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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Forthcoming from The Library of America (Winter–Spring 2014)

The Library of America is pleased to announce six new volumes for the Winter–Spring 2014 season, including two authors (William Wells Brown, Bernard Malamud) new to the series.

For a list of titles to be published for the remainder of the current year, see our Summer–Fall 2013 announcement.

William Wells Brown
Clotel & Other Writings
Ezra Greenspan, editor
Clotel • The American Fugitive in Europe • The Escape • The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements • My Southern Home
February 2014
Library of America #247 / ISBN 978-1-59853-291-3

Bernard Malamud
Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s
Philip Davis, editor
The Natural • The Assistant • over twenty stories
March 2014
Library of America #248 / ISBN 978-1-59853-292-0

Bernard Malamud
Novels and Stories of the 1960s
Philip Davis, editor
A New Life • The Fixer • Pictures of Fidelman • ten stories
March 2014
Library of America #249 / ISBN 978-1-59853-293-7

The Civil War
The Final Year Told By Those Who Lived It
Aaron Sheehan-Dean, editor
March 2014
Library of America #250 / ISBN 978-1-59853-294-4

Shakespeare in America
An Anthology from the Revolution to Now
James Shapiro, editor
Foreword by President Bill Clinton
April 2014
Library of America #251 / ISBN 978-1-59853-295-1

Kurt Vonnegut
Novels 1976–1985
Sidney Offit, editor
Slapstick • Jailbird • Deadeye Dick • Galápagos
May 2014
Library of America #252 / ISBN 978-1-59853-304-0

Becoming Americans
Immigrants Tell Their Stories from Jamestown to Today
January 2014
A Special Publication of The Library of America / ISBN 978-1-59853-290-6
(Originally published in hardcover as Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing

In addition, the following title (which had previously been announced for the fall of 2013), will now appear in May 2014. The final list of musicals that will be included in this two-volume set appears below.

American Musicals
The Complete Books & Lyrics of Sixteen Classic Broadway Shows
Laurence Maslon, editor
Show Boat • As Thousands Cheer • Pal Joey • Oklahoma! • On the Town • Finian’s Rainbow • Kiss Me, Kate • South Pacific • Guys and Dolls • The Pajama Game • My Fair Lady • Gypsy • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum • Fiddler on the Roof • Cabaret • 1776
May 2014
Boxed set / ISBN 978-1-59853-257-9
Volume 1: 1927–1949 / Library of America #253 / ISBN 978-1-59853-258-6
Volume 2: 1950–1969 / Library of America #254 / ISBN 978-1-59853-259-3

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Daniel Gallant on Miguel Piñero: “he blazed a memorable trail through New York City’s cultural scene”

Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the 2013 New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Daniel Gallant’s tribute to poet and playwright Miguel Piñero. Gallant is executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a non-profit cultural organization located in Lower Manhattan which Piñero helped to found in 1973.
Daniel Gallant
Photograph by Tatiana Breslow
When you enter the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on East 3rd Street, if you turn to your right just inside the door, you’ll see a striking poster, high up on the wall. It commands attention and anchors the space. The poster is from a movie called Piñero, and the artist who inspired that film was an enigmatic outlaw poet who brought lyricism and brutal truth to his work in verse, theater, and film. Along with fellow poets Pedro Pietri, Sandra María Esteves, and Miguel Algarín, Miguel Piñero helped launch the Nuyorican literary movement and its eponymous Cafe. Piñero and his colleagues won a place at the cultural table for artists of color whose work exists outside the mainstream.

Mikey Piñero possessed a heightened creative fervor and he blazed a memorable trail through New York City’s cultural scene. He was a complicated man, and he came up through challenging circumstances. Mikey entered the welfare system, the gang system, and the prison system at an early age. His landmark play Short Eyes was composed while he served a term in Sing-Sing.

But in the face of hardship, Piñero developed a willingness to subvert literary convention and dodge the constraints of the entertainment industry. The literary scene of the early 1970s was not a welcoming place for Latino poets or playwrights, especially those outside the academic sphere. But Piñero helped to bring the rhythms of street life and elements of Latino identity into the mainstream cultural consciousness.

His work depicted brutal realities of urban existence. In one of his best-known poems, Piñero praised the Lower East Side’s “fancy cars and pimp’s bars and juke saloons and greasy spoons”, as well as the neighborhood’s “stabbing shooting gambling fighting & unnatural dying & new birth crying.”

