Marilyn Hacker Hacker, Marilyn - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Presentation Piece 1974

Separations 1976

Taking Notice 1980

Assumptions 1985

Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons 1986

Going Back to the River 1990

Selected Poems: 1965-1990 1994

Winter Numbers: Poems 1994

Squares and Courtyards: Poems 2000

Ben Howard (review date April 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Howard, Ben. “Naturalist, Feminist, Professor.” Poetry 126, no. 1 (April 1975): 46-7.

[In the following excerpt, Howard reviews Presentation Piece, maintaining that the volume should be read as a whole in order to appreciate the connections Hacker makes between individual poems through the use of repeated images.]

Marilyn Hacker shares with Eiseley a certain tough-mindedness, but her concerns are narrower, her tone much harsher. She is a poet of emerging womanhood and the decaying American city. Her lines have a nervous intensity and a taut, glutted texture expressive of their subject:

Two bulldykes teased an acrid teenage whore...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Robert Holland (review date February 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Holland, Robert. “Six or Seven Fools.” Poetry 129, no. 5 (February 1977): 285-95.

[In the following excerpt, Holland reviews Separations, praising the poet's technique but criticizing the overall dreariness and pessimism of her verses.]

Marilyn Hacker's clowning does not seem to have been spoiled by success. Her first book, Presentation Piece (1974), not only won the Lamont Poetry Prize, but went on to take the National Book Award as well. Yet Hacker has obviously not settled back content with that. Although there are still a few poems which betray her apprenticeship, sounding like exercises or baring influences, Hacker extends her technical...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Carole S. Oles (review date 27 April 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Oles, Carole S. Review of Assumptions. The Nation, New York 240 (27 April 1985): 506-09.

[In the following review, Oles discusses Hacker's treatment of mother/daughter relationships in her poetry collection Assumptions.]

Marilyn Hacker's intelligence, wit, passion and craft have delighted her readers ever since Presentation Piece announced her arrival a decade ago. Assumptions, her fourth book, moves us with new strength and nerve. Hacker continues to explore the forms, powers and attributes a woman can assume, searching her past as the poems move from personal to mythic expressions of a woman's progress toward herself.


(The entire section is 1196 words.)

Peter Stitt (essay date fall 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Stitt, Peter. “The Typical Poem.” Kenyon Review 8, no. 4 (fall 1986): 128-33.

[In the following excerpt, Stitt reviews Assumptions, claiming that the “intentionally outrageous confessions” of the events of Hacker's own life are less effective than the poems about other people, which Stitt believes are among her best.]

Half the poems of Marilyn Hacker present a special problem with respect to content—they are the intentionally outrageous confessions of a speaker who had an affair with a married man at the tender age of seventeen, who had an illegitimate baby with a man who, we are pointedly told, at the time of writing is himself sleeping with...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Marilyn French (review date 1 November 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: French, Marilyn. Review of Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. The Nation, New York 243 (1 November 1986): 442-46.

[In the following review, French discusses Hacker's use of the sonnet form and sonnet sequences.]

The recounting of a love affair through sonnets has a tradition that dates back to Petrarch. Petrarch's Canzoniere centered on his love for a woman he called Laura, who seems more occasion than creature, an idea of woman figuring in poems offering an idea of love as exalted, unable to be consummated or even requited, and ending tragically. What is really celebrated in Petrarch's love poems is the poet's skill, his art and his...

(The entire section is 2466 words.)

Kathleene West (review date winter 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: West, Kathleene. Review of Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. Prairie Schooner 61, no. 4 (winter 1987): 121-23.

[In the following review, West praises Hacker's treatment of personal heroics, calling Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons “wise, funny, brave, and beautifully written.”]

What does it take to be a hero in the 1980s? Contemporary American culture's obsession with temperamental rock stars and prima donna quarterbacks blurs the distinction between heroism and temporary fame, and President Reagan's proclamation of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North as a national hero is as perplexing as the Newsweek inclusion of a...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)

Beatrix Gates (review date 21 January 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gates, Beatrix. Review of Going Back to the River. The Nation, New York 252, no. 2 (21 January 1991): 64-7.

[In the following review, Gates discusses Hacker's lesbian identity as it informs her poetry.]

Marilyn Hacker has given us six books of poetry as well as Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, a novel in verse that was put out by a new publisher who was better able to appreciate the hot chronicle of a year in lesbian romance. Hacker has always risked—through her fearless choice of subject and form. I remember hearing her read “Part of a True Story,” a poem dedicated to Margaret Delany that evokes a letter dictated by Harriet...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Kathleene West (review date fall 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: West, Kathleene. Review of Going Back to the River. Prairie Schooner 66, no. 3 (fall 1992): 129-31.

[In the following review, West comments on Hacker's use of a wide variety of forms, rhyme schemes, and metrical patterns.]

Marilyn Hacker's previous book, Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons is a hard act to follow. A novel in verse, mostly sonnets, it had readers and reviewers gasping out their astonishment that poetry could be lively, entertaining, and, above all, not boring. Love, Death was a stunning book, indeed, but those who have been reading Hacker's work since Presentation Piece have known all along the excitement and...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Lynn Keller (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Keller, Lynn. “Measured Feet ‘in Gender-Bender Shoes’: The Politics of Poetic Form in Marilyn Hacker's Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons.” In Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller, pp. 260-86. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Keller examines Hacker's use of formalist verse in a way that resists the stereotypical patriarchal gender politics generally associated with formalism.]

