Marilyn Hacker: Rebel Traditionalist

By A. M. JusterAugust 1, 2019

Marilyn Hacker: Rebel Traditionalist

Blazons by Marilyn Hacker

MARILYN HACKER was a prodigy in a hurry, and at one point the youngest contestant on the TV show Quiz Kids. Born in 1942, she graduated at 15 from New York City’s most competitive public high school, The Bronx High School of Science. Already a serious writer, there she met a classmate and another prodigy in a hurry, future science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. In 1961, she married Delany, who would later explain that they took their vows in Michigan because it was one of only two states where an underage interracial couple could marry.

They lost their first pregnancy, then had a daughter. The couple thoroughly explored the counterculture of the 1960s, including sexual experimentation. Soon they both self-identified as gay, although they did not separate until 1974, the year that Hacker published her first book of poetry, Presentation Piece, which won the 1975 National Book Award.

Hacker’s earliest poetry tended to be less formal and more raw than her later work. As she was publishing more poetry in received forms, accomplished formal poets who were a little older, such as Adrienne Rich, Donald Hall, and Louis Simpson, were emphatically rejecting their previous work and enthusiastically embracing modernist prosodies. If bookies had been taking bets on poets, they undoubtedly would have bet that Hacker would do the same.

Hacker bucked the literary trends of the time. Her already impressive verse became more ambitious in its use of form, more conversational than “confessional,” more linguistically playful, and more diverse in its subject matters. In many ways, she seemed to model her work after W. H. Auden’s verse of the mid-to-late 1930s.

Over time, she became more attentive to detail in the style of Elizabeth Bishop — but with more of a narrative purpose to her imagery. She resisted the more didactic approaches of Adrienne Rich, yet her leftist and feminist politics still regularly colored her observations. She also built a strong reputation as a translator, particularly of French poetry.

As she grew older, Hacker became less of an outsider and more a member of the poetry establishment. In 1990, she became the first full-time editor of The Kenyon Review. In 2004, she received an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in 2009 the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and in 2010 the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. She also served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2008 until 2014.

Despite the recognition that Hacker received, she received less critical attention than the poets half a generation ahead of her: Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, James Merrill, and Richard Wilbur. That lack of attention continues even though there is no poet writing in English with a better claim for the Nobel Prize in Literature than Marilyn Hacker. Indeed, I view Blazons: New and Selected Poems, 2000–2018 as a brief for that case.

Blazons opens with poems that will feel familiar to her readers, though they are more flavored by the emotions of a survivor nearing the age of 80. The first poem, “Lauds,” is a praise poem for a world difficult to praise; in that regard it is reminiscent of Adam Zagajewski’s magnificent “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” In the long, highly personal (but not self-pitying) title poem that follows, Hacker offers polished 10-line blank verse stanzas in which the first line of each stanza repeats the first line of the previous stanza — a technique borrowed from the sonnet crown.

With all the power and technical proficiency of Hacker’s verse, it is easy to overlook the extent of her craft and inventiveness. For example, the first section of “Again, for Hayden” (an elegy for Hayden Carruth) begins in this seemingly simple fashion:

This morning
at five fear seized me and clung
like a leech, a tick, napalm:
what could calm its ravening?

In this poem, she is refreshing the Rubaiyat stanza made famous by Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by toning down its chiming rhymes with innovative off-rhymes. She is not the first poet to do so, but as far as I know she is the first to use this stanza without a set meter. However, the absence of meter does not mean that the stanza lacks rhythm; up until the word “tick” she is alternating iambs and anapests. Hacker then explodes the poem’s lilting regularity at the precise moment when the brief litany in line three suddenly turns more somber, made even more so by the unexpected inversion of stress in the explosive trochee “napalm.”

The stanza briefly pauses because the colon at the end of the line forces the reader to linger on the horror of the word “napalm.” It then returns to metrical regularity with a haunting question in headless iambic tetrameter, a question made more memorable with the subtly chilling internal rhyme of napalm/calm.

The stanza ends with the perfect word “ravening.” While people should be excused if they do not know that the verb “to raven” means “to ravage,” given the context and the clear association with the legendary carrion-eating bird of gloom, a reader can sense the meaning without running to a dictionary. Almost all poets would have settled for a less striking word at the end of this stanza, but Hacker rarely misses an opportunity to make her vocabulary as striking as possible.

The second section of the poem is a sonnet, one of Hacker’s favorite received forms. While other poets bemoan — and too often ignore — the restrictions of the form, a single sonnet no longer poses a sufficient challenge for her. In Blazons, she triumphs with the greater challenges of the 12-sonnet sequence “Itinerants” and the sonnet crown of “Le Sancerre: September.”

