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Feminist Poetics and Female Subjectivity Marilyn Hacker’s Early Poetry, 1974-1980

Info: 10338 words (41 pages) Dissertation
Published: 10th Dec 2019

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Tagged: English Literature


Nomadic Consciousness in Hacker’s Early Poetry, 1974-1980

Every day our bodies separate,

exploded torn and dazed.

Not understanding what we celebrate

we grope through languages and hesitate

and touch each other, speechless and amazed;

and every day our bodies separate

 Marilyn Hacker, ‘’Villanelle’’, 1974

When that jackbooted choreography

sends hobnailed cabrioles across a brain,

the stroked iron pulling lovers together pulls

them apart. Through the ecstatic reverie

of hands, eyes, mouths, our surfaces’ silken

sparking, . . .

 Marilyn Hacker, ‘’Taking Notice’’, 1980




This chapter examines the first shift in Hacker’s feminist poetics and female subjectivity from 1974 to 1980. In Taking Notice, Hacker’s third published work, she writes a new poetics that integrates female feeling into poetic form. She depicts this integration by mapping desire (“want”) and sexuality onto the lesbian female body. In this physical geography of “hands, eyes, [and] mouths”, Hacker reimagines the female body as a plurality of desires and rethinks the connection between gender, writing, and the body in ‘’Canzone’’. This reconceptualisation of the body moves her away from a sense of “separat[ion]” and “hesita[tion]” that she experienced in her heterosexual relationships. She explores these feelings of uncertainty and frustration in her two earlier collections Presentation Piece (1974) and Separations (1976).

Instrumental to this shift is Adrienne Rich’s appeal to Hacker in a personal letter in 1976 to abandon formal verse for free verse that was widely practised by feminist writers of the 1970s. Although Hacker responded to Rich’s call and began to write a poetics that was feminist in its raw engagement with women’s experiences, unlike Rich, she did not stop using metrical forms. In fact, Hacker moved from a pre-feminist consciousness, in dialogue with the male poetic tradition, to a feminist reclamation of the tradition of women’s formal poetry. This engagement with formalism is conducive to the aesthetic and formal structure of the braid that she imagines in her post-1994 poetry. I read this repossession of formal verse in a Braidottian manner as a ‘nomadic consciousness’ that counters dominant assumptions about formal poetics while fostering a commitment to both the artistic and creative female project as well as to the political goals of feminism.

By foregrounding the lesbian experience as the “light at the other end of the / long march” of liberation and equality in the title poem “Taking Notice”, Hacker also counters conventional conceptions of female sexuality, thus highlighting the transgressive potential of the lesbian body. The passionate female body that emerges most visibly from Taking Notice onwards is a lesbian one. Hacker breaks with her earlier poetry’s sense of loneliness, isolation, and exile in ‘’Villanelle’’ and ‘’Somewhere in a Turret’’, and writes of her growth as a woman through freshly explored relationships between women and her coming out as a lesbian and her feminist activism. As her life becomes more woman-centred, her poems grow in depth and individual strength, becoming less arcane, and her mixture of colloquial speech and formal structures seem less contrived and more natural. These thematic and formal changes reveal a shift in her poetics that underscores the origins of nomadic thought in her early poetry. This feminist poetics would define her work for the next fourteen years – until the publication of Winter Numbers (1994).

Marilyn Hacker’s Pre-Feminist Poetry: 1974-1976

In his review of Taking Notice, Stanley Plumly of The Washington Post states that “with Taking Notice, Marilyn Hacker has written what constitutes the last volume in a trilogy’’; this is because “her concerns are basically the same – esthetic and sexual confrontation – as they were in Presentation Piece and Separations” (“Of Lyricism”). Plumly links the three collections based on their cumulative effect, for “it is their sequence that swells a progress” (“Of Lyricism”).  He explains that her debut collection “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”; and the third “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”’ (Plumly).

Publishers of Hacker’s work also share Plumly’s view of this connection between the three collections. W.W. Norton & Company, for example, published these first three books in the recent 2003 collection First Cities: Collected Early Poems 1960-1979. This connection may prove useful for understanding Hacker’s early poetics and the importance of her formalism and feminist poetics to women’s poetry. However, it would be an oversimplification to connect Presentation Piece (1974), Separations (1976), and Taking Notice (1980) on the basis that they were all published by 1980; all illustrate a mastery of formal poetics alongside a concern with the personal experiences and relationships of a modern woman as she moves through urban areas. Critical interpretations of Hacker’s early poetry also reveal a shift in her conception of language, from a position of distance and separation in her first two volumes to a position of integration of feeling and form from her third collection onwards.

This shifting conception of language parallels a shifting relationship to the body as Hacker’s work develops. The intersection of gender and the body with language in her writing offers a productive way of thinking about the importance of the body – and in particular, the lesbian body – in the creative process. As Catherine Cucinella states, “[c]reative and intellectual expressions do not occur separate from the body” (1). The language of exile and distances in Hacker’s poems written during the 1970s speaks of her marital disappointments and a body that takes refuge and becomes “hidden in words” (“Geographer” 5). In these poems, the word ‘’exile’’ appears nineteen times, with ‘’distance’’, ‘‘travel’’, ‘’voyage’’, ‘‘Journey’’, and ‘’separate’’ occurring as indications of spatial variations that suggest the ambivalence of the body in relation to its physical and emotional surroundings. Poems written during this time contain Hacker’s perennial topics of love, separation, and alienation, which reviewers like Ben Howard described as having a tone of “insipient despair” (47).

