Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3609
Wakoski, Diane 1937–
Ms Wakoski is an imaginative American poet whose work, often "confessional," is characterized by dark and violent imagery. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
Diane Wakoski is another young poet(ess) of turned-on imagination. This is what the young seem to be doing these days. And, really, isn't it much more demanding than the fashion of an older generation, when everybody was struggling to turn the corpses of run-over squirrels into lugubrious meditations on the nature of original sin? Except in spots, [Inside the Blood Factory] lacks high seriousness—but so did Chaucer. The poems tend to be long, long-lined, surrealistic monologues, and "Filling the Boxes of Joseph Cornell" is certainly one of the best. It is an entertaining book—strange thing to say about a book of poems.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Summer, 1969), pp. xciii-xciv.
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 fears, they did not include gestures toward suicide, the madhouse or the pill bottle. Instead, she confessed to the hippogriff in her soul, which carried her like an exulting spirit among the men who loved her, or betrayed her. The blend of exotic shapes and swift spoken language was often startling….
Diane Wakoski wrote poems of loss. The loss of childhood; the loss of lovers and family; the perpetual loss a woman lives with when she thinks she is not beautiful. These losses created a scorched earth of isolation around her, which she described harshly and precisely….
But "Inside the Blood Factory" was also an erratic book. Many of the longer poems rambled inconclusively. Miss Wakoski's very exuberance tended to play tricks on her by allowing the intensely personal core of the poems to become stifled in a mesh of images that moved far away from any recognizable center. In a sense, the failures of the book were very much in the image of its power; the best and the worst belonged to each other, for both resulted from the poet's defiant commitment to her freedom. It might have been better if we'd been spared the bad poems, but their rambling may have formed the only ground from which Diane Wakoski's imposing inwardness could spring. There is, after all, a bravery that artists may need more than most people: a willingness to risk being ridiculous, in order to expose the reluctant figures in their lives….
"The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems" are more open than much of Miss Wakoski's earlier work….
The directness of [her] lines describing the combat that art enables the poet to wage against the bitterness of her life is one of the very best qualities in the book. In much of it, Miss Wakoski achieves an intensity of simple speech that is rare in contemporary poetry….
These poems are not declarations of feminine independence. Their rage is not ideological, as in many Women's Liberation tracts. Miss Wakoski's tactic is different. She digs her teeth into the slaveries of woman, she cries them aloud with such fulminating energy that the chains begin to melt of themselves. The rage is that of a prisoner whose bitterness is her bondage but also her freedom.
In many poems, however, the anger becomes thin, repetitious, and this is perhaps the book's most serious weakness. All too often, the stridency does not turn into poetry; the words are flattened almost into helplessness by the very anger they express….
But this is far from general in the book. Many poems survive, and they are like nothing I know in contemporary poetry. Often enough, the vindictive rage is rounded into whimsy and self-knowledge, or into asides of sheer fantasy that charm the reader while they are chilling him with insight….
Yes, there are failures in "The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems." But they are the sort of failures that lesser poets could have avoided without improving themselves. At her best—and the best is frequent enough—Diane Wakoski is an important and moving poet.
Paul Zweig, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 12, 1971, pp. 5, 18, 20.
Miss Wakoski's poetry [here, Greed, Parts 5-7], if intense, is immediate. Still, one cannot help being much impressed with the singular precision and scope of her work. Thus, what seems "sheer confession" at first, never degenerates into clever self-analysis. Her poetry is never self-centered or purely self-directed: "I wonder," she asks, "if it is a story everyone knows?"
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Winter, 1972), p. xxiii.
Diane Wakoski is expansive—her poems need space to conquer, and she is certainly out to conquer. These are part of an endless autobiography to establish character in a largely male-dominated world, instanced as the bike scene—not so much speed as engineering made into the central male fascination….