The Lower East Side of 2013 is not the neighborhood that Mikey Piñero knew. To love the LES during Piñero’s time was to love a hard-scrabble, drug-saturated landscape that nonetheless bled culture and birthed magnificent works of art. Gone are many grassroots fixtures of Piñero’s East Village, as well as its drug dens and violent reputation. Yet the mix of cultural and artistic influences that Piñero embodied remains a consistent subtext of the neighborhood, and of New York City as a whole.

Piñero’s art spoke to the conflicts and harmonies inherent in dual identity. The works he wrote about the interplay between Puerto Rican and New York City culture continue to resonate with artists and audiences who dwell at the intersection of multiple communities.

Mikey and the other founders of the Nuyorican literary movement broadened the field of poetry—they expanded the art form’s reach, diversity, complexity, and accessibility. Mikey Piñero showed us that art not only survives but flourishes in difficult conditions, and that a Latino poet raised in poverty can take his place among the pantheon of celebrated literary figures.

Many authors live on through their written work, long after they themselves have passed. Piñero lives on through the verse, energy, ferocity, and pride of New York City’s performance poets, as well as through artists in hip hop and theater who have embraced the raw immediacy of his verse and playwriting.

Just as that poster stares down from the wall of the Cafe, inspiring and challenging each poet who stands on our stage, so the body of Piñero’s work stands above the contemporary poetic scene as a reminder and a promise.

Today’s spoken word artists have learned from Piñero’s legacy the potential of verse to elevate, to motivate, and to illuminate. We at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe are grateful that the Empire State Center for the Book and the New York Writers Hall of Fame have chosen to honor one of our founders, Miguel Piñero.
At a June 4 ceremony here in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted eight writers into the New York States Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-born or based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2013 included living writers Marilyn Hacker, Alice McDermott, Walter Mosley, and Calvin Trillin, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Countee Cullen, Miguel Piñero, and Maurice Sendak.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Honor Moore on Marilyn Hacker
Charles Molesworth on Countée Cullen
Dan Barry on Alice McDermott

Friday, July 26, 2013

Dan Barry on Alice McDermott: exploring the human condition with “the echo of the regionally familiar”

Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the 2013 New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Dan Barry’s tribute to fellow Long Islander Alice McDermott. Barry is a reporter and columnist for The New York Times, where he has written the “This Land” column since 2007. Barry’s tribute is followed below by Ms. McDermott’s remarks.
Dan Barry
Photographs by Tatiana Breslow
Alice McDermott has sometimes been called a New York novelist.

That is—a New York Long Island novelist.

That is, a New York Long Island Nassau County novelist.

That is, a New York Long Island Nassau County novelist NOT from the North Shore, up there in Gatsby country, but kind of between the Roosevelt Field Mall, over by Garden City, and the Green Acres Mall, over there in Valley Stream, off of Sunrise.

On Long Island, you can be defined by your proximity to a mall. For example, I’m from over by the South Shore Mall.

This geo-specific attempt to categorize Alice, by the way, is so misleading, if not flat-out inaccurate, that the denizens of the food court at the mall would have one reaction:

“Nice try.”

Which is a Long Island way of saying: Wrong.

This is because Long Island is the land of indirection and misdirection. Where we come from, if you want to compliment someone’s haircut, you say, “Nice haircut.” And if you want to ridicule someone’s haircut, you say, “Nice haircut.”

It’s complicated.

But Long Islanders can also be quite blunt, so let’s be blunt: Alice McDermott is not an Irish American writer, or a Roman Catholic writer—or a New York writer. She is, simply, a brilliant writer. A writer of international standing. A writer for the ages.

Yes, it is true: The unforgettable characters that Alice has created inhabit a specific place on the map of fiction. A quote-unquote Long Island place, informed so deeply by the exhilarating rush of the big city asphalt to the west and by the healing solitude of the sand dunes to the far, far east.

In this place you will find Sheryl and Rick, the Romeo and Juliet lovers of That Night; the three unmarried Towne sisters of At Weddings and Wakes; John and Mary Keane, the ordinary, extraordinary married couple of After This; and, of course, himself, Billy Lynch, Charming Billy. You will also find that all about there are many, many children, their innocence being rubbed away as they take in the complications that await them in adulthood.

This place is a concrete place, a place of ticky-tacky houses with postage-stamp lawns and sidewalks disturbed by the roots of trees; of churches where we both celebrate and mourn amid the whiff of incense; of delicatessens and traffic jams and, yes, runs to the mall.