These dark emotions find their expression through fixed verse forms inherited from Hacker’s male literary precursors. Poems such as “Untoward Occurrence at Embassy Poetry Reading”, “Apologia pro opera suo”, and “Villanelle” from Presentation Piece pay debt to Auden, as Hacker was an ardent follower of his poetry and had the opportunity to meet him in the 1960s. Though Auden was an English poet, his presence in the American literary scene influenced a generation of formalists that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition to a resurgence of poetic form in America at the hands of the New Critics, Auden’s “formal, casually ironic, and technically accomplished” (Beach 144) work influenced an emerging generation of American writers such as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, and Richard Howard, among others. These poets turned away from the free verse and experimentation of modernism and developed a mastery of “technically complex, rhetorically difficult poetry” (Greene et al. 1490). “Many poets”, according to Christopher Beach, ‘’preferred to remain within the relative safety of fixed forms like the sonnet or rhymed quatrain; the social and political conservatism of the period was reflected in the poems themselves, which often avoided taking stylistic, thematic, or formal tasks” (145).

Hacker was trained in this tradition of neatly contained aesthetics, and was drawn to the paradoxical style of coherence and internal dramatic tension in the poem. “I like the tension in a poem”, Hacker explains, “that comes from the diction of ordinary speech playing against a form. When there is an internal or external form to be worked with and worked against, unexpected and illuminating things can happen in the piece of writing’’ (Hammond 23). However, as a nonconformist, Hacker side-stepped the spirit of conservatism of the poetry of New Critical formalism, and engaged in current social and political issues such as death, the Vietnam war, and a dissatisfaction with women’s traditional roles. She stood out from many of the poets in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to the organic treatment of form in her poetry: her form derives from the theme of the poem rather than being artificially imposed, as she explains in a recent interview, “the idea usually comes first, then the rhythm of the first lines suggests the form” (Hirschorn). The structure and texture of Hacker’s “Villanelle” conspicuously illustrates an influence from Auden and the New Critical formalism of the time. In “Villanelle”, Hacker depicts a troubled relationship between two lovers to explore the anxiety and despair of trying to articulate the pain of loneliness and isolation:

Every day our bodies separate,

exploded torn and dazed.

Not understanding what we celebrate

we grope through languages and hesitate

and touch each other, speechless and amazed;

and every day our bodies separate

us farther from our planned, deliberate

ironic lives. I am afraid, disphased,

not understanding what we celebrate

when our fused limbs and lips communicate

the unlettered power we have raised.

Every day our bodies’ separate

routines are harder to perpetuate.

In wordless darkness we learn wordless praise,

not understanding what we celebrate;

wake to ourselves, exhausted, in the late

morning as the wind tears off the haze,

not understanding how we celebrate

our bodies. Every day we separate.[1] (89)

From the outset, “Villanelle” deceptively presents a complicated relationship that is struggling to survive in the guise of a simple title. Yet, at the same time, the title of the poem is indicative of her treatment of the passionate nature of the relationship. The structure of the villanelle, as Annie Finch explains in Villanelles (2012), reflects the momentum of a love relationship:

The key to a good villanelle is to come up with two lines that are genuinely attracted to each other but also wholly independent of each other, so that their final coupling will feel both inevitable and surprising. With its roots in dance, a good villanelle is like a good romantic relationship. The two lines that structure it are dying to get together; there is a period of suspense before they do get together; and in the meantime, a changing context provides a series of new discoveries about the lines each time they appear. The form keeps the lines close but apart through six stanzas of mounting tension until they join in the last two lines of the poem. (Finch and Mali 17)

Hacker subverts the joyous attraction in Finch’s metaphorical description via an attraction that veers on obsession. While the smooth cyclical structure of the European form creates infinite (“every day”) rotating sequences of the parting (“separate”) and uniting (“celebrate”) of the lovers’ bodies, the aggressive and anxious tone (“exploded”, “torn”, and “dazed”) raises doubts about conciliation. The discrepancy between form and tone generates an irony that is also produced when these lovers – confused and “not understanding” their physical relationship – are drawn “farther from” their “planned, deliberate / ironic lives”. Through the unevenness of its form – nineteen lines of five tercets followed by a final quatrain – the poem demonstrates the way in which imbalance can perversely prolong a relationship instead of ending it, as well as shroud it in “haze”. Sound, and especially rhyme, reinforces this circular pattern as the separation of the two end rhymes (“hesitate” and “separate”) with one counter-rhyme (“amazed”) keeps the lovers separate in a vortex of ambivalence and ambiguity.

