Wakoski, Diane (Vol. 7)

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Wakoski, Diane 1937–

Ms Wakoski, an American poet, writes personal, confessional poetry, notably angry, exuberant, and original. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Diane Wakoski can be a bit obsessive … (her hang-up is with her compulsion to go for males who are strictly Bad News) but she is always … witty about it and leavens the loaf of her neurosis with imagination and wry humor. (p. 406)

She is a poet who has always written too much and sometimes too glibly; there have been times in her career when she found it impossible to resist the merely cute and other times when Vindictiveness seemed the name of her Muse but, for all these shortcomings, she is a real poet with honesty and great natural gifts…. (pp. 406-07)

George Hitchcock, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1974, University of Utah), Autumn, 1974.

Wakoski strives for a voice that is wholly natural, spontaneous, and direct. Accordingly, she avoids all fixed forms, definite rhythms, or organized image patterns in the drive to tell us the Whole Truth about herself, to be sincere. In "Ladies, Listen To Me," for example, she insists that, despite her name, she is no Virgin Goddess but only Diane…. It is "the secret of iron gates against the body" that permits this Diane to survive. (p. 90)

[Despite] the stress on ordinary particulars—teeth that are "strong but yellowish" and "lumpy mashed potatoes"—Wakoski's is not a poetry of attention, a celebration of the phenomenal world. Unlike Williams or Creeley or O'Hara, she is generally unable to "make a start out of particulars," to transcend the individual ego of Diane Wakoski. (p. 91)

No doubt the "Water Element Song" [in Greed/Part 9] is a sincere expression of Wakoski's feelings [about Sylvia Plath], but if, according to her own definition, good poetry depends upon the construction of an "interesting" voice, this poem must be judged a failure. For quite aside from its disrespect for the real psychic events of Plath's life …, the "Water Element Song" presents a strangely reductive view of human experience: the woman poet must either be a tough cookie, not taking any guff from those men who try to betray her, or she will end up, as did Plath, turning on the gas. Surely life—anyone's life—is more complicated than that. (p. 92)

Marjorie G. Perloff, in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1975.

Wakoski's ["Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands"] marks, I think, something of a plateau in her work. Her biting poems on men and her touching poems on her childhood and adolescence have by now earned her a place in all the anthologies, and she has every right to pause and think about her own writing. Most of the poems here concern art, but art seems less amenable to Wakoski's discursive and meandering meditations than past anecdotes. Her descriptions here of flowers, landscapes and birds bear traces, perhaps inevitably, of Lawrence (as did Sylvia Plath's flower poems), and some of Lawrence's deliberate autobiographical flatness recurs in her, but, where his language is driven and his pacing relentless, hers is nerveless and weak…. We do read poetry with preconceptions, still—that it will be, as Hopkins put it, "the current language heightened," with concentration, pressure and intensity. But Wakoski decides to combat this expectation of compactness in poetic language. Where letters were, there telephone calls shall be; where embarrassment, concealment, symbols were, there talk, confidences, open pain shall be; where line was, there fragment shall be. It's an esthetic one can't condemn in principle, but Wakoski has yet to make it work in her new reflective subject-matter, perhaps because in her new morality of "understanding" she loses much of the force of pain and protest of her best-known poems: "my final understanding," she says of a love affair, "[is] that the pain of losing him is an image that itself must be a structure in my life, and that a myth is a set of beautiful memorable images." True, possibly, but tepid. Wakoski's private chagrin and rage are still her more compelling notes. (pp. 31-2)

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 6, 1975.

Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands is … low key, clearer and more prosy than her previous books. The tone is set by "The Emerald Essay," a prose-poem lecture in letter form on the nature of poetry…. Virtuoso is [somewhat] abstract, with a tendency toward wise sayings…. Wakoski uses more similes here than I remember in her earlier work, often with great skill and imagination…. Her statements about life are not remarkable, but many of these poems and parts of poems are, especially when she sticks to the visual and informative (some fine writing, particularly, about mushrooms, which appear in several of these poems as a symbol for the good life). (pp. 25-6)

Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 14, 1975.

Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands is Diane Wakoski's fourteenth collection—an abundance that fairly predicts such haste makes considerable waste. She has never made much of a distinction between the work behind a poem and that in the poem, preferring to display the process of her products, the unfolding of her life on the page in order to produce a reflecting response: what she calls "a poetry that can be lived." Her poems have increasingly sought the sort of sprawl that can accommodate random associations and converging images; typically, they recircle an initial object or perception, exploring and expanding its significance. That tactic is effective in her elegy for a suicide, "The Story of Richard Maxfield," where the realization of loss is slowly urged from the numb presence of absence. But most often, the force of her work is dissipated by its flat discursiveness and dulled figures—whatever else Ravel's arpeggios may resemble, it is not tapwater dribbling over fresh vegetables. One could overlook such lapses if they were not in service to her larger purposes of "philosophizing" her experience. Throughout her career, Wakoski has maintained an awkward integrity—thinking everything through, taking nothing for granted—that is admirable in theory and often absurd in practice, since her intelligence is at best derivative or simplistic. (p. 98)

[This is] the basic dilemma: on the one hand, her pose as the innocent, energetic original, capable of a generous but still vulnerable openness to experience; and on the other, her problem in working too hard "to make myself as interesting to others / as I have, foolishly, always found myself." That dilemma itself becomes the subject of Virtuoso Literature…. Wakoski is best when speaking to herself, or to a lost or possible self…. Beyond all the table talk, and the worried self-consciousness of her role as poet, there are quiet moments … among these poems. One wishes she would stop speaking long enough to listen for more of them. (pp. 98-9)

J. D. McClatchy, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1975.

One of the most interesting things about Wakoski's public rise is that it has proceeded in a large part from a marriage of ambition and increasingly solidifying moral/aesthetic belief, so that in her current stature we are faced with a poet who, though she has been pragmatic in working to get where she is, has—if anything—removed from her poetry those elements that might have aided her in becoming a desirable commodity. Wakoski, it seems to me, stands on nobody's shoulders; her poetry panders to no one.

Her George Washington series, the continuing presence of that figure in her later work, and the local appearances in her poems aside, it is the roots of Wakoski's attitude that identify her particularly American presence, and hence—I suspect—the ability of her poetry to touch widely and deep. Ingenuity, ambition, steadfast morality, a lack of 'city' sophistication coupled with a sense in which learning is held more as a treasured commodity than an integral part of personality, are elements in Wakoski's poetry that confirm the depths of her rootedness in this country.

Americans (outside of our cities at least) are fundamentally inarticulate; we do not come to a mastery of meaningfully expressive speech easily; what is taken as economy is often discomfort. Diane Wakoski's poetry is a characteristic result of this quality. One of the central forces of her poems proceeds from a fundamentally serious playfulness, an evident desire to spin out and open the image rather than to close the structure. In this sense, one of their most compelling qualities is their obsessiveness: the need at every turn to digress, to let the magic of the words take her where they will, because they are so beautiful, because the ability to speak out is not to be taken for granted, is to be wondered at in its foreignness, is to be followed. The possibility of direct statement is almost impossible (or at least needs to be earned); she creates a personal mythology in order to speak. There is the tension her American audience responds to.

In gathering material for this symposium it was my intention to present a picture of Diane Wakoski that was both celebratory and more personal than a strict presentation of critical articles would provide…. [I] have tried to present views of Wakoski that take into consideration the total range of her work. In almost all cases, these offerings fulfill that requirement…. What all of the writers here have in common is an evident desire to avoid (or deal with) a view that would separate Diane Wakoski from her work. What is presented here stands against the 'critical' distinction between the life of the poet and her poems; it refuses to be that casual. (p. 91)

Toby Olson, in "A Symposium on Diane Wakoski," edited by Toby Olson, in Margins (copyright © 1976 by Margins), January/February/March, 1976.

Repetition has become Wakoski's basic stylistic mode. And since form is an extension of content (et vice versa) Wakoski's poetic themes have become obsessive. Repetition is a formal fact of her poetry and, so she suggests, the basic structure of our lives. "The Beautiful Amanita Muscaria" in the latest book (Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands, 1975) is about justice (or the lack of it) and destiny. It responds directly to Adrienne Rich's idea that we can change. Wakoski counters: "Even with our greatest will / We do not change."