Its inhabitants are concrete people, everyday people, living everyday lives—mowing lawns, rushing to catch the express on the Long Island Rail Road, collapsing in front of the television with a drink. You and I know this place; these people.

Yet they are a thoroughly imagined people, and this is an entirely imagined place, given substance and flesh only by Alice’s exacting use of word and image. She needs no pyrotechnic devices in her plots to bring them alive; there are no bank heists, no cross-country adventures. Her stories are more dramatic than that because she captures the wonder and the horror and the romance and the grief in the interior of our daily routines.

She uses the echo of the regionally familiar to explore the essential questions of the human condition. Questions about faith, mortality, sibling rivalry, the limits of love, the futility of war, the tabula rasa of childhood—the smallest moment, something said, something seen, that can alter an entire life. These are the questions being asked in Bay Shore and in Beirut; in Massapequa and in Mogadishu. Universal questions.

Throughout the McDermott canon, there is also an undercurrent of enduring hope. The endless search for—and occasional grasp of—those moments of grace that make life worth living; moments found in the smell of a baby’s shampooed hair, or the warmth of a grandmother’s soft hand.

This is the journey we all take, and who better to lead us, to encourage us to pause along the way and take note, than Alice McDermott.

Here we are, hearing the sad, chiming music in the clink of the ice in Veronica’s drink in At Weddings and Wakes. Here we are, in After This, enjoying a simple day at Jones Beach with John and Mary Keane and their three children, the realization of how fleeting all this is upon them. Here we are, in Charming Billy, at that bar-and-grill in the Bronx, for the in-after following the funeral. We smell the hint of mildew in the place, that mix of past and present. We taste the roast beef, medium rare, and the green beans amandine.

And we are at the table among the mourners, clucking and whispering and gossiping—and trying to make sense of life and death.

I recently reread several of Alice’s novels, and I came away with one overriding thought. Two, actually.

The first is: How gifted she is. Every word she writes is so carefully chosen, so perfectly in concert with every other word, that she is incapable of constructing a lazy sentence. Every paragraph carries a pulse, a mixture of immediacy and reflection and, often, humor. This is how she describes a difficult woman who owns but never uses a beach house on the East End of Long Island:

“The only pleasure she ever got from it was the ability to withhold invitations to visit.”

And the second thought is that Alice McDermott is our Faulkner; our Joyce. Long Island is her South; her Dublin. She isn’t a New York writer so much as she is a writer from New York. And we, the people of New York State, are so fortunate to claim her. She belongs in the New York State Writers’ Hall of Fame.

And this guy from Long Island says, sincerely:

Nice. Very nice.

Ladies and gentlemen: Alice McDermott.
* * *
Alice McDermott
My mother was eighty when she first visited Ireland, the country both her parents had left early in the last century. She went on a two week tour with some of my cousins and when she returned I was surprised to discover that her enthusiasm for the place was somewhat subdued. Didn’t she find the country beautiful, I asked her. Didn’t she find the people charming? Oh sure, she said. It was lovely, it was fine.

Trying to prompt a more passionate response, I asked her, “Now that you’ve seen Ireland, don’t you feel closer to your parents?”

“Now that I’ve seen Ireland,” she replied, “I’m more grateful than ever that my mother moved to Brooklyn.”

Tonight, I, too, am grateful that my grandmother moved to Brooklyn. And that my parents moved from Brooklyn to Elmont. And that we took our family vacations in East Hampton. And that when the time came for me to go to college I took my Regents scholarship to Oswego.

The immigrant enclaves of the city, the post-war developments of Nassau County’s suburbs, the natural, as well as the man made, loveliness of the South Fork, provided this developing writer with a geographic metaphor I’m still exploring: a metaphor of yearning, of aspiration. Of the enduring—and, to me, astonishing—human effort, born of love, to discover something better for the next generation, something more certain, something more secure, something that speaks to our barely intuited but persistent longing for peace, for beauty.

Bustling immigrant ghetto, cookie cutter houses on square green lawns, the breathtaking sweep of dune grass, sand, endless sea. The novelist’s fundamental question—What does my character want? —was made vivid for this aspiring writer by the very geography of my corner of New York State.