While Hacker maintains the rhyme scheme in the third tercet with “disphased”, this word does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, suggesting that she invented the word to ensure the form. More importantly, however, it serves to depict the speaker as not in “phase” in the relationship, which in its occurrence in the middle of the poem seeks to break the repetitive cycle of celebration and separation. This strain is further expressed in the irregular enjambed and end-stopped lines, which create a tension between lines that show the lovers functioning as individual entities at some times, and as coherent rhythmical units at others. The even end-rhymes in the tercet serve to balance the pain and the accountability for the pain. Formally, then, the poem mirrors the very kinds of imbalance it describes.

Paradoxically, however, the form and content do not reinforce the subjectivity of the female speaker in the poem. The speaker’s constant use of the plural pronouns “our”, “we”, and “us” expresses a shared perspective, indicating an interdependency in the relationship. Depicting the emotional commitment of both lovers negates the tone of ambivalence that the poem seeks to create, as if the speaker is reluctant to confront the truth of their disunity. Yet during this uncertainty, in the third tercet, the subjective “I” admits to her fear and frustration when she says, “I am afraid, disphased”, revealing a helplessness and vulnerability that she finds difficult to put into words. As the speaker “grope[s] through languages” to describe the pain, language creates a “speechless”, “unlettered”, and “wordless” distance from the world of the body (“limbs and lips”).

In the female speaker’s struggle to articulate her feelings, “the available, masculine-determined forms of representation”, as Jan Montefiore argues, “victimize women by endowing us with a language incapable of articulating our meanings and thus alienating us from our psychic identities” (Feminism and Poetry 142). Distancing herself from her emotions, Hacker is, as she describes in “Forage Sestina” from the same collection, a “body hidden in words / moving through a crumbling structure” (67), which sketches the deterioration of a relationship in the image of a crumbling building suggested by the end-word repetition: “words”, “structure”, “wire”, “beams”, “wall”, and “room”. Then, in the fourth stanza, the reader understands that the lovers themselves seem to be the ruin: “I want to touch you, but you are the wall/ crumbling, the report over the wire/ service that there were no survivors” (67). Like “Villanelle”, this poem shows Hacker creating tension against the sestina form with the speaker “forag[ing]” for something among the ruins, struggling to express the physical and emotional experiences of despondency and doubt. Yet “words cannot be trusted” (68), as language itself has played a part in the devastation with “falling words” being responsible for the erosion “in the nearer wall” (67). The ruin and collapse in the poem and of the poem shows the speaker’s fear that her anger will destroy the male speaker, the female speaker herself, or any possible communication between them. Every aspect of this poem suggests that uncertainty is preferable to the loss of the relationship.

Rather than a villanelle about an empowered and assertive female that aligns with a feminist poetics, the theme of ‘’Villanelle’’ emerges with a quality of heterosexual pre-political emotional frustration, loneliness, and rage that comes with the female being the eternal supplicant. Surrounded by women who were in similar, as Hacker terms it, “interminable and insoluble heterosexual soap operas”,[2] Hacker lacked the political community of women in England that existed in America at the same time. Writing about a visit to Colorado in 1975, a year before she returned to the U.S., Hacker tells Russ:

It was great to see you and talk to you, and to meet so many sympathetic and interesting people, and to get, for the first time in many years, a sense of some sort of community, especially community among women, with a kind of mutual energy and interest and impetus at its center.[3]

Moreover, in an earlier letter Hacker writes, “Becoming a feminist in England is . . . rather theoretical, and doesn’t make it easier to get in touch with anybody”.[4] In a covert-form of consciousness-raising, Hacker placed in writing what she did not find in community.

Writing with a pre-feminist outlook, the reader can see and hear the speaker trying to make sense of her emotional muddle, but the self-doubts drive her to seek out a community to fill this void. Thus, the theme is not disengaged or removed from its time, but the helplessness of the female speaker is. Moreover, although Hacker’s villanelle focuses on a heterosexual relationship, her specific treatment of a love affair reveals a latent feminism and nomadic consciousness in a Braidottian manner in her resistance to hegemonic free verse formations. This poem, and her earlier writing as a whole, shows Hacker thinking about feminism in the abstract; however, it does not make the leap into her writing until her third collection, Taking Notice.

Images of the body separating shows the speaker trying, as Ben Howard explains, to formulate and understand “a language of instinct and feeling – of a woman’s bodily awareness – and to express the body’s longings, including its ‘inadmissible longings’ as they are shaped and repressed in personal relationships” (47). The incommensurability of body and language characterises most of Hacker’s work during the 1970s. William Pritchard notes that Hacker “writes urgently, sometimes delicately, about separation, a state peculiarly interesting for the poet who not only-as woman or as man-is separated from somebody else, but must also write about being separated from somebody else” (457). These themes of separation and alienation foreshadowed the poems that were to come in the next collection, Separations (1976). For example, in “Somewhere in a Turret”, the pain and disappointment of an unsuccessful relationship continues to be articulated, but with less self-absorption and instead with a distinctly mature sense of concession. In the third stanza, the female speaker is defensive as she addresses her lover’s doubt of her departure:

Don’t think I’m trying to ignore the time

I piled my things into a cab and left

a note for you and one for the dinner guests.

Those rooms have new tenants. You and I

may never share a closet or a towel-rack

again. We contrived it. I am still

surprised waking up without you every morning,

but I can’t camp out in your house or you in mine.