Poetry in set verse forms has recently enjoyed a revival.1 Given the highly politicized history of poetic form in this century—especially the battles in...

(The entire section is 11853 words.)

Suzanne Juhasz (review date 31 October 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Juhasz, Suzanne. “In the Fullness of the Poet's Time.” Lesbian Review of Books 2, no. 1 (31 October 1995): 16.

[In the following excerpt, Juhasz traces the development of Hacker's poetry over the 25 years covered in Selected Poems: 1965-1990.]

Marilyn Hacker is one of our premier lesbian poets. That fact is clearly brought home with the publication of her Selected Poems: 1965-1990. I have always admired her for her linguistic brilliance, largely derived from the striking conjunction of conventional prosody with decidedly unconventional, decidedly vernacular idiom. Marilyn Hacker's poetry rhymes. It is not a free, untrammeled expression of feelings;...

(The entire section is 1610 words.)

Maxine Kumin (essay date 18 December 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kumin, Maxine. “The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize—1995.” The Nation, New York 261, no. 21 (18 December 1995): 800-01.

[In the following essay, Kumin discusses the poetry of Hacker's award-winning volume, Winter Numbers.]

The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $10,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is co-administered by The Academy of American Poets and The Nation. Previous winners of the prize have been W. S. Merwin (1994), Thom Gunn (1993), Adrienne Rich (1992), John Haines (1991), Michael Ryan (1990), Thomas McGrath (1989), Josephine Jacobsen (1988), Donald Hall (1987), Howard...

(The entire section is 852 words.)

Kristen A. Hudak (review date January 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hudak, Kristen A. Review of Winter Numbers. Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 11, no. 1 (January 1996): 35-6.

[In the following review, Hudak praises Hacker's poetic technique as well as her skill in dealing with themes of life, love, and death.]

Marilyn Hacker's diagnosis of breast cancer was a life-altering discovery that undoubtedly prompted the poet to ponder what it means to be alive. Her latest volume of poetry, Winter Numbers, chronicles her strugglings with life's big questions—ancestry, the everyday, the end of a romance, and death. How these four themes relate to each other is what interests (and what makes) Hacker.


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Annie Finch (interview date May-June 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Finch, Annie. “Marilyn Hacker: An Interview on Form.” American Poetry Review 25, no. 3 (May-June 1996): 23-7.

[In the following interview, Hacker discusses issues of poetic form in her own work and in the verse of other poets of the past and present.]

I interviewed Marilyn Hacker at the 1994 AWP conference in Tempe, Arizona, a few hours after we had joined Carolyn Kizer, Marilyn Nelson (Waniek), and Kathleene West for a panel on the subject of “Formalism in Contemporary Women's Poetry,” moderated by Julie Fay. The panel marked the publication of the anthology A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women by Story...

(The entire section is 6773 words.)

Harold Schweizer (review date September 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Schweizer, Harold. Review of Winter Numbers. English Language Notes 35, no. 1 (September 1997): 62-6.

[In the following review, Schweizer examines Hacker's treatment of death and loss, as well as her attention to the particulars of domestic life.]

Marilyn Hacker confesses in an early poem, “I always / gossip in poems, mostly about myself, / hinting at inadmissible longings” (Selected Poems: 1965-1990, Norton, 1994, 16). Perhaps because they are “gossip,” Marilyn Hacker's poems are meant to be read in confidence. They are written less to be read than to be overheard, more received than read; indeed, reading any of her seven books of poems...

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Beatrix Gates (review date April 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gates, Beatrix. “Death Be Not Proud.” Lambda Book Report 8, no. 9 (April 2000): 17-18.

[In the following review, Gates discusses the recurring references to death in Hacker's Squares and Courtyards.]

Marilyn Hacker's ninth book of poems, Squares and Courtyards, as the title suggests, opens onto experiences of public gathering and private ritual. Death is chief among them—and the collective lives of the passing arrange themselves kaleidoscopically throughout the book. Death is a regular refrain, addressed from every side. There are no hidden places, only constant exposure, and in the title poem of the first section, “Scars on Paper,” the poet...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Esther Cameron (review date fall 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cameron, Esther. Review of Squares and Courtyards. Prairie Schooner 75, no. 3 (fall 2001): 186-89.

[In the following review, Cameron discusses Hacker's Squares and Courtyards, a collection informed by the poet's battle with breast cancer.]

Marilyn Hacker's ninth collection is written under the aspect of transiency. Reflected in the poems are the realities of a breast cancer diagnosis, mastectomy, chemotherapy, a body no longer whole, the fear of recurrence, the waking up to the “scandal” of death; also the illnesses and deaths of relatives, friends, acquaintances, strangers: other sufferers from cancer in the poet's circle, the victims of aids...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Campo, Rafael. “About Marilyn Hacker.” Ploughshares 22 (spring 1996): 195-99.

Overview of the poet's life and career as writer, editor, and teacher.

Gardinier, Suzanne. “Marilyn Hacker (1942- ).” In Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States, edited by Sandra Pollack and Denise D. Knight, pp. 258-68. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Overview of Hacker's life, themes, and critical reception.

Weir, John. “Marilyn Hacker.” Advocate 664 (20 September 1994): 51-4.

Conversation with Hacker about her life and work.


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