Her work has a baroque effect; it is not a book to be read too much at a time, since there is little variety of voice or theme ("Conversations with Jan" contains more invention, especially the sixth). Her poems are letters never sent: "this letter writer,/this passionate piece of paper/you will all/someday/read." The threatening tone here and in the murderous epigraph continues throughout, and fools no one, let alone Diane Wakoski; but the desperation is substantial. She operates in a world of women as adjuncts to men and the erotics of bikes; the poems are survival gestures…. They are dense with information used as defensive attack: a passionately alert sense of the uselessness of self-regard…. Diane Wakoski's love poems care for facts rather than psychological convention and those orgasmic obsessions brandished by the mob who discovered Reich last month…. She takes over the trite masculine imagery of guns, bullets, bikes, the Angels, mustaches, and male Beethoven-playing maestros, for her own usage and dumps them for the man who relaxes as a man with his own kind of body and life, exercising his ability to live as the necessary other coupling of sexual love. The rest is, broadly, perversion and its main image, games and women as adjuncts to sport….
Diane Wakoski has a radically metaphorical imagination, rare in contemporary American poetry, and nearly old-fashioned. Her conception of female vulnerability in the male-dominated world, with all its nagging obsessiveness, maps its region conclusively. What is missing is family and babies, and the endless sense of vulnerability felt in the working classes…. [It] is essentially poetry for the leisured and intellectually trained, who wish to follow their own processes in representative forms.
Eric Mottram, in Parnassus, Fall/Winter, 1972, pp. 160-62.
All that is real or invention about the several surfaces of [the] poems [in "Smudging"] seem but incredible facets of this woman's imagination and a child's urge towards warmth and a mythic life. There is throughout a sure note in the poet's voice of one who knows oneself and moves out into multiple relationships, that these too will reflect the self. There is, however, continually the problem that the other somehow is not a smooth nor a clear reflecting surface. The imagination can create its own relationship with another, as in "The George Washington Poems," but the image projected is not as finely etched as that of the poet in "Smudging."
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Winter, 1973), p. xiii.
Diane Wakoski knows how to make words into poems. Her precise and straightforward style organizes not-quite-reality, and pushes it into the right contact. At all times in these two books [The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems and Smudging] Wakoski is in control, she is the craftsman. Although her poems are not traditional structures, she builds them solidly with words which feel chosen, with repetition of images throughout a poem (as in the carefully woven Motorcycle Betrayal poem, "The Catalogue of Charms"), and with exact observation, as in "To A Friend Who Cannot Accept My Judgment Of Him": "his former/black worm self,/fringed with delicate green spires,/crawling along branch,/angling and curving under leaves," from Smudging.
When I first read The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, I thought, help, here is a neurotic woman whose mind can't get untracked from the loss of her man. Who wants to read all this? And then I read "Thanking My Mother For Piano Lessons." In this poem Wakoski tells us of "the relief/of putting your fingers on the keyboard,/played my way/on the old upright piano/obtained for $10,/played my way through fear." The other poems in the book are now seen as variations on a theme, as in music. Because the one continuous theme beats beneath all the poems, we see beauty in the variations of language, images, and approach. A single subject, the man-woman relationship, serves as the light source for a flowering of imagination….
Her latest book, Smudging, is equally well-crafted and the subject matter encompasses a wider range. Among other things, she examines poetry, her parents, pain, and "That Abomination In The By-Now 20th Century Aesthetic Tradition: Meditation On A Wet Snowy Afternoon." The book's title poem refers to the process of putting smoke pots in orchards to protect the fruit from frost, and hints that poetry can be a protective structure, too…. These two books are remarkable because Diane Wakoski has successfully balanced the life of emotion against the life of intelligent reflection, through the medium of poetry. The poems sound true in your heart, true in your mind, and true in your ear.
Debra Hulbert, "True Poems," in Prairie Schooner (© 1973 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1973, pp. 81-3.
[Diane Wakoski's] poems create a persona who is not heroic but who is demanding nonetheless; the apotheosis of all our own plainness to a level where its other, presumably more basic, virtues must begin, mercifully, to be searched for…. Wakoski has had the good sense to make her whole style out of this ordinariness, which she expresses in plain talk, no shit, an unadorned, "straight," anti-poetic voice—in skillful alternation with its opposite. For all her unfeigned simplicity and the accommodation to reality her lack of conventional, hence easy, beauty demands (as metaphor for all the other good reasons for being open and honest), it is hard to think of a poet who writes more lyrically: invoking jewels and flowing hair, exotic animals, landscapes as stylized and exaggerated as fairy tales—in these she is Diana of the moon. So, she has hit her readers, especially the young ones on the college circuits, twice: first precisely where they live and then where they go to dream. In this her poetry is more like Brautigan's prose than even his own poetry: cool, syntactically innocent, damn hard sometimes, fresh with the insights given only to the undeceived—while underneath beats a heart as sentimental as old gold….