Friedrich Nietzsche's phrase "eternal recurrence" has gone through the wash so many times that its original meaning has faded. But the phrase has become suggestive enough to many of us to pop into the head recurringly. Diane Wakoski, in effect, has developed her own "ewige Wiederkehr." Her musical, incantatory poetry keeps repeating: this is a world of dishonest love, where there is precious little justice, goodness and beauty. The question is: do we hear? (pp. 96-7)

Gloria Bowles, in "A Symposium on Diane Wakoski," edited by Toby Olson, in Margins (copyright © 1976 by Margins), January/February/March, 1976.

Much of the energy of Wakoski's art, like the undercurrents of obsessive mental processes, delineates and makes order out of complex and illogical sexual, social, and cultural relationships. The George Washington Poems actualize, alter, and make contemporary the mythic sensibilities of a geographical and a psychological territory. With clarity, wit, and elegantly stunning imagery, Wakoski charters and restructures "time" and "person" elements into a whole new subjective biography. She is a surrealist with a piercing vision and "knows" how to yield up emotion with the blood flow of dreams. She has given us a work of golden keys and clasps—a work to decipher the universal sovereignty of the patriarchal myth in the western world. The fifty-five pages of this book meet the demands of essential poetic research of that torturous mythology in a powerfully artistic affirmation. (p. 105)

Rochelle Owens, in "A Symposium on Diane Wakoski," edited by Toby Olson, in Margins (copyright © 1976 by Margins), January/February/March, 1976.

I am thankful that we can look to Diane Wakoski as a poet who will go on writing her way through all the phases of being a woman. Our published records of the lives of intelligent women who go on thinking growing and creating are all too few. Wakoski has created a poet-self that can speak about women's angers and hungers, strengths and helplessness, teaching us all—both men and women—about women's human many-sidedness. (p. 110)

Andrea Musher, in "A Symposium on Diane Wakoski," edited by Toby Olson, in Margins (copyright © 1976 by Margins), January/February/March, 1976.

What interests me about Wakoski's poetry, and is one of the things distinguishing its context/content from that of the work of poets like Plath and Sexton, is the fact that much of it comes out of a working class consciousness (the early background described in "Smudging" and some of her other poems). This perhaps makes her potentially a poet for a wider audience, though at the same time the reader needs to recognize that her sometime preoccupation with what might in other poets read like materialism or escapism, is in fact a natural response to early experiences of being among the underprivileged….

What Wakoski's theme of betrayal reflects is the fact that many women, since they have few other outlets, tend to make emotionally greedy demands upon men. At the same time, in her earlier poetry, she sometimes repudiated female gender altogether, referring to herself, for example, rather oddly, as "the greedy man". Wakoski's longing, outlined in the early parts of Greed, to be a famous and accepted poet, is in part an attempt to escape from the bondage of the knowledge that in the power structure of a patriarchal society it is likely that "all men will leave me / if I love them" (as asserted in "The Father of My Country"). In her earlier work, Wakoski seemed to be trying to assert that women and men poets were the same kind of people, and that poetry did not have a primary political purpose. It seems to me that her recent writing lends itself more and more to explication on a political or feminist basis, and thus perhaps shows a development from her earlier position. (p. 111)

[Though] Wakoski in many poems expresses a sense of vulnerability and dependence on men that is too overstated for those women who are fighting their way towards autonomy and liberation, it is also the case that she thereby relates to the lot of women with little or no financial independence and the reliance on men that this produces. At its best, this consciousness combines aspirations towards freedom with an awareness of the problems of relationships in a society where power is unequally shared between men and women and the problem therefore for a woman is "how to resist pain without blunting my other feelings". (p. 113)

Carole Ferrier, in "A Symposium on Diane Wakoski," edited by Toby Olson, in Margins (copyright © 1976 by Margins), January/February/March, 1976.

I've thought for a long time that [Wakoski's] very particular strength comes from the exploitation, or let's say the process/discovery of a complex region somewhere between symbolism and allegory. I don't know of any other poet for whom this statement holds and it's an accomplishment on a high level….

What interests me continuously about her work, and makes me wander about in each successive book, involves precisely the complex order of interrelationships between the two major modalities. How will it work now? What's she doing? Where's it going? In those numerous poems that do get there, the sensation is of having the rug, or floor, suddenly pulled out from under; the poem embodies an allegorical, even judgmental quality, but elusively, working through a more complex nexus of symbolic overtones whose mystery, though grounded, continues to fill space. (p. 114)

Armand Schwerner, in "A Symposium on Diane Wakoski," edited by Toby Olson, in Margins (copyright © 1976 by Margins), January/February/March, 1976.

