Marilyn Hacker is a poet after the heart of not just poetry readers but poetry writers. I was immediately enthralled by the rich language of this National Book Award winner—for Presentation Piece in 1974—a language pulsating with raw indignation at injustice and celebration of what are life’s quotidian and banal joys: the small pleasures of winter light, sips of Sunday coffee, and the company of friends. Her virtuoso use of wordplay strums the memories of one’s mind as only a writer of her caliber can, and I found myself by frenetic turns maddened and boisterous with the giggles started by the internal dialogue that she shares. Racy descriptions of five minutes after “she came” give way to descriptions of tanks, uniforms, guys, and testosterone.
Hacker is well known as one of the “New Formalism” poets shunning the free form poetic license that is currently en vogue. In particular, she is considered an expert of French poetic forms such as the villanelle. An example would be her 1986 sonnet verse novel Love, Death and the Changing of Seasons, and Names is now her most recent example. It includes poetic forms of ancient Islamic origin (ghazals), gloses that not only note but also illuminate the works of fellow poets such as Anna Akhmatova and Emmanuel Moses and letters in sonnet form to contemporaries.
A favorite is one of the ghazals entitled “dar al-harb,” or “house of war,” and it includes this critique of American power:
I might wish, like any citizen to celebrate my country but millions have reason to fear and hate my country… As English is my only mother tongue it’s in English I must excoriate my country. _ _The good ideas of Marx or Benjamin Franklin don’t excuse the gulags, or vindicate my country. _ _Who trained the interrogators, brought the bulldozers? _the paper trails indicate my country. _
Hacker’s vivisection of American foreign policy is truly something to behold and questions the continuing presence in the national political landscape of the U.S. of exceptionalism. Americans cannot continue to proclaim a special destiny so long as we are nation that many fear as such a dichotomy of perspectives is corrosive.
The plain, clear sight of this author’s poetry was refreshing and removed some of that intellectual ennui which can sometimes preclude one from appreciate the daily wonders that allow each of us to experience the joie de vie.