With Wakoski's long wordy books, one can reach in anywhere for an illustration of flaccid writing…. Granted she achieves her effects by building somewhat crudely with big blocky statements. If one were to see Wakoski's poems as whole languages, they would be synthetic, rather than analytic—structures that heap up and join words rather than build long and complex and precise single words which enclose meaning…. [Although] Wakoski … chats and ambles and declaims in full voice, unashamed, raunchy, idealizing,… I find myself, ungratefully, looking at this her twelfth book [Smudging] and wondering, if there were less, would more of it be strong and shapely? She is a marvelously abundant woman who sounds, in her non-goddess moments (which predominate), like some friend of yours who's flung herself down in your kitchen to tell you something urgent and makes you laugh and respect her good old-fashioned guts at the same time ("So then I told him …"). Would that flow itself be curtailed if less of it were to see the light of print?
She can write poems with extreme and immaculate care. See the disciplined tone, no less "realistic" and conversational than in the lesser poems, of "Steely Silence," of "Sour Milk." See the tour de force "Screw, A Technical Love Poem," which manages in spite of its ostensible subject, to be a poem about love, with all the other implications of its title held quite miraculously at bay. See "The Joyful Black Demon of Sister Clara Flies Through the Midnight Woods on Her Snowmobile," whose title is a joyous catalog of the remarkable contents of Wakoski's mind when it is really engaged; whose lines are a richly orchestrated music which feels like a vastly extended sestina because of the tolling recurrence of words and images.
Smudging contains so much that is good that I resent being worn into satiety and inattention by its length, and by all that is easy and disheveled and nagging in it. What she is trying to do is well-served by her two kinds of voices, the broad and profane and the more precise and intellectualizing, and she deserves a lot of latitude in return for that versatility. ("Building up/in any way/a structure that will permit you to say/no,/a structure that will permit you to say/yes.") There is little this poet says that is uninteresting per se; but she can and should be more than interesting…. But if, by design or default, she can't become a more consistent poet, then let her have a harsher editor. A fine poet three-quarters disciplined does not have to apologize.
Rosellen Brown, in Parnassus, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 52-9.
The speaker of [Greed: Parts 8, 9, 11] is a bully to people who are not her kind. Awesomely disingenuous while giving advice, she slaps with one hand and fondles with another, so that the victim of her lecture (one supposes), convinced of his worthlessness, will go away placidly accepting her wisdom. Her language, tepid here, lumpy with sugar there, is loud with self-justification. Yet this poem, the confessional, is not weepy and often opens out in an admirable way. The trouble is that the vanity of the speaker, who is pragmatic and sophomoric by turns, sucks the air out of the room.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Autumn, 1973), p. cx1.
There is a plague. "Ever since we began to see death as an absolute end, everybody writes" (E. M. Cioran). If anything on earth could, this might justify the presence on the printed page of Diane Wakoski, a type that never flourished before the New World invented the spoiled child. Her sticky fingers are into everything, tearing pistils and stamens out of the calyx, prying open every oyster, unscrewing the back of every clock, fumbling at the tripes of the poor, carrying torches for negroes and dead women, permanently in a lather about men—which she spells with four letters. Her manifesto, introducing her so-called Part 9 [in Greed, Parts 8, 9, 11] might have been distinguished as unbelievable if anything else she had said were believable; an example—"to make the male chauvinists of the world [of the world, no less!] stop comparing me with Sylvia Plath—as if all women of the world who write well must be similar." (They're not?) At random, I pluck a line from her writing-well, on the subject of Sylvia Plath's husband: "I know how his gravity pulled on you like a diesel truck attached to yr lip …" (the ou is silent as in your). In every "slim volume" she becomes more fatuous, more immodest, more importunate, as if she could repair the absence of talent by screaming it into life. There is not an educated thought in this pamphlet. Yet it's not entirely devoid of uneasy recognitions. "For a woman/there is only one thing which makes sense:/a man who loves her faithfully and keeps her warm at night…." I thought she'd never say it.
Vernon Young, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 724-25.
