|Walter Mosley, Alice McDermott, Marilyn Hacker, and Calvin Trillin|
Photographs by Tatiana Breslow
|Rocco Staino, Director of the Empire State Center for the Book,|
with Marilyn Hacker and Honor Moore
Thank you. Thank you very much. I’m pleased
to be here tonight. I seldom [speak]
to such a varied audience. [Her] poetry
is what it is. Graves, yes, said love, death
and the changing of the seasons
[are] the unique, the primordial subjects.
I’d like to talk about....[Marilyn Hacker]
If you detect here the beat of metrics, you are not mistaken. I have changed a few pronouns of this, the first poem I ever heard Marilyn Hacker read—the event was exactly 40 years ago (!) at the reading of the winners of the 1973 92Y Discovery Award, and the title of the poem, a sestina written during the Vietnam War, is “Untoward Occurrence at Embassy Poetry Reading” in which the speaker of the poem sets herself against the staid events of a dinner, much like this, to protest the status quo. “I’ve watched you, in town for the season / nod to each other, nod to poetry / represented by me, and my colleagues, who read / to good assemblies, good citizens, good subjects / for gossip. You’re the audience.”
There was at the outset something “untoward” about this prodigal poet who returned in 1975 from London to live again in her hometown New York City, having won, for her first book, Presentation Piece, both the Lamont Poetry Selection from the Academy of American Poets and the National Book Award, the first salvos in a much celebrated career. But Presentation Piece was no mere prizewinner, it was one of those significant books that announces a new voice sure to leave its mark on the course of American poetry.
In the poem I’ve just read from, “Untoward Occurrence,” the speaker continues: “Am I pleased to frighten you? Yes and no. It scares me to death / to stand up before you and talk about real death. . . .” In the childlike diction of that disclosure of fear one encounters the provocative stealth of Marilyn Hacker’s wit, and in that question and its seemingly ambivalent answer, yes and no, the crucial hinge of this young poet’s (now sublimely realized) ambition.
To enter the conversation of poets that began millennia ago: that is the YES. The richness of tradition is where much of any poet’s strength comes from, but Hacker has been apt to pursue the conversation with poets who have been, as it were, off the grid—discover chinks in the canon, poets deleted because of gender, politics, or sexual preference—but she also, importantly, has extended the conversation across cultural and linguistic boundaries—bringing into English twelve volumes of translations, including collections by Claire Malroux, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, and Marie Étienne, for which she won the PEN Translation Award in poetry in 2009.
That extraordinary contribution is in the “yes” but the “no” is where the nerve is. This is a poet who has thrived on the rigor of meter and form, but who would hold with the poet Audre Lorde, who famously chided, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Often in American letters, writing formalist verse has served to occlude rather than to reveal, a reaction against now classic Modernisms— short lines via H.D. and William Carlos Williams, long lines via Whitman and Ginsburg—the free verse that a century ago broke the hold of the English metric tradition on American poetry. While others may emphasize metrical intricacy over content, Marilyn Hacker, writing as a woman, a Jew, a lesbian, wrangles villanelle, sonnet, sestina, trochee, spondee, and dactyl, to her own ends, forging an instrument of revelation: Think of Charlotte Brontë’s Mrs. Rochester in the attic, setting her husband’s ancestral house ablaze in order to see the truth of its structures through a purifying fire—or the poet H.D. writing during the London blitz—“Still the walls do not fall, / I do not know why; / there is zrr-hiss, / lightning in a not-known, / unregistered dimension.” But we each register as we can, and Marilyn Hacker has made her important mark in thirteen collections of poetry, twenty-five volumes, if you include the translations.
She was born in New York in 1942, entered NYU at fifteen, moved to London in 1970 and returned in 1975. It was that year I first caught a glimpse of her—a young mother, infant daughter on her hip, in an Upper West Side restaurant called Marvin Gardens. I had heard her read, this fierce poet, and here she was, MORTAL. Presentation Piece was published that year, and with the hubris of the young, I asked Ms. Magazine if I could review it. I wrote that I found “something very disturbing about her images, the kind of disturbance you feel jostling through an unfamiliar street: everything is too vivid.” I also found at the core of her poetry something I called “anger” but which I now think of as the restless and insistent emergence of this poet’s coruscating intelligence. In those years, we became friends in the ferment of the beginnings of the women’s movement in poetry; we moved among the women we admired and modeled ourselves on or against—among them, Muriel Ruykeser, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, May Swenson, and June Jordan. A sentence Adrienne Rich later wrote of Muriel Rukeyser characterizes what we were trying to do: “the impulse to enter, with other humans, through language, into the order and disorder in the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political as its root.”
Reading through Marilyn Hacker’s body of work after nearly forty years of publication, I feel still the politics and ferocity that drew me in the first place, but what moves me now is seeing whole the significant contribution of this poet’s career, how her poetry, as Marilyn French wrote, immerses us “in the texture of one woman’s actuality.” Marilyn Hacker now spends half the year in Paris, setting down her citizenship among those who speak and live her other language, but at heart she is a poet of New York City, whose “too vivid” streets continue to inspire her, not only to argument and curiosity, but to tenderness and contemplation. I am honored to stand here at the threshold to welcome her into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.