Formal challenges do tend to bring out the best in Hacker. Even the best of our New Formalists, such as Dana Gioia, Mary Jo Salter, and Rhina Espaillat, are not usually writing beautiful verse in the intricate 65-line form of the Italian canzone, and they tend not to take on the challenges of the more obscure forms, such as the glose.

One of the revelations of Blazons is Hacker’s mastery of the sapphic stanza, a warhorse of classical poetry that has frustrated predecessors and contemporaries writing in English. Its meter is alien to poets grounded in iambic pentameter and the first three lines of each stanza require a feminine ending, which makes the line breaks and flow too difficult for Hacker’s peers. If they try the form at all, they tend to keep these poems very short.

Except for an unfortunate 13th line, Hacker’s 15-stanza poem in sapphics, “For Despina,” is an example of technical mastery:

Pick the stitch up, there in the place I dropped it.
Weave the raveled sides of the day together
if December sun in a bedroom window
calls for a garment.

When the tone switches from personal to political, she maintains the same control of her language:

Must a murdered child, after generations,
be avenged by gunning down other children
far away from winter and pigs, potatoes
and nameless railroads?

Note, too, the quiet and questioning tone of these highly charged lines — it is a technique of the rhetoric of persuasion rather than the rhetoric of virtue signaling.

In “For Despina,” Hacker advocates the Palestinian cause, which appears to result, at least in part, from her engagement in Paris with expatriates from a number of Arab nations, an engagement that has affected her work in several other ways. For one, she has become enraptured by the ghazal, an ancient, intricate, and beloved form of poetry in the Middle East and nations further east.

Although the late Agha Shahid Ali, who popularized ghazals in English, stressed that “an unrhymed ghazal would be a contradiction in terms to an Urdu and Persian speaker,” imitators writing in English soon ignored its traditional rules and breathlessly labeled any unrhymed poem in couplets a “ghazal.” Hacker’s ghazals are effective responses to such ham-handed cultural appropriation. She understands the essential nature of the qaafiyaa, the monorhyme that precedes the radif, the repeating word or phrase at the end of the couplet. She understands, too, that a ghazal needs to extend to at least six couplets in order for the qaafiyaa to create its pleasurable suspense.

Hacker’s interest in Parisian expatriates has also influenced her choice of poets for translation. Blazons includes 32 pages of translations from contemporary poets writing in Arabic and French. Technically these translations are outstanding, but despite Hacker’s undeniable skills as a translator, she cannot overcome the fact that the poems she has translated for this volume are largely drably postmodern, sometimes incomprehensibly experimental, and so inferior to Hacker’s own work that they are disappointing, and sometimes worse. For instance, Guy Goffette’s “Emily Dickinson” starts off as sexist, then concludes tritely:

She’s homely, the little cook
but she touches the sky
between the bread-board
and the laundry-basket.

Heavy from loving those roses
far beyond rose-bushes
she flies off with the golden dust
on the furniture.

Inside outside soft where hearts
are stony she rains down
and from the piano sleeping under the sea
draws out a thousand thousand butterflies

that keep the night at bay.

Similarly, Marie Étienne’s “At the Kanze Theater (Kyoto)” seems to share nothing of her translator’s sensibility:

woman leaves * man on his knees praying * collapses * and oh and ah *
chorus behind him sitting on the ground * yooaoh * yooaoh

singers * a tambourine close to the face * his finger bare to strike it *
a tambourine on the knees * finger covered in skin * yooaoh * chorus
beyond also yooaoh

ceremony of the man in black * he carries a chair * he is seated on it *
arranges the robe * arranges the air around him * not a fold not a cry
the statue * everything is false and perfect 

In short, empathy and artistic restlessness seem to have drawn Hacker toward some recent translation projects that do not showcase her verve and technical prowess.

Despite my reservations about the translations, Marilyn Hacker’s immaculately crafted poems of this century display depth, range, and wit. One cannot help but admire the risky zeugma of “A Farewell to the Finland Woman”:

heroes invent themselves from daily
womanhood, though they lose breasts and borders.

I also almost missed the twist of thought in the penultimate line of “Ghazal: Style” where Hacker writes “a damned thing” exactly where a traditional ghazal would make an indirect reference to Allah.

Blazons: New and Selected Poems, 2000–2018 provides many pleasures and reminds us that no conversation about the Nobel Prize in Literature will be complete without considering Marilyn Hacker’s achievements.


A. M. Juster is the author of nine books of original and translated poetry, most recently The Elegies of Maximianus (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and John Milton’s The Book of Elegies (Paideia Institute Press, 2019). He overtweets about poetry @amjuster.

LARB Contributor

A. M. Juster is the author of 10 books of original and translated poetry, including most recently John Milton’s The Book of Elegies (Paideia Institute Press, 2019) and Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books, 2020). W.W. Norton will publish his translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere in 2023.


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