Diane Wakoski's poems come close to being terrible; some are almost soap operas, others the grotesque fantasies of some overly imaginative and under-experienced little girl. They're self-indulgent almost to the point of obsession, over-blown almost to the point of being naive and foolish. At times she is as prosey as garden manuals and as inviolate as sophomore philosophy exams. She can be indiscreet and voluble, excessively symbolic and annoyingly hung-up on being a poet. Constantly she is the essayist discoursing on relationships. She is probably the first candidate to be hung on her own theorem that a poet's poetry is only as interesting as his life, judging by what she lets on about herself in these poems [in Smudging]. I happen to disagree with her theorem. To me, a poet is only valuable or interesting to the extent he has developed his power of penetration, his vision, substance.
Many of her poems sound as if they're constantly in trouble, falling into triteness, clumsiness, or indirection. She is constantly jumping into deep water to save a drowning stanza or into a burning building to recover disintegrating meaning, always managing to pull these rescues off, sometimes with what appears to be a superhuman determination, drawing gasps from witnesses who never lose that initial impression of diaster. Perhaps she too much loves to write. It is hardly a fault, yet it is possibly what is responsible for poems that haven't found their natural skins, positioned before a mirror trying on Macy's complete offering in ladies' fashions, flirting with marshmallow fictions. I am sure that writing can also be painful for her, but when she launches a poem so sweeping in implication, sparked by that love for the process of writing and can't fulfill its potential because she really wasn't ready, I'm not at all sure that this is the sort of pain conducive to the solid vision of genius.
This is the price paid when a poet throws his entire self into his poetry, when the poem becomes a veritable extension of his inch-by-inch living and thinking throughout a day. The poem suffers because it is too much the poet—almost the persona of the poet; or, at least, an oxydized image of his personality. But "suffers" isn't the correct term because the poem is actually divinized by having the poet in it, only with all the human drawbacks added it appears heterogeneous, askew, vulnerable. One has to revel in human contact and possess a love, not mere tolerance, for fallibility to benefit from such poems. Then too, the poet must be good, damned good, dynamic, unrelenting, and blessed with a gut-intuitive wisdom.
Wakoski has these attributes. She is saved. Her poems are saved. This inordinate degree of intelligence, both in what she says and how she handles her poems, not only saves but is the guiding force that makes her best poems more total, more liveable, more penetrable, with more results than those written by so very many of our more dichotomized poets. Her poems are always working. They are constantly going in the right direction for all of us.
If she isn't explaining herself, describing what she does, recapturing clipped instances from her past, then she is focusing upon her relationships with whatever enters her life. In fact, she spends most of her psychic energy examining how she relates to objects, events, feelings, people; always seeking the gold that is their essence, always sending herself into their plasma to steal it for her poems….
Wakoski's imaginative excursions and side-journeys (she can get strung-out in just about any poem over a page long) are well-founded in her life—they're not just facile language cyclone-spinning itself to naught. They are doors into her psyche. Veritable adventures-in-image to the Land of True Sight and Knowledge. Virtually everything in her poems is a clue to what she is. Jung wrote an autobiography of the evolution of his mind as a consequence of his life experiences, while Diane Wakoski writes the autobiography of her imagination as a consequence of her life experiences. She doesn't evade, fortunately, I believe, because her unconscious mind is the driveshaft that propels her imagination, with a conspicuously rational and perceptive mind doing the steering. This is a first rate combination and supplies her poems with the substance necessary to qualify them notches above the works of creative "geniuses", "stylists", and "cultural avatars" who have little to say.
Douglas Blazek, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by the permission of the Editor of Poetry), June, 1974, pp. 170-72.
Diane Wakoski has seemed to me one of the most interesting poets of the past decade. Her language usually leaves me cold—perhaps because I have never heard her read her poems aloud…. Her new book, Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch—and what a title! magnificent, though the book is by no means as triumphant as this might suggest—is a somewhat random collection, perhaps not up to the level of previous work, but it contains good poems. Wakoski has a way of beginning her poems with the most unpromising materials imaginable, then carrying them on, often on and on and on, talkily, until at the end they come into surprising focus, unified works. With her it is a question of thematic and imagistic control, I think; her poems are deeply, rather than verbally, structured.
Hayden Carruth, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 311-12.