Marilyn Hacker 1942–
American poet and editor.
Hacker usually employs traditional forms, notably the sonnet, in her highly personal poems. Some critics praise her work for showing the potential richness of structured poetry, but others find her free-form poems most effective. Presentation Piece won the National Book Award in 1975. Her recent Taking Notice confirms her sensitivity to the varied concerns of women, especially the title sequence, which centers on a lesbian relationship.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 9 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
[Taking Notice] is an impressive work of art, and Marilyn Hacker is an artist with a sharp, crystalline mind. She is never fashionable—and poetry these days is too too dangerously a world in which fashion seems to fascinate….
Technically she is a superb artisan. This was true in her first two books and is now more true than ever. Probably the other most important characteristic she possesses as a writer is a discerning eye for truth, however unpleasant, however against the grain, however out of vogue. She has her artistic eye trained on what is actually happening, however murky the gestalt may be, and she keeps it right there until the drama is played out. Her determination to speak truth and her technical skill combine to produce an epigrammatic quality, an epigrammatic wisdom in Taking Notice. Any given line or couple of lines is likely to be at least as interesting and maybe more memorable than a particular poem. Or to put it another way, the cumulative effect is there, but the parts too are gems. The result of this is that as a reader you reach for your pen to underline or to lift out quotes for a notebook. It's not only what she has to say but the phrasing, "the way" she says what she has to say, "the way" she has with words, that is strikingly original, highly compelling. (p. 73)
It goes almost without saying that there is much in the book that addresses in particular women and the women's movement, that this book is a significant event in the history of that movement. But this is not a book about women nearly so much as it is a book about living, and it is this richness, this breadth of scope I want to stress. It is appropriate that the book's title is Taking Notice because that is what Marilyn Hacker is doing, noticing everything every step of the way. Inevitably then the book's themes are many. The final section, a sequence of twenty-five sonnets centered on the progress of a love affair, is an example. The sequence covers a wide, shifting range of experience…. This is truth where romanticizing might have been tempting, and it is this insistence on truth I admire. We are indebted to Marilyn Hacker for her straightforward frankness, her relentless honesty.
This frankness extends too to another kind of love affair, the one between mother and child. The book is remarkable for the emotional range of poems on this subject. Hacker delineates the frustration to the point of rage which every parent feels in the quotidian course of things…. There are also poems which render the parent's good humored exasperation with the relentlessness of a child's constant presence. "Third Snowfall" is one of these, a delightfully whimsical, humorous series of rhymed couplets. There are several which speak to the concern of a mother for her child's future, especially a female child (… you can be / anyone, but it won't be / easy"). And there are poems which express the passionate joy our children call up in us...
(This entire section contains 729 words.)
which is just as powerful and just as real as the rest of it….
And in fact there is much more general joy in this book than in Presentation Piece or Separations. (p. 74)
Marilyn Hacker is still a very careful, very formal writer. The sonnets and sonnet sequences (the sonnet it seems has become her favorite vehicle, the form which best suits her thought, fits her particular stride) are impeccable and beautifully musical. At the same time they are informal, straightforwardly frank, even sometimes chatty in tone. This happy blend of formal structure and informal speech, her working of casual tone within the sonnet form, seems to me an achievement of some note. Other writers ought to be jealously admiring, and readers I think cannot help but feel the thrill of reading really good work. Marilyn Hacker's use of traditional forms in general (sonnet, sestina, pantoum, canzone, villanelle, rondeau) and her mastery of them is unique in contemporary poetry. No other poet writing today has this particularly fine technical skill as polished as Marilyn Hacker has polished it. Her work, especially Taking Notice, deserves substantial critical attention and praise. (pp. 74-5)
Marilyn Krysl, "Reviews: 'Taking Notice'," in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (© copyright 1980, by the Frontiers Editorial Collective), Vol. V, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 73-5.
["Taking Notice"] is the work of a highly skilled, conscious artisan. Several poems are dedicated to other writers, but [Marilyn Hacker's] daughter also receives some witty, celebratory attention. Miss Hacker directly discusses the rigors and discipline of writing, but she often addresses friends in a seemingly offhanded way, and some poems have a quotidian, even improvised, quality. One section of the book is called "Occasions," but Miss Hacker is never involved in merely "occasional poetry."… The long sequence, "Taking Notice," consists of 25 sonnets that deal principally with a lesbian relationship, and uses an epigraph from Adrienne Rich, who has written in a similar vein in "XXI Love Poems." We hear a complex voice, riddled with wry self-doubt and longing….
