rate poet" who demonstrates a command of wit, "stagecraft," and technical poetic skills.]

Four years ago Diane Wakoski let it be known publicly that she thought, "… poetry is the completely personal expression of someone about his feelings and reactions to the world. I think it is only interesting in proportion to how interesting the person who writes it is." There is no poetic power dead or alive to absolve that sort of fatuity; but Diane Wakoski has, amazingly enough,...

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Paul Zweig (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems," in The New York Times Book Review, December 12, 1971, pp. 17-18.

[Here, Zweig compares earlier collections of Wakoski's poetry with The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems.]

When Inside the Blood Factory was published in 1968, it was clear that in the poetry of Diane Wakoski a new sort of energy had been tapped. A fierce impulse toward confession and autobiography moved through her poems, but it took unexpected detours into an imagery of elusive beasts, colors and bizarre precious stones. The "me" she confessed to was not contained by situations; it was not an object of complaint. Although her poems were stirred by angers and...

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Sheila Weller (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetess: Duel, Sigh, or Shrug?," in The Village Voice, Vol. 17, No. 51, December 21, 1972, p. 26.

[In the following excerpt, Weller discusses Wakoski's poetry in regard to gender roles. The critic applauds Wakoski's treatment of the subject and declares that The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems addresses "the anxieties, fantasies and paradoxes which many women would rather hide."]

[Today] as in the days of George Eliot, one of the highest compliments a woman poet or novelist can receive is: "Reading her work, you wouldn't necessarily know she was a woman." It's curious and encouraging, then, that Diane Wakoski—a poet who, through her own hard sensuality,...

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Diane Wakoski (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Emerald Essay," in Toward a New Poetry, The University of Michigan Press, 1980, pp. 37-44.

[In this excerpt, originally published in 1973, Wakoski discusses her concept that "poetry is mythology. And mythology is image. " In the process, she outlines the some of the ways that she comes upon images and how they are used in her work.]

I have spent the three days I have been here [The Boatwright Literary Festival in Richmond, Virginia] looking with fascination at the gigantic emeralds ringed with tiny diamond studs that Katherine Anne Porter wears on her pale birdlike hands. One, the smaller one, is shaped like a large teardrop and I think of those Southern...

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Rosellen Brown (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Plenitude and Dearth," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring-Summer 1973, pp. 51-9.

[In this excerpt from a larger article comparing four women poets, Brown notes the strength of Wakoski 's poetic persona and her skillful blending of the commonplace with more fantastic and imaginative elements. The critic finds that Wakoski's work in Smudging suffers from other qualities, however, including wordiness, awkward prose, and a frequently "nagging" tone.]

Twice in the last year I've encountered poems by college girls that refer in obvious fascination to Diane Wakoski's face; one, naming its source, referred readers to her poem, "I Have Had to...

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Diane Wakoski (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Creating a Personal Mythology," in Toward a New Poetry, The University of Michigan Press, 1980, pp. 106-19.

[In this essay, originally written in 1974, Wakoski discusses her belief that "form is an extension of content" in poetry, and also explains her ideas about personal mythology and what subjects and processes inform her work.]

Once again I am writing about the subject which seems so simple to me and yet which confuses so many readers of contemporary poetry. When I say "form is an extension of content," I truly mean to be so simple as to be almost tautological. I mean the poet first has something to say and then he finds a mode for saying it. That's so...

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Diane Wakoski with Mary Jane Fortunato (interview date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from "The New York Quarterly", edited by William Packard, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974, pp. 321-40.

[Here, Wakoski discusses her beginnings as writer, the technical aspects of her work, including imagery, poem structure, and working habits, and the methods she employs in teaching poetry.]

[Fortunato]: Could you tell us when you began writing?

[Wakoski]: I really did start writing when I was a little kid. I wrote my first poem when I was seven years old, about a rose bush, and then I wrote a lot of poetry when I was in high school. I got seriously involved in college, which was when...