People would ask me to leave. People would send you

away. (41-42)

Here, the speaker has a similar tone of vulnerability to the speaker in “Villanelle”, as reflected in the varying line lengths to suggest the irregularity of the speaker’s emotions. However, there is a realistic certainty and acceptance of the end of the relationship in the emphasis on the word “away” in its place at the end of the stanza as a separate line. There is an awakening as the speaker realises that her lover has moved on and the “rooms have new tenants”.

In Rich’s letter to Hacker, which is discussed in more detail later in the chapter, Rich looks back and praises these early attempts at “very short, curt sentences [that] embody the pain more than anything else in the poem”.[5]Here, the poet is working against the form by emphasising the line as individual units of meaning to compress her feelings. Rich explains that she followed this method herself to think through her own experiences as a woman:

I began cutting words out of my poems . . . they had to become shorter, sharper, blunter, more irregular, to make fewer logical connections because the real connections I was seeking between things were not logical at all, and I could no longer pretend they were.[6]

As opposed to the indecisive addressee in “Villanelle”, however, the male lover in this poem shows indifference about the end of the relationship and expects the female speaker to depart without delay. While the voice of the plural “we” stresses the ‘twoness’ of the relationship in its prime, the predominance of the subjective “I” creates a ‘oneness’ that is distinct in its loneliness, which at the same time “suggests female recognition of [her] capacity for selfhood and the potential for a feminist poetics of female experience” (Craddock 95). Hacker maintains the plural voice, but uses it only for imaginary and past instances. Here, Hacker challenges the traditional image of the woman as muse and object as she becomes subject and poet, as well as more assertive in her voice (“don’t think” and “I can’t”) and expressions, much as she proclaims in an earlier poem, “And here I am, / a small, redheaded, pungent woman, not / your bloody Muse” (“Like Aschenbach in Arizona” 84).

The entire poem takes on a mythic and ancient character that is removed “Somewhere in a Turret” and “catacombed in” with memories and nostalgic reminiscences; it is a life that is distant even to the speaker. The plurality of the lovers’ relationship is no longer physical or tangible as the body disappears from the equation to be replaced by objects that they used to share: “rooms”, “pictures”, “books”, a “cat”, “closet”, and “towel-rack”. Foregrounding of the word “time” as the line-break of the first line, alongside temporal variations of it in the same stanza (“left”, “still’, and “morning”), sets up the temporal framework of this poem as more pressing and urgent in its finality. As the poem comes to an end, the female speaker comes to terms with the end of their relationship:

But you know about words. You have had time

to figure out that hardly anyone

came back to bed because of a poem.

Poems praise and protect us from

our lovers. While I write this

I am not having heartburn

about your indifference. We could walk

into any room.

You wouldn’t ask me to leave. I wouldn’t send you

away.   (42)

The male in this poem who “know[s] about words” seems to refer to Hacker’s ex-husband Samuel Delany, as he was a writer and would understand the power of words, but also their ineffectiveness after a relationship has been finalised. Contemplating the connection between language and lived experience, Hacker is able to illuminate how the relationship was “contrived”, which shows that the coupling was forced and did not develop organically. With this realisation, the speaker is able to face him with no distress (“We could walk / into any room. / You wouldn’t ask me to leave. I wouldn’t send you / away’’). Reflecting on her reactions and temperament during those years, Hacker later writes, “resignation is not the appropriate stance in those situations”.[7] Not overtly feminist in its examination of the depth of the woman’s experience, and still lacking individual strength, the poem is nevertheless coming closer to women’s rejections of male expectations and apathy, as well as the rejection of constraints over female behaviour.

These early poems were written during the thirteen years that Hacker was married to Delany, from 1961 until the birth of her daughter Iva in 1974. As depicted in the poems, the marriage was both a convenience and an inconvenience, perhaps doomed to end as it was in many ways theoretical and non-traditional; with Delany being openly gay, their marriage was open to other sexual partners and they were often separated for months at a time. To a significant degree, their relationship reflects the social and cultural context of New York’s Lower East Side’s bohemian and gay literary scene of the 1960s (Delany “Heavenly Breakfast” and “Motion of Light”). As a young and talented, yet overlooked female writer, who was lonely for some ideal poet-friend to share her work with, Hacker turned to the world of male literary poets to resolve her social and artistic anxieties. Hacker’s early poetry looks back to these earlier male poets as inspiration or as model as these modernist poets provided young women writers with themes and poetic devices.

Her letters during the 1970s show her intent on establishing literary connections and publishing in literary magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. She began a correspondence with Richard Howard when he was poetry editor of the New American Review, aiming to publish her poems. Although thirteen years her senior, Howard modestly recalls that Hacker had a presence in the literary world long before he discovered her (her early pieces were published in magazines such as Epoch, Ambit and The London Magazine), and credits her with teaching him how to become an editor of a diverse magazine that would attract a wide audience (Howard 262). Howard’s discovery of Hacker would serve as a vehicle for the inclusion of a young twenty-eight-year-old emerging writer into the company of an older, well-established and distinguished literary group. Standing alongside literary giants including Richard Howard, James Merrill, and John Ashbery at the 1983 tribute to W.H. Auden, Hacker’s precociousness and potential prominence as a poet is foreshadowed in the photo below.