This book's center is hard to characterize, for it has a [wide and complex] range of feeling and language…. Perhaps we must be content to refer to that autobiographical impulse that occurs so frequently in our poetry. The poem has become, among other things, a record of "how we live now." But the keen attention evident in Marilyn Hacker's poetry shows us that such domestic and inward concerns needn't become mere note-taking, and the vigor of speech needn't turn prosaic when shaped into a personal testament….
[This book demonstrates], positively and negatively, that oldest truth about American poetry: That since Whitman and Dickinson our lyric flourishes when it focuses on the near at hand and sings unabashedly its self-centered song.
Charles Molesworth; "Fondled Memories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1980, p. 37.∗
With Taking Notice …, Marilyn Hacker has written what constitutes the last volume in a trilogy. Her concerns are basically the same—esthetic and sexual confrontation—as they were in Presentation Piece and Separations. It is their sequence that swells a progress. Their titles, effectively, speak for themselves. The first book is an introduction to and exploration of relationships, friendly and familial; the second centers on the difficulty and eventual disintegration of a long-distance marriage. This third book, a taking and nailing-up of notice, begins with "one man, not some indifferent Muse to me" and ends with "the woman I love, as old, as new to me / as any moment of delight."
Running in a kind of counterpoint beneath those major chords is the poet's relationship with her child, Iva Alyxander, her birth, babyhood, and growth….
Loving and mothering, feeling and form. These are Hacker's preoccupations. It should be said at the outset that at her best no one handles the colloquial sublime—a language that is both common and classical in forms both strict and serial—better than Marilyn Hacker. She is a master of progressive pentameter, of measuring, interrupting and holding the line, and of letting it go on, of letting it pile into sentences and juxtapositions.
There are few poems in the present volume that free her of this formal bias, and when we run across them ("Up from D.C.") they sound a little odd, out of place, out of tune. Hacker's voice blends almost pitch-perfectly with the standard iambic five feet in English. What rescues the sound of that voice from the rhythm of the metronome is what also makes possible her passion in and for form: hers is emphatically a poetry of imperative speech. Like Browning, Hacker is a monologist—dramatic, intensely personal, vulnerable, aggressive, and conclusive. Her persona is herself, in performance, "lover, fabulist, feminist, wit." Underneath the "jackbooted choreography" of her verbal exterior, the political, passional utterance of her speaker, is a woman obsessed with the body, its soror as well as its sexual compulsions. And under that is a poet obsessed with embodiment, the form her passions should take….
Taking Notice offers a number of forms, from sestinas to canzones to pantoums. But the predominate form, and perhaps Hacker's true emblem, is the sonnet, 14 fixed lines in which the division of labor into octet and sestet magnifies at the same time that it mirrors the complicated working out of the emotion. This new book makes the word most flesh when it permits the sonnet its consecutive and completed sequence. Too many of the other forms here are time-serving and the writing plain bad…. Hacker is a poet of enormous intensity and focus. The Petrarchan form is her place, "concise, ornate, colloquial, allusive." (p. 11)
Stanley Plumly, "Poetry of Lyricism, Verbal Energy, the Sonnet, and Gallows Humor," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), November 2, 1980, pp. 10-11.
It is no wonder that Marilyn Hacker's Presentation Piece was greeted with such éclat—and swept several prizes—a half dozen years ago. At a time when so many of her more touted peers had settled for the studied simplicities of workshop murk, she knew how much more difficult it is to be precise than profound. And her precision was manifest, first, in her prosody. She had a prodigious talent for verse, and lavished it with gusto and flair: the straw of experience was woven, as if overnight, into the pure gold of canzone and sonnet, sestina and villanelle … even free verse. But she was no mere littérateuse. Like Dorothy Parker, who once said that she followed the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay in a pair of old sneakers, Hacker laced her prosodic skill with salty topics, a novelist's eye for wry or sour details, and a sparkling, rakish tone. If there was a fault, it was that her verse sometimes rose merely to the occasional, the light, the louche. The challenge offered Hacker by her own talent was to emulate Auden rather than Parker, to broaden her intellectual range and intensify her heart's reasoning. Separations (1976) went a good way toward that. Though still often a miscellany of passing fancies, there is a thematic unity to this book that gives it more shape than her first. It opens with an affecting elegy for a dead lover, and later poems move backward in time through an affair's "gossip, magic, plots and food," back through his and her sex's joy and juices, back toward love's first flush and the hundred "separations" it—like its aftermath—opens up. Hacker was there—is still—at her best when the very poise of her voice emphasizes the ache or emptiness of any life's fumbling for sense.