What was not so vivid to me in those formative years was that I was a writer at all, aspiring or any other kind. But because I took my Regents scholarship to Oswego – Oswego was rated the number three party school that year—I found myself in an English class with Dr. Paul Briand, a retired Air Force colonel who called me down to the podium at the end of class – a class titled the Nature of Nonfiction, to which I had submitted as my first assignment an autobiographical essay that was complete fiction—and said, “I’ve got bad news for you, kid. You’re a writer. And you’ll never shake it.”

Oswego gave me many gifts: chief among them was the lifelong assurance that the world’s great literature, its novels and its poetry, belongs wholly to each one of us—despite the number of people I have encountered over the years who seem to believe that the literary arts belong more legitimately to the kids who studied English at places like Harvard or Yale. But on that night in Dr. Briand’s class, I was also given my career. And I suppose I have my grandmother who had the good sense to move to Brooklyn to thank for that as well.
At a June 4 ceremony here in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted eight writers into the New York States Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-born or based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2013 included living writers Marilyn Hacker, Alice McDermott, Walter Mosley, and Calvin Trillin, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Countee Cullen, Miguel Piñero, and Maurice Sendak.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Honor Moore on Marilyn Hacker
Charles Molesworth on Countée Cullen

Brooks D. Simpson on the “roller coaster of emotions” during the Civil War’s pivotal year

Brooks D. Simpson, author of six books (including Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822–1865), spoke with us recently about The Civil War: The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It, the latest entry in the critically acclaimed LOA series on the Civil War.

What are the major turning points of the Civil War covered in this third volume?

This volume covers January 1863 to March 1864, the period that marked the final effort of the Confederates to undertake significant offensive operations. These efforts ended in failure at Gettysburg and in the aftermath of Chickamauga. The volume also marks the rise of Ulysses S. Grant to high command. His triumphs at Vicksburg and Chattanooga made him an obvious choice to direct Union military operations in 1864. Americans white and black, North and South, felt the revolutionary impact of the emancipation and enlistment of African Americans, even as dissent, dissatisfaction, and in some cases outright resistance to government policies such as conscription also increased.

What does the experience of reading these contemporary, firsthand eyewitness accounts offer readers that standard narrative histories don't, particularly with regard to this third year of the war?

Readers encounter events much as did the people who described what was happening: no one quite knows what is going to happen next. There’s speculation about the future, misinformation about the present, and a sense of anxiety and exhaustion as people come to terms with the notion that a decisive victory on the battlefield that might bring an end to the conflict remains a long way off.

What does the volume tell us about the role of African Americans in the war?

If the story of 1862 is Abraham Lincoln’s slow but steady journey toward issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, the story of 1863 is how African Americans were active agents in securing their freedom and defining what it meant. At a time when white enlistments were sagging and people protested the implementation of conscription, black Americans did what they could to ensure that what Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” included them among “the people” who would secure and define that “new birth of freedom.” At Port Hudson, Milliken’s Bend, and Fort Wagner, black soldiers staked a claim not only for freedom but also for equality.

What do the pieces about the homefront tell us about the diversity of experiences and outlooks in the North and the South?

Americans at home experienced a roller coaster of emotions in 1863. One sees hope giving way to despair when news comes of another battlefield setback, while even the most joyous exultations welcoming news of a victory are soon tempered by the realization that the end is still not in sight. Women and children work hard to make ends meet in the absence of husbands and fathers, always in fear that they may never see their loved one again. By the end of 1863 people on both sides are beginning to wonder whether the war will ever end and whether the struggle is worth the cost.

Which piece do you think readers will find most surprising?

Contemporary American readers will find that their concerns often echo those of the Americans in this book. Both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis struggled to justify administration policies against an increasing tide of dissent which at times erupted in violence as in the Richmond bread riots in April or the New York City draft riots in July. How does one balance freedom with security? When does dissent become disloyalty, and who makes that call? What happens when a war for freedom compromises freedoms?