Marilyn Hacker (fifth from the left) and Richard Howard (second from the left) in attendance at the W. H. Auden Tribute[8]

In “The Young Insurgent’s Commonplace-Book: Adrienne Rich’s Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law”, Hacker explained this early influence on her writing as well as on other women poets:

Like Rich herself at twenty, my literary dialogues on and off the page were largely with men: on one hand, Auden, Lowell, Berryman, on the other, the acolytes of the ‘San Francisco Renaissance’ talking of and reading the work of Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to their East Coast juniors. (UV 18)

Yet Hacker was not totally cut off from the women poets of her time. Unsurprisingly, she read Sylvia Plath’s Ariel in 1963, which explains the “Plathy echoes” (18) in the tone of vulnerability and disappointment in Hacker’s subsequent poems. Hacker identified with the pressure and anxiety of being a ‘woman’ and ‘poet’ in a mid-century, male literary world, and would pursue Plath’s gift for metrical verse, which was strongly influenced by her male mentors.

At the time, Hacker did not identify as being a feminist. Looking back, however, she realises that her political activism and unconventional loves and friendships posited her as “an isolated feminist, a Jew who’d married Black, who had not yet heard the sentence ‘The Personal is Political’ but who was insisting on it, had had it insisted upon [her], in [her] own life” (Hacker, “A Tribute” 1). In this respect, Hacker’s early work posits her as a ‘feminine’ poet who wrote about the female experience without political undercurrents. Apart from the poems that were written during the 1960s, both Presentation Piece and Separations are what Hacker calls “pre-feminist” books, in that they reveal feminist undertones. In his biography, Samuel Delany reiterates how gender played an important part in Hacker’s conversations with him before the women’s movement made it widespread:

We had discussed what was necessary in fiction to portray characters of both sexes accurately . . . [as] they needed to be presented by purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions . . . some six years later, the women’s movement was to provide in a clearly articulated critique. (101)

This feminist consciousness can be found in some early poems, such as “To the Reader” from Presentation Piece, when Hacker subversively juxtaposes everyday housework with non-feminine actions that challenge expectations of women’s behaviour:

Pacing from room to room trimming the plants,

I walk heavily on my heels. I smoke

foul-smelling French cigarettes. Invoke

that portly bluestocking in gardening pants. (76)

Hacker’s early engagement with the sonnet and her modification of the form seems incongruous at a time when the female authored sonnet was absent. According to Jade Craddock, British poet Elizabeth Jennings was the only female poet to write sonnets during second-wave feminism, while Muriel Rukeyser and Anne Sexton wrote them sparingly, and Gwendolyn Brooks wrote them from time to time. Craddock goes on to conclude that “the sonnet and feminist poetry then seem to be two separate, even mutually exclusive, entities in the period” (88). Hacker offers the sonnet in her first collection in the guise of order and normalcy while trying to challenge and subvert male criteria for female behaviour. Therefore, there is a pro-feminist element to the poem in its disengagement from patriarchal thinking, beginning in the sonnet’s audacious and direct title, “To the Reader”, which impertinently addresses her audience and demonstrates that she is a woman and can also write in form.

The poem sees the female speaker explaining her interests and quotidian daily habits. The activity of female plant trimming, however, becomes an image of women’s subversion of masculinist prescriptions and assumptions. This challenging of traditional behaviour begins with the act of ‘’pacing’’ in a way that gives the image of a fast, calculated movement; this does not reflect the supposedly leisurely movement of a woman that is even further developed with the adverb ‘’heavily’’ to reflect a complete lack of the grace expected of a female. The putrid smell of the cigarettes adds to the drudging movement and seeks to further defy feminine representations. The poem is building up to the ‘’blue stocking’’ lady, an early feminist symbol of the mid-eighteenth century intellectual woman who held literary conversations with male and female aristocrats.[9]In evoking this image, Hacker aims to position herself in the matrilineal tradition, while she reclaims a formal inheritance.

Therefore, while she is writing in the language of the father she is calling into question the logic of masculine discourses; the impertinent woman’s voice seeks to articulate a specifically female experience that refuses patriarchal modes of thought. The twist comes when these “blue stockings” are revealed in the guise of unflattering “gardening pants”, further subverting and modernising the twentieth-century feminist. The theme of tending to plants in its overt gender stereotype risks undermining a ‘feminine’ poetics of Hacker’s earlier work; however, as Hacker weaves her ‘feminine’ politics into her daily life, these strong patriarchal associations create the opportunity for a rebellion through the quotidian and the everyday that foreshadows her feminist activism in the work to come. Using a theme that works against the tone of the form, Hacker seems to be testing herself against this masculine tradition, redefining these for herself:

. . . And if Catullus learns to cook

while Lesbia goes to the bars to cruise,

you haven’t put up anything to lose

except two hours to read a different book.

Boys will be boys and wonder in their rooms

if fame could be a sociable disease.

“I’ll sleep alone and murder whom I please

and find another lover when the moon’s

in Scorpio.” Be grateful to our Mom.

