Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753
Marilyn Hacker is one of the most diverse, talented contemporary poets of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her distinguished stratification of work inspired poet Rafael Campo to refer to her as an “award-winning poet, political activist, editor, and literary formalist.” Hacker’s innovative poetic forms and autobiographical, raw subject matter infuse her work with jagged but irresistible energy. Her expert employment of forms and her clever, straightforward voice assures her permanent status as a master of poetic craft.
Hacker is the only daughter of working-class Jewish parents from the Bronx of New York. Her mother received a master’s degree in chemistry, aspiring to train as a physician, but was denied admission into medical school, being both a woman and a Jew. Her father, an industrial chemist, was never continually employed. Hacker’s mother taught within the New York public schools and solely supported the family. Her father died at forty-eight from pancreatic cancer not long after receiving a teaching position at City College of New York (CCNY). Marilyn Hacker later became a professor at CCNY, directing the master of arts program in creative writing and English literature.
The scare availability of resources following the Great Depression and World War II prompted Hacker, during her childhood, to seek libraries for entertainment. Reading classic plays, fiction, and volumes of poetry established an early foundation for academic success. She attended the Bronx High School of Science and began studying French. Her keen intellect afforded her enrollment at New York University (NYU) at fifteen. She spent the summer preceding her freshman year taking French literature survey courses at Hunter College, to qualify for French scholar Germaine Bree’s courses on twentieth century French theater and philosophy.
Hacker studied French, existentialism, science, and calculus at NYU. She married science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, despite his homosexuality, the year before her graduation and left NYU, taking jobs in commercial editing. Hacker eventually returned to college, completing her bachelor of arts in romance languages; giving birth to a daughter, Iva; and later divorcing Delany. The coming years marked a difficult transition for her, from heterosexual wife to outspoken lesbian activist.
Hacker did not begin publishing her work until age twenty-six, her first piece accepted by Cornell University’s Epoch magazine. Her United States audience grew steadily and, after her 1970 move to London, became transatlantic. There, news arrived that three poems were selected for the New American Review, edited by Richard Howard.
Howard, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and translator of French verse, became Hacker’s mentor and helped circulate her early manuscripts. In 1974, Viking Press published Hacker’s Presentation Piece, quickly recognized for its candid, lyric voice, which captured the 1974 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets and the National Book Award.
Hacker’s editing career includes work at the science-fiction magazine Quark, The Little Magazine, and Thirteenth Moon, a feminist literature publication she nearly solely supported. In 1989 to 1990 and 1996 she guest edited for Ploughshares. From 1990 to 1994 she edited The Kenyon Review, most enjoying the discovery of poets such as Campo and Aleida Rodriguez and helping them publish their first work, but her position ended abruptly in 1994, as she fought breast cancer.
Her subsequent publications were autobiographical, addressing her losing friends to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), defining her sexuality, and raising a daughter while living through chemotherapy. Her work Squares and Courtyards connects her ancestry with her life in Europe, as contrasted with her New York childhood. The book is split, almost as a single elegiac poem into two sections: “Scars on Paper” and “Paragraphs from a Daybook,” the latter of which is most celebrated by critics for its sonnet adaptations. In “Grief,” a poem in five sections, she powerfully mourns her daughter’s loss of a best friend after her twentieth birthday, examining the fear the young woman holds at the possibility of losing her own mother to cancer.
Despite Hacker’s innovative use and dedication to forms, her poetry is not widely anthologized. She boldly ties “radical lesbian-feminist politics” with “canonic form,” according to critic John Foy, “giving the finger to idealogues” by postulating that subject matter and form are mutually exclusive. As an American poet, her honesty and commitment are not yet recognized within the established canon.
Hacker’s poems have received numerous other awards and honors, including The Nation’s Lenore Marshall Prize; the Poet’s Prize; and a Lambda Literary Award. She also received the John Masefield Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill and Guggenheim Foundations.
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