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

Abraham Lincoln’s letter to James C. Conkling and his fellow Illinois supporters of the Union in August 1863 represents his most direct statement yet about the war now being waged, and he offers as blunt a defense of emancipation as one would ever see. I especially like the penultimate paragraph, which offered Americans the following pointed reminder about the legacy of preserving the Union:

It will then have been proved that, among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost. And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Charles Molesworth on Countée Cullen: “one of the most modest of” New York writers

Charles Molesworth
Photograph by Tatiana Breslow
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the 2013 New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with a tribute to the poet Countée Cullen by Charles Molesworth, author of And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countée Cullen (2012). For forty years a professor at Queen’s College in New York City, Molesworth has also written biographies of Alain Locke and Marianne Moore.
Most of the writers we admire and celebrate are vigorous opponents of cliché and pre-set ideas. At the same time many of these writers are drawn to a love of tradition, to a fascination with artistic forms that have been passed down for generations. Countée Cullen was a writer who held both allegiances: to a literature that would be new and fresh, and to a literature that would repay the debts it owed to previous writers. For Cullen specifically, these two impulses were displayed in the way he committed himself to being both a black writer and a traditional lyric poet. Of course, today it may look easy to combine these two differing aspects of a single vocation, but for Cullen it was a life’s work, and, frankly, it exhausted him. And when he was exhausted as a lyric poet, around the mid-1930s, he still remained a writer, working diligently to keep that definition of himself alive and active.

However, such a brief sketch doesn’t say it all. For Cullen also had to push back hard against the charge by some that he was less than proud to be a black man, and that his commitment to poetry was a fruitless commitment to a set of exhausted, old-fashioned forms, and that he gave up on his talent and his early fame because of these charges. The strongest charge of all against Cullen came when Langston Hughes, his friend and fellow poet, accused him—without using his name—of wanting to be a white poet. This charge was grossly unfair, but why Langston made it is beyond the scope of our remarks tonight. Acknowledging Cullen’s accomplishments gives us a chance to reassess and remember Cullen’s quiet resolve in keeping faith with his vocation. Cullen was, after all, one of the most modest of all the famous writers who have lived in New York.

Another word or two about Cullen and the task of keeping the artistic faith. We see this persistent faith if we recall how completely this shy and gentle man was a New York writer. He went to a New York City public school, where he won the first of his many local and national poetry prizes and went on to become the unofficial poet laureate of Harlem; he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from a university named after New York; he taught in the New York Public Schools for more than a decade and gave to his Harlem students his love of writing; he wrote a quite brash novel about society in a New York neighborhood divided into two classes, upper and lower; he wrote two children’s books, both of them witty and sly and instructive; and most important of all—if we especially want to recall his brave persistent commitment to his craft—he spent more than ten years as a playwright, longing to see a Broadway production of his play—something that didn’t occur until four months after he died, in 1946. And oh yes, one more thing: for a brief period he wrote a gossip column, that most noteworthy of New York forms. Called “The Dark Tower,” it appeared in Opportunity, where it was really more than a gossip column, it was a celebration of Harlem, of the New York stage, of our diversity as citizens, and the poems and pictures we make of ourselves as creatures of vanity and grace.

His Collected Poems have just been published by The Library of America, and his correspondence with friends and fellow writers is being put on line and will be available for all off us to examine and discuss and bring more and more into the light. So we rightly recognize that Cullen was preeminently a New York writer, and that he would be modestly proud of joining his fellow writers in this hall of honor.
At a June 4 ceremony here in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted eight writers into the New York States Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-born or based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2013 included living writers Marilyn Hacker, Alice McDermott, Walter Mosley, and Calvin Trillin, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Countee Cullen, Miguel Piñero, and Maurice Sendak.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Honor Moore on Marilyn Hacker

Thursday, July 11, 2013

2013 New York State Writers Hall of Fame: Honor Moore on Marilyn Hacker

On June 4 The Empire State Center for the Book, New York’s affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book, held its annual gala at the Princeton Club in midtown Manhattan. The Center is committed to foster reading and greater appreciation of the literary arts, and among its initiatives is the New York States Writers Hall of Fame, established in 2010 to recognize New York–born or based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture.
Walter Mosley, Alice McDermott, Marilyn Hacker, and Calvin Trillin
Photographs by Tatiana Breslow

The centerpiece of this year’s gala was the induction of the eight-member class of 2013, which included living writers Marilyn Hacker, Alice McDermott, Walter Mosley, and Calvin Trillin, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Countee Cullen, Miguel Piñero, and Maurice Sendak.

Rocco Staino, Director of the Empire State Center for the Book,
with Marilyn Hacker and Honor Moore
Over the coming weeks, The Reader’s Almanac will present remarks offered at the induction ceremony. We begin with Honor Moore’s tribute to the poet Marilyn Hacker. Moore is the author the acclaimed memoir The Bishop’s Daughter and the editor of two volumes in The Library of America’s American Poets Project series: Amy Lowell: Selected Poems and Poems from the Women’s Movement.

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.
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