She let you off with cancer and the bomb. (76)

The remaining ten lines of the sonnet show a subversive poetic practice in the changing of end rhymes, so that the poem starts out following the Petrarchan sonnet rhyme in the first four lines abba (“plants-pants” and “smoke-invoke”), but then disrupts this pattern with a different variation – cddc / effe / gg – with the last two lines forming a couplet in line with the structural division of the Shakespearean sonnet. Varying the pattern of end rhymes illustrates how Hacker’s female-authored sonnet took ownership of the form. Writing within a male literary form places the female in a dialectical relationship with the male in the rest of the poem as “Catullus learns to cook” is set up against “Lesbia goes to the bars to cruise”,[10] and “Boys will be boys” against “I’ll sleep alone and murder whom I please / and find another lover when the moon’s / in Scorpio”. As the patriarchal relationship is interwoven in the rhyme, Hacker negotiates the female’s impertinent voice with the male-dominated tradition of the sonnet, proving her subversive strategy to write as a woman in a patriarchal form. Finally, in the couplet, the speaker affirms the subjectivity and empowerment (though also brutality) of the female, as the country is symbolised as a mother with destructive qualities: “Be grateful to our Mom. / She let you off with cancer and the bomb”. Although this sonnet does not particularly align with the feminist poetry of the second wave, in articulating a female voice, it nevertheless examines women’s traditional roles in a patriarchal society.

Many feminist critics and poets have taken a stronger position towards Hacker’s formalism; they disagree as to the effectiveness of these technical exercises. Norma Procopiow argues that “The poems seem created, not with urgency or commitment, but to display craftsmanship” (qtd. in Riley and Mendelson 155). Yet more radical is Adrienne Rich’s critique of Hacker’s use of formal verse in a personal letter dated 8 October 1976 that followed the publication of Hacker’s first two collections.[11] This is an unpublished letter from Hacker’s collection from the Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Although mention of this letter comes in “The Mimesis of Thought: On Adrienne Rich’s Poetry”, thirty-four years after Rich sent it to Hacker, it is an important letter that tells of Rich’s feminist poetics during the 1970s and her high and stern expectations of successive generations of women writers. Yet, even more importantly, Hacker’s single reference to it after so many years and the fact that Hacker wrote a reply that she did not send reveals a hidden tension and silent conversation that she has been engaged in since she received the letter in the late 1970s. Even in her heavy correspondence to Joanna Russ in the 1970s-1980s, Hacker did not mention that she did not mail the response.

Female Poetic Influence: Marilyn Hacker and Adrienne Rich


In an article in the AWP Chronicle, “A Tribute to Adrienne Rich” (1994), Hacker wrote of Rich as a model, yet distant mentor, who had a strong political and literary influence on Hacker as a poet:

Adrienne Rich’s work has changed my world. Whatever some may think, there is no inner circle of feminist poets, or even lesbian poets, who all know each other even better than they know each other’s work. Rich and I have barely ever lived in the same city at the same time, have met perhaps four times in twenty years. But her work has been a constant influence on how I look at what’s around me, read poetry – and the newspapers – write, examine my own actions and insofar as I can, choose them, since sometime in 1972. (“A Tribute” 1)

What is most significant about this quote is that Hacker clearly points out that the only relationship between Rich and Hacker is an artistic one, a one-sided admiration from Hacker’s side. Hacker’s first two collections were recognised and reviewed by many poets in the American scene because of the publicity that the National Book Award had created, but as it appears, these collections were not reviewed by Rich. In a 1998 letter, Hacker tells Hayden Carruth how she felt as if she “was being ‘checked out”’ by Rich when they first met after the publication of Hacker’s first book and got the impression that she “didn’t pass muster”.[12] Hacker constantly agonised over the lack of attention that Rich gave to her, and believed it was perhaps due to heterophobia, since Rich came out as a lesbian in 1976. In September 1976, Hacker was elated and relieved when Rich finally approached her enthusiastically at a poetry reading about Hacker’s second collection, Separations, and promised to write to her about it in a letter.

To Hacker’s relief and annoyance, in a three-page letter Rich expressed her discontent with Hacker’s poetics and questioned Hacker’s motives as a woman and a feminist for writing in metrical form. The letter was clearly significant in Hacker’s project of developing a critical nomadic consciousness that rejects the dominant literary view that formalism and feminist poetics are mutually exclusive. Rich’s letter, as well as Hacker’s response to it, is examined in this chapter alongside the personal, narrative discourse in her correspondence with Joanna Russ, as these correspondences are necessary to the understanding of the development of Hacker’s feminist consciousness. Because this is an unpublished letter, it needs quoting in full. The letter begins as follows:

When I first read your poetry my reaction was: But we did all that in the ‘50’s, and struggled out of it – why is a clearly gifted, intelligent, woman doing it again? Why am I hearing again the accents of Auden, of Wilbur, of midstream Lowell, in the poetry of a woman writing in the 1970s?[13]

(Rich, underline in original)

Without using the word “formalism”, it seems that Rich is stating the obvious. “That” and “it” (stated twice), suggesting a bondage of some sort that they “struggled out of’’, is to be a source of tension within Rich and Hacker’s personal and literary relationship: an unspoken anxiety that they work through in their own writings. Focusing on her formalism, Rich identifies her own history with Hacker as a young woman writing in formal verse, but at the same time resents that Hacker’s early thought and poetics are an emulation of hers. Furthermore, like Hacker, Rich sought recognition from the male literary establishment of the 1950s. During this time, the general atmosphere was conservative and many women were pursuing traditional roles as daughters, wives, and mothers, as can be seen in the “deliberately groomed metrical verse of [Rich’s] first two books” (UV 19), with her second collection published after her marriage in 1953 to Alfred Conrad and in the year of the birth of her first son.