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Carole Ferrier (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sexual Politics in Diane Wakoski's Poetry," in Hecate, Vol. 1, No. 1, July, 1975, pp. 89-94.

[In the following essay that centers on Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands, Ferrier takes up the issue of the feminist content of Wakoski's poetry. The critic notes that Wakoski's work details the difficulty and pain of women's lives, yet it often fails to present females that are "more free" than her typical, oppressed figures or that have completely given up conventional feminine roles and aspirations.]

This is approximately the seventeenth volume of poetry that the American poet Diane Wakoski has published since her first, Coins and Coffins, in...

(The entire section is 2623 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Platoon of Poets," in Chicago, Vol. 128, No. 5, August, 1976, pp. 294-96.

[In this mixed review of Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, the critic praises Wakoski's imagery but criticizes her repetitiveness and a tendency toward self-parody.]

Diane Wakoski, whose Dancing on the Grave of a Son Of A Bitch is her sixteenth book, is… at ease, established…. To be established in a place or a career, however, can mean being fixed, even stuck, as well as being comfortable and Wakoski, though she's a poet of unusual talent and vitality, seems to me to display a tendency toward staleness, flatness, repetitiveness in this book, a tendency, in...

(The entire section is 796 words.)

Diane Wakoski with Claire Healey (interview date 1974 and 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 1-19.

[In this interview, originally conducted in 1974 and updated in 1976, Wakoski discusses many aspects of poetry, including the role gender plays in writing, her concern with "beauty" and aesthetics, and the state of contemporary poetry.]

[Healey]: When did you first begin to write poetry?

[Wakoski]: When I was about seven years old. I wrote many sonnets and began taking writing courses in the fifties at Berkeley. I was encouraged by Tom Parkinson and Josephine Miles, and admired Robinson Jeffers and T. S. Eliot. I think I was fortunate to be in college in...

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Clayton Eshleman (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wakoski Poetry Aging with Concrete Realities," in Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1982, p. 11.

[Eshleman is American poet and translator. In the following review, he praises the concrete imagery of The Magician's Feastletters, the specific objects that are the basis of the poems. Eshleman also comments on the book's theme of aging in contemporary American society.]

I don't believe anyone has addressed the suddenness with which American poetry has gone abstract in the past decade. In fact the "new" has, overnight, become a kind of writing in which story has disappeared from narration, and narration itself has become so discontinuous that nonsense, in many...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

Kenneth Funsten (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "More than Naive Confessions," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 4, 1984, p. 4.

[In this review ofThe Collected Greed, Parts 1-13, Funsten asserts that the collection represents Wakoski's maturity as a poet and that the work goes beyond the confessional style she is known for.]

Since 1962, when Diane Wakoski's first book of poetry, Coins and Coffins, appeared, she has enchanted fans and offended critics. No one, it seems, straddles the line. One camp calls Wakoski entertaining, sincere, instructive; the other scoffs—and often with angry contempt—that she is prosy, crude, sentimental, moralizing. The only opinion that both seem to...

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Alicia Ostriker (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: '"What are Patterns For?': Anger and Polarization in Women's Poetry," in Feminist Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 485-503.

[Ostriker is an American poet and critic. In addition to poetry collections such as The Imaginary Lover (1986), Ostriker has published a number of analytical studies that apply feminist critical principles to the works of women writers. In the following excerpt, Ostriker addresses The George Washington Poems, exploring the way in which Wakoski uses the figure of Washington to critique the roles that men often assume in contemporary society. The critic also notes that while Washington is often portrayed as the antithesis of Wakoski's own...

(The entire section is 1586 words.)

Alan Williamson (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Future of Personal Poetry," in Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 159-65.

[In this excerpt from his book-length study of contemporary poetry, Williamson analyzes several specific Wakoski poems to argue that, at her best, the poet presents complex works that are "extending the range of poetry. " The critic notes that these poems show that Wakoski presents more than the "heart-on-the-sleeve confessionalism " for which she is often criticized.]

Diane Wakoski has been one of the sadder casualties of the shift in taste in the last decade; she is so fixed in many readers' minds as an artless instance of heart-on-the-sleeve...