These same strengths dominate Taking Notice. Her narrative gifts are bolder, stranger than before. In "Conte," Cinderella writes home about living unhappily ever after. In a more virtuoso set-piece, "The Hang-Glider's Daughter," raucous characterizing details tumble out with the authority of a Eudora Welty story…. The marvelous anecdotal energy of these lines, the extravagance of a voice talking to itself, is in other poems controlled with more eerie effects—as in "Why We Are Going Back to Paradise Island"—or with a wit that is more than the sum of its wisecracks—as in the sestina "From Provence." I continue to think, though, that Hacker includes too many poems in a collection. While such an abundance may highlight her fluency, one wearies of its merely clever asides and of the unrelieved present tense. In Taking Notice there are some poems more to be appreciated by her cronies than by her public; too many mawkish poems to or about her daughter. There is, in other words, in these examples and others, a self-indulgence that diminishes rather than adds to the book's impact. At the same time, I recognize that Hacker needs more space than other poets may for her most telling successes. When she develops an idea at length, nags or wonders at it, traces it through months and stanzas of having lived with it, then she is at her best. And the best of Taking Notice are its four sonnet-sequences: the eponymous "Sequence," "The Regent's Park Sonnets," the crown called "La Fontaine de Vaucluse," and the titular "Taking Notice." It is this concluding 25-part poem that is the book's surest stroke—not least because it is stricken by the poet's vulnerable, contradictory, passionate nature. Its account of a lesbian romance is, by turns and at once, exultant, harried, and resolved…. Hacker's sequence is indebted to Adrienne Rich's recent "Twenty-One Love Poems." Like Rich, she has not only written a compelling, humane poem, but touched the heart of our sexual politics. (pp. 231-33)
J. D. McClatchy, "Figures in the Landscape," in Poetry (© 1981 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXVIII, No. 4, July, 1981, pp. 231-33.
Thematically, the poems in Taking Notice, by Marilyn Hacker, betray their imprisonment in the material present. Although there is much talk about the merging of affectionate bodies and the approach to others as objects of adoration and desire, the poems do not imitate the transport to which they frequently refer. Neither are they meditations at one remove from the experience; the mood of the volume is one of manic vigilance before the monotony of the present. The most characteristic rhetorical device is the catalogue of highly textured, usually exotic things, arranged in a kind of glossy ad for poetic "taste"…. There is here no beauty that makes the heart yearn, no broad consciousness guiding the verses, and no spiritual truth. There are only things.
The tyranny of objects is marked not only by the prevalence of the catalogue, but also by the propensity of the poet's diction to clog. "My cleats crunch / the crumble"; "the undulant flat belly / whorled and rose carapaces glimmer under"; "eye-sockets blackberry blotches"; "I fudge a hurt / guess, stir sludge on a page"; "Invoke whatever you can use; / sebaceous pores, querulous gut, / nostalgic genitalia." This last quotation suggests another problem in Taking Notice, that of overreaching the propriety of the phrase: "Leaf-shapes ripple a patterned snake / safe through pied grass." Intransitive verbs are made transitive: a girl "clambers a bench"; two friends are "leafing magazines for school clothes"; "a pebbled spit" of land is "jutting [present participle] sheer lucidity [object of verb]." Mixed metaphor and misplaced reference are common: "My stomach calms an octave into speech"; "My wrapped sex cups strong drink." Often, the layering of reference leads to statements that are comically obscure: "Serial monogamy is a cogwheeled hurt"; "a spoilt obscenity of choice"; "Apolitical twinges silver through / Nascent blackberry-ripenings." In tone and diction, the poems are both turgid and imprecise.
In another respect, the prosodic, these poems are ill-written. Marilyn Hacker is trying to use stringent rhyming forms like heroic and tetrameter couplets, canzoni, sonnets, and quatrains; but she has thrown off the fetters of the accentual-syllabic line, counting sometimes stress and sometimes syllables, and sometimes counting both ways in the same poem. Lacking any consistent attitude toward the line, her rhymes become abstract exercises, since the line has not been poised to register and savor them. (p. 13)
Marilyn Hacker also writes some rope-dancing poems, the pantoum, the sonnet crown, the sestina, and a poem using only the vowels and b, c, f, g, h, j, l, n, p, s, and y…. Such poems are self-conscious tours de force whose tortures do little to invigorate an undisciplined and unmusical knack with words…. This is work that practically dares us to find a fault with its skill, and I find little to mitigate my judgment that the gauge is thrown by poems in which failed irony, dull lists, turgid diction, and a superficial formalism are artlessly exaggerated. (pp. 13-14)
Mary Kinzie, "A Generation of Silver" (copyright © 1981 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Mary Kinzie), in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, July-August, 1981, pp. 13-20.∗