The “we” that Rich is referring to are the mid-century women poets whose work derives most directly from the masculine tradition, such as Sylvia Plath and Denise Levertov. As Hacker explains, these poets, including Rich, “had in common a strong background in and gift for metrical verse and ‘received’ forms upon which they built, elaborated, expanded . . . their mature work seems to me much more of an ‘extension’ of this initial achievement” (UV 18). As a young poet, Rich accepted the models provided by her patriarchal world and literary tradition. Looking back at her early poetry, Rich writes in “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”: ‘’I know that my style was formed first by male poets: by the men I was reading as an undergraduate – Frost, Dylan Thomas, Donne, Auden, MacNiece, Stevens, Yeats. What I chiefly learned from them was craft’’ (21). However, as Rich became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, anti-Vietnam activism and the New Left, her poetry started to reflect the feminist belief that the ‘personal is political’ and began to explore the private experiences of women’s suppression within a society that is patriarchal in its convictions. Rich’s particular form of feminism stems from these political and social events, as well as the personal pressures to perform as a wife, mother of three children, and a practicing poet.

In underlining “woman”, (“why is a clearly gifted, intelligent, woman doing it again?”) Rich is connecting Hacker’s feminist politics to her creative practice as a writer, because for radical feminists like Rich, the liberation of the poetic line was necessary for the freedom of women to write about personal and socially restricted topics. For Rich, formalism was like “asbestos gloves” as “it allowed [her] to handle materials [she] couldn’t otherwise pick up bare-handed” (Rich, “When We Dead” 22). The “asbestos gloves” acted as the barrier between self and words, body and language, experience and poetry. For Rich, to write as a woman, language must be connected directly to the female body and experience. She explains this in “Blood, Bread, and Poetry”: ‘’To write directly and overtly as a woman, out of a woman’s body and experience, to take women’s existence seriously as theme and source for art, was something I had been hungering to do, needing to do, all my writing life’’ (182).

Free forms allowed Rich to break free from the patriarchal constraints associated with metrical verse. Her rhetorical question to Hacker has the tone of disappointment and displays a troubled literary mother who believes that she, and others from her generation, “struggled” and paved the way for younger women poets such as Anne Sexton so that they could write as females without having to prove themselves to gain recognition from the male literary world. Sexton begins in a sense where the others leave off – and indeed, her writing career did not begin until she was twenty-eight, after the experience of being a homemaker and mother.

In the same letter, Rich refers to a “still indistinct but available women’s tradition” created by modern and contemporary women poets who worked to express their own experience and find their own forms for expression. For Rich to see Hacker writing in form seems to Rich as though she is not acknowledging these struggles and sacrifices. After commenting on Hacker’s formalism, Rich turns to language and tradition as the second non-feminist aspect of Hacker’s work:

It troubled me even then that you made your home in England

and that much of your tone and rhythm seemed influenced not

simply by English literary tradition but by a whole contemporary

English way-of-being-in-the-world (low-key expectations,

resignation) which has been, I think, peculiarly damaging to

English women poets (only Stevie Smith, I think, was able to turn

it into something keenly and uniquely her own, and even she

doesn’t always escape preciosity). England has never been able to

deal with (critically or as influence) the American tradition

which includes Whitman and Dickinson, H.D. and Williams; the

English have either written phony imitations of Olsen or

maintained a willed ignorance about the complex development of

American poetry throughout this century. But more than

anything we have to recognize that there are two different

languages, and that American poetry can only be written in the

American language.[14]

As the quote above shows, Rich goes on to object to the influence that living in England has had on Hacker’s poetics.[15] Rich begins by explaining that the style of English poetry that American poets moved away from since the mid-nineteenth century is being recreated in Hacker’s verse. “American poetry is formulated”, as Beach explains, “as a rejection of the tradition of self-consciously literary writing associated with English poetry. Whitman exemplified this anti-traditional stance, calling for a ‘national, idiomatic’ poetry free from the ‘genteel laws’ of Anglo-European verse” (4). Beach goes on to explain that Whitman, Dickinson, and Pound created traditions that successive generations of American poets followed in:

We often speak of a Whitmanic tradition (open, democratic, celebratory), a Poundian tradition (modernist, experimental) or a Dickinsonian tradition (woman-centered, personal, formal), using these terms as a short-hand for an entire stance toward the writing of poetry. (4)

Reading Whitman and Dickinson against the poets and women poets of the American nineteenth century, one understands what a departure they made from the writers of that time. The innovation and experimental modernism of H. D. and Williams were especially influential on the free-verse poetics of the 1950s and 1960s. By espousing free verse and colloquial speech, Rich, like other younger poets of the 1960s, contributed a space for American poetry that was distinct from the civilised British poetry promoted by Eliot (Brooks-Motl).