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Estella Lauter (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Diane Wakoski: Disentangling the Woman from the Moon," in Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-Century Women, Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 98-113.

[In the following essay, Lauter explores the developing relationship between women and nature in Wakoski's poetry, asserting that her association with nature, in particular the moon, evinces an appreciation of both nature and the feminine in life.]

Perhaps Diane Wakoski's interest in the moon stems from its association with her given name. Whatever the reason, she transforms that coincidence into a remarkable exploration, over a ten-year span, of women's relationship to nature. In turn, by...

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Holly Prado (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Rings of Saturn by Diane Wakoski," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 16, 1986, p. 14.

[In the following review, Prado affirms Wakoski's collection The Rings of Saturn and speaks of the poet's bitterness, curiosity, and her ability to transform elements of her life into accomplished poetry.]

Diane Wakoski's latest book of poems is filled with landscapes; people, both friends and grotesques; and questions: She exists, in her writing, in a world fed by outer reality but not convinced by it. She's curious—and bitter; the bitterness is redeemed by the curiosity. Fearing decay, ignorance, and the inevitability of death, Wakoski writes with the...

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Paul Oppenheimer (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ambushes of Amazement," in The American Book Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, September-October, 1987, p. 11.

[Oppenheimer is a poet and critic. In the following review, he finds that the poems in The Rings of Saturn succeed when they skillfully employ surrealist techniques.]

Modern surrealism, starting with Guillaume Apollinaire, who coined the word back in 1917, usually promises more than it delivers. If the promise, to quote André Breton's surrealist manifesto, is art and poetry full of "previously neglected forms of association," brimming with magic, leaps beyond reason, and hallucinations, the delivery, more often than not, is either trite or...

(The entire section is 1166 words.)

Gary Lenhart (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Emerald Ice, in The American Book Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, September-October, 1990, pp. 16-26.

[In the following mixed review, the critic says the poetry is fueled by pain, anger and envy and that Wakoski defines herself in terms of men.]

In December 1796, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to his friend John Thelwall, "Do not let us introduce an Act of Uniformity against poets. I have room enough in my brain to admire, aye, and almost equally, the head and fancy of Akenside, and the heart and fancy of Bowles, the solemn lordliness of Milton, and the divine chit-chat of Cowper. And whatever a man's excellence is, that will be likewise his fault."...

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Thomas Gladysz (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Medea the Sorceress, in Small Press, Vol. 9, No. 4, Fall, 1991, p. 74.

[In the following review, Gladysz discusses the first volume of Wakoski's multi-volume set The Archeology of Movies and Books. The critic finds Medea the Sorceress to be an ambitious and original book that uses the work of other writers and filmmakers in the "unearthing of personal meaning."]

For her last book, Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962–1987, Diane Wakoski was awarded the Poetry Society of America William Carlos Williams Award. That award is a fitting tribute, for Wakoski draws on Williams' book-length poem Paterson as a model for her...

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Diane Wakoski (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Color is a Poet's Tool," in Poets' Perspectives: Reading, Writing, and Teaching Poetry, edited by Charles R. Duke and Sally A. Jacobson, Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1992, pp. 24–30.

[In the following essay, Wakoski discusses her use of color as a primary organizing image in her work and uses her poem "The Pink Dress" as an example of her process.]

In a poem called "What you should know to be a poet," Gary Snyder [in Regarding Wave] says that, basically, poets have to know everything, but he starts with this catalogue:

all you can about animals as persons.
the names of trees and flowers and weeds.

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Newton, Robert. Diane Wakoski: A Descriptive Bibliography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1987, 136 p.

Bibliography of works by and about Wakoski that contains descriptions of many of the publications and quotes from critical works on the author.


Blazek, Douglas. "Falling into Triteness." Poetry 124, No. 3 (June> 1974): 167–78.

Review of Smudging that declares that Wakoski "comes close to being terrible," but concludes that her work remains important because of her remarkable skills as a poet....

(The entire section is 413 words.)