Diane's style of writing reminds me of the baroque style of dress so popular among women through the 1800's up till almost the very end: the huge flounces, furbelows, puffed sleeves, trailing skirts, tight waist, heaving bosoms and stylishly protruding buttocks, all carried off with great elegance of movement and poise. Diane, however, at the same time speaks almost as no woman of those days would have dared to speak or to write, pronouncing anathema upon men, identified men, at that, in public; a horror scandal, especially as we come to realize that the ladies of the 1800's dressed in the fashion they did to please and arouse men by their beauty of decor, short for decorum, in an undercover appeal to men's sensuous side. Diane uses this masquerade as exactly that, to bring men closer by her colorfulness and charm of imagery the better to lash them for their faithlessness and betrayal.

This is not being said in derogation of her poetry or her self. Quite the opposite. She's extraordinary for the imagery she employs and even more unusual for the power that emanates from them. There is no question in my mind that she is justified in writing as she does against men. (pp. 114-15)

The wider issue, if Diane can concede such a possibility, is that she also is making a statement on the condition of the relationship of people to one another in this world. What I would ask of Diane, if she can see my point here, is to reach out to the life and styles of other men and women and to the life and style of governments which after all are simply the mirror of the relationships we have with each other. With what Diane has in the quality of imagination, technique, accessibility to her feelings and courage of expression, it seems to me that she could become a Jeremiah among us, a prophetic voice. (p. 115)

David Ignatow, in "A Symposium on Diane Wakoski," edited by Toby Olson, in Margins (copyright © 1976 by Margins), January/February/March, 1976.

There are so many false dilemmas in criticism, and I hate to allude to one of them by calling Diane a popular poet. But she is, and concern with selling and dispersing her work can be sensed in all her books. In fact, I've long thought that the only contemporary to whom she should be compared, in wordiness and factuality, is Allen Ginsberg. She betrays no allegiance to any cause beyond her own understanding and enjoyment of the world, but her incessant gossip in verse is the moral obverse of Ginsberg's attempt to reach out to everything livings….

My feeling is that Diane would love to be the utmost in some field, and that she's not decided which. When she writes the word "poetry" in her column, one could substitute things like "the Church," "physical fitness," "education," or "Hollywood." A profession, a reputation, is what disturbs her.

By which I do not mean to denounce her. It took so long to sweat off "poetic language," and I guess it'll take forever to live clear of the "poetic stance." In fact, I think the prime weakness of Diane's verse is her penchant for symbolically heavy items. That she is using, not believing, them is signalled by their arrival in lists (of clocks, necks, bugs, astrology, jewels, etc.).

That Diane Wakoski's energy and devotion seem dedicated to a career rather than to something more mysterious, is a choice she makes over and over in her verse. It's so refreshing: the poet is no better or worse than you and me. Diane Wakoski is a pleasant proof that prescriptions for art are meaningless. (p. 116)

Louis Rowan, in "A Symposium on Diane Wakoski," edited by Toby Olson, in Margins (copyright © 1976 by Margins), January/February/March, 1976.

[Wakoski] is an extraordinary poet whose special gift is as maker of images: precise, clean, simple images (sunlight coming into the room like cold beer; Debussy, delicate and sparse like a dress you can see through; the limbs of a beautiful woman, smooth as cool chablis); psychological images (loving to laugh or cry because "I can reach down and pull out the creased edges of my body this way"); emotional images (sorrow that weighs in the hand like pickaxes, hurt that is a stairway, reaching further down than anyone can climb); and symbolic images (the doberman pincer moving his naps across the room, following the morning sunlight on the floor, stretching and fitting himself into what light is available, "making the fit")….

I sense … more and more a darkness in her poems that almost devastates and destroys, that almost leaves us unable to recover and to embrace humanity. (p. 117)

[When] we hold the 14 volumes of Wakoski's poetry, we are holding not an armload of books, but a woman, a woman given archetypal resonance in the "Diane" who seeks the King of Spain in the blighted terrain of her own spirit and the American culture….