The “low-key expectations” and “resignation” Rich writes of characterises early feminists’ call for equality based on an argument of sameness called for in first wave feminism. Later, radical feminism in America argued that this proposition of equality prompted women to measure themselves using male standards, ultimately calling for difference and higher expectations for women. “The assimilation of woman to man”, according to Sylvie Gambaudo, “and the subservience of her feminine condition to the advancement of man soon became the target of criticism for a second wave of feminists” (95). In light of this ‘equality vs. difference’ debate, Rich views Hacker’s writing as influenced by a British tradition that embodied anxieties concerning the constructions of female voice and experience in post-World War II women’s literature. Rich, however, makes the connection between this submissive attitude and the English way of life that Hacker also recognises when complaining in her own correspondence to Joanna Russ when Hacker was living in London: “I’ve come to have such low expectations of the level of communication I can have with my friends, of the amount of emotional and intellectual energy that people I know are willing to invest in friendship”.[16] Hacker also identified this characteristic as a general trait in England (not just with women) when sympathetically supporting her English lover’s emotional problems, believing that “his problems might have to do with the emotional poverty of the English upper middle class and perhaps he should get to know some other people”.[17]

Later in the letter, Rich cites Plath as an example of a poet who suffered as she strived for public recognition in a masculine tradition: ‘’[t]he world Plath for example was so unfortunately in but not of, the world of male approval. I don’t think it was a necessary or a good way of escaping that world; it’s just that that was what happened and there was nothing else available’’.[18] Rich’s reference to Plath as a tragic figure who could not cope with this ‘double bind’, cutting off her life as she began creating a poetry of engagement, serves as a warning to Hacker of what might become of the woman poet if this strain is not settled.

Yet, Rich excludes modernist poet Stevie Smith from having to adhere to this masculine tradition. From 1934, when she first started to publish, Smith’s poetry was described as both “eccentric” and “quirky” by critics of both genders (Huk 1), or as Rich states “something keenly and uniquely her own”. Later, using feminist theory, Smith’s readers were able to deconstruct and understand this eccentricity. Thus Rich, like recent feminist critics, views Smith’s “eccentric” writing as “ex-centric”, that is a “liminal position in society and language most famously described by Virginia Woolf and shared by other female modernists in England” (1). Romana Huk continues to explain that such “positions often produce fractured sightings of the self in the shadow of ascendant cultural forces even as both conspire in the construction of identity” (1). As such, Smith succeeded as an English woman poet due to her digression from the patriarchal norm. Yet, if Smith’s unconventional and unorthodox poetics achieve a female transgression from tradition in Rich’s view, why then is Hacker’s formalism, which challenges the conventional free forms of the 1970s, not feminist? The answer lies in the relationship of the complexity of language and tone of hopelessness to the experience of the female body. Halfway through the letter, Rich underscores the main reason for her disapproval of Hacker’s poetics:

But one thing your use of iambic pentameter and end-rhyme does, it seems to me, is force you toward verbosity and away from compression, toward a kind of forgone conclusion as to where the poem is headed and away from surprise, the fortuitous turn, the unforeseen discovery. And more than anything your body becomes “hidden in words” . . . “a carapace of words / crystalled opaque over your eyes”. The strength of those lines in “Geographer” suggests that somewhere you knew you were talking about yourself.[19]

In the above quote, Rich goes on to argue that formalism leads to literariness, as the poems seem diffuse and discursive when they should have been condensed and direct. The “forgone conclusion” recalls the suffering that repeats itself over and over with a lack of resolution in expressions of indeterminate relationships, as in the cyclical inextricable connection between lovers in the “Villanelle” poem discussed earlier. Without the “unforeseen discovery”, the reader is left with no sense of how the theme is resolved or what the speaker learns from this experience. The “body hidden in words” is a reference to both “Forage Sestina” from Presentation Piece and “Geographer” from Separations, where excessive attention to technique provides a mask or serves as a barrier between the woman speaker and her emotions, in that it represents masculine discourse that is unable to articulate women’s experiences and emotions – again, as discussed in the poem “Villanelle”. In her writings, Rich encourages thinking about the importance of a new women’s language as she argues in “When We Dead Awaken”, because “for women writers in particular, there is the challenge and promise of a whole new psychic geography to be explored . . . as we try to find language and images for a consciousness we are just coming into” (19).

For Rich, formalism occludes raw expression of bodily experiences, and Hacker’s usage of form suggests that this concealment arises from her experiences. Indeed, Hacker’s lack of assertiveness in her personal life was part of a general anonymity and seclusion when she lived in London, being distant from poetry readings, women’s groups, and even British feminist publications such as Spare Rib. Despite the success of the book business, Hacker complained that the “London landscape doesn’t have the necessary edges on it, for me . . . a certain kind of intersection, or abrasion with the landscape has always been an active part of what I write & why I write”.[20] “Landscape” to Hacker is not only urban space, but also nature and her human interactions. In fact, her social intercourse suffered during this time as the few people she saw regularly or with any frequency were two women acquaintances, Delany, and David (her occasional lover). As such, the geographical, physical and emotional exile that