Marilyn Hacker 1942-
American poet and editor.
The following entry provides an overview of Hacker's life and works.
Hacker, an award-winning poet whose works have been published in numerous collections and in a wide variety of journals, identifies herself as a Jewish-American lesbian feminist. She is best known for combining traditional forms, such as the sonnet, with thematic content that is highly personal, even outrageous according to some critics. Hacker's poetry is often devoted to the minute details of domesticity, although at the same time, it deals with larger issues such as the transient nature of human relationships and of life itself. Many of her poems, particularly those in her later collections, tend to be dark and somber in tone.
Hacker was born in New York City on November 27, 1942, to Albert Abraham Hacker, a management consultant, and Hilda Rosengarten, a teacher. She attended Bronx High School of Science where she met her friend Samuel Delany, a gay African-American science fiction novelist whom she married in 1961. Hacker studied painting at the Art Students' League and in 1964 earned a B.A. from New York University. From 1969 to 1971, Hacker and Delany co-edited Quark: A Quarterly of Speculative Fiction. The couple separated in 1974 and divorced in 1980; they had one child, a daughter, Iva Hacker-Delany, born in 1974 when Hacker was working in London as an antiquarian book dealer. Shortly thereafter, Hacker publicly identified herself as a lesbian; she has maintained a domestic partnership with Karyn London since 1986.
In 1990, Hacker assumed the editorship of The Kenyon Review but was ousted from that position four years later, just months after completing chemotherapy treatments following breast cancer surgery. In addition to her writing and editing work, Hacker has held numerous teaching positions at a variety of institutions, among them State University of New York at Binghamton, Brandeis, and Princeton. She recently accepted the directorship of the M.A. program in English literature and creative writing at the City College of New York. Hacker divides her time between her homes in Paris and Manhattan.
Hacker's poems have appeared in a wide variety of periodicals including Nation, Paris Review, and Ms. She published her first major collection of poetry in 1974. Presentation Piece was a Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets and won the National Book Award. This was followed by Separations (1976), and Taking Notice (1980). Some critics consider these first three collections a trilogy because of their similar subject matter and tone. In 1985, Hacker published Assumptions, a volume dealing with relationships between mothers and daughters; it is a highly personal work revealing intimate details of Hacker's own role as both daughter and mother.
Hacker's 1986 book Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons has garnered considerable attention and debate over its appropriate generic classification. The work is a collection of narrative poems—primarily sonnets but also villanelles and a sestina—strung together to tell the story of the successive stages of a lesbian love affair from the first moment of attraction to the painful break-up at the end. Some critics refer to it as a sonnet sequence while others insist it is actually a novel in verse. In 1994, Hacker published Selected Poems: 1965-1990 as well as the highly-acclaimed Winter Numbers, dealing with the loss of friends to either AIDS or breast cancer, both of which she considers modern epidemics. She continued that theme in Squares and Courtyards (2000).
In addition to her writing, Hacker has served as editor of a number of literary publications, among them Thirteenth Moon, The Little Magazine, Quark, and The Kenyon Review.
Hacker has received numerous awards, among them the National Book Award (1975), National Endowment for the Arts grants (1974, 1985, 1995), a Guggenheim Foundation award (1980-81), the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry (1991, 1995), and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets (1995). She is widely acclaimed for her technical mastery of difficult forms and occasionally criticized for writing within those traditional formal conventions, which many feminists associate with patriarchal politics. Lynn Keller (1994) explains that “Hacker does not equate prescribed forms with hegemonic ideology,” but rather “is confident that women can express themselves through the resources of received tradition—which she refuses to see as predominantly masculine.” Most critics note the way Hacker combines highly-structured formal elements and gritty subject matter. Ben Howard (1975), for example, in his review of Presentation Piece, reports that Hacker “fuses conventional stanzaic form with squalid urban imagery and with a diction that is both fastidious and rich with slang.” Similarly, Suzanne Juhasz (1995) admires Hacker's “linguistic brilliance, largely derived from the striking conjunction of conventional prosody with decidedly unconventional, decidedly vernacular idiom.”
Peter Stitt (1986) finds many of the poems of Assumptions to be “intentionally outrageous confessions,” and maintains that Hacker's best work is achieved when she abandons such extreme introspection in favor of poetry about other people, such as Harriet Tubman. Marilyn French (1986) acknowledges Hacker's extensive treatment of personal experiences, but complains that the poet offers a limited range of emotional responses to those experiences. Hacker “insists she feels only loss and sorrow,” according to French, rather than the justifiable anger some of the narrative situations in Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons would seem to provoke. Nonetheless, it is Hacker's personal life, most specifically her identity as a lesbian, that informs her poetry, according to Beatrix Gates (1991), who believes her lesbian identity is “the emotional magnet at the center of Hacker's books.”
Critics have often noted the increasingly somber tone of Hacker's work, particularly the poems contained in Winter Numbers, although Robert Holland (1977) commented on this aspect of Hacker's work even in her early material. In a review of Separations, Holland complains of the poet's preoccupation with loss: “While I admire the sureness of technique, I keep asking myself why it must be all that damp and dreary, unrelieved by any of the ordinary compensations of life.” Her later work, though, is thoroughly permeated with images of death, usually from what Hacker considers the twin epidemics of the late twentieth-century: AIDS and breast cancer. Her own experiences with the latter, including surgery and chemotherapy, inform the last section of Winter Numbers. Titled “Cancer Winter,” the section contains three poems Matthew Rothschild (1995) calls “among the most draining I've ever read.” Suzanne Juhasz (1995) agrees that “death is ever-present” in the book but suggests that it is accompanied by “wisdom and contemplative power” and by “intelligence and artistry.” Hacker's next collection, Squares and Courtyards continues in the same vein, according to Beatrix Gates (2000), who reports that in the collection “death is a regular refrain, addressed from every side.”