What is the face of this Diane? Does she have one face or many faces, or no face at all? In a surprising way, it is indeed the face and the making or carving of the face (identity) that is the central concern of Wakoski's poetry. Wakoski's whole poetic enterprise is an attempt to see and reveal herself fully…. Wakoski's poetry is a record, an unusually honest and bloody record, of her struggle to "articulate" a face and embrace an identity in a world that threatens to destroy both. (p. 118)

I am convinced that Wakoski's poetry is a much wiser and more powerful statement about the experience of life in the 1960's and 1970's than most readers have realized. It gives us a moving vision of the terrible last stages of a disintegrating personality and a disintegrating society, and it painfully embodies the schizophrenia, alienation, and lovelessness of our time. In a culture where masculinity loses compassion and tenderness and becomes associated with aggression, money, and machinery, people come to reject mystery and fear the dark powers of the Great Mother. The life of the emotions and love are abandoned in favor of efficiency and security, and the self begins to disintegrate and move toward exhaustion…. If the vital powers of love and of the woman (or the feminine impulse or anima within the psyche) are not allowed to culminate in fullness and fertility, they do not lessen in power but become forces of anger and death. If Isis cannot be Isis, she will be Medusa; if the ecstatic-mother is denied, she will resurface as the teeth-mother.

In our time we, along with Diane, are all Isis/Osiris, suffering from fragmented identities, confronted with the choices of love, insensibility, or demonic power. We can restore our torn faces and bodies with love, replace them with metal, or armor them with devourer's teeth. It does not seem likely that Diane's face will harden into metal or seek escape in death or the inanimate, but her other two faces—the face of betrayed love and the face of the devourer—are disturbingly similar or identical in appearance. In different ways both reveal "the hunger/in me/which is open-jawed and broken-toothed" [Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands]. That open-jawed, broken-toothed, bloody face, is ultimately the face of Diane, and the face of our time. (p. 128)

James F. Mersmann, in "A Symposium on Diane Wakoski," edited by Toby Olson, in Margins (copyright © 1976 by Margins), January/February/March, 1976.

[The poems of Coins and Coffins and Discrepancies and Apparitions] are vivid landscapes—as diabolic as Dali, as gauzy as Monet—and the concerns of [Wakoski's] later work (vulnerability, injustice, the terror in beauty and communication) are almost hidden in their foliage. One of her gifts is making image-dense tableaux move in the swift, weightless, crystalline manner of dreams. But, like dreams, these early poems are cryptic, almost self-consciously so. In them, one sees a young poet developing a startling verbal and rhythmic alchemy—the ability to make fluid things blunt and violence fragile—that would soon give her thrust enough to settle into riskier emotional substance. (pp. 82-3)

With [Inside Blood Factory], her sensual surrealism erupts as a means of catharsis. These are soft, brutal, dazzling poems—possibly her best collection. In them, her imaginary cast of characters (Beethoven, George Washington, The King of Spain) and trademark imagery (varieties of fruit, reptiles, metal, bone, tools, blood, fish, jewels, flowers—"the soft, sensual, 'female' things and erect, metallic, 'masculine' things I like to contrast") are established—freed to serve her feelings….

The … theme [of The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems] is the mythology and confusions of male-female love, and the fury at betrayal by symbols, envy, lovers, and self. Less stylized than her previous work, the book is as playful and indignant as a private diary. In some of these poems, Wakoski dares to teeter on the brink of self-pity, self-righteousness, defensive anger—preferring candid, pedestrian anguish to the gorgeous metaphors she spent years learning to dress it in….

[In Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands] she's wistful, nostalgic—"mellow," as she puts it. In this collection, the piano she played as a young girl is a metaphor for her confrontation with her past. In the title poem, she speaks of her 15-year resistance to facing the "music" of her childhood—"holding my hands away from the pianos I have passed, / like a hiker in the hot dry mountains refusing to open his canteen of water until he is absolutely sure he could not continue without it." (p. 83)

Sheila Weller, "The Mercy and Ironies of Memory: The Poetry of Diane Wakoski," in Ms. (© 1976 Ms. Magazine Corp.), March, 1976, pp. 82-3.


Wakoski, Diane (Vol. 4)


Wakoski, Diane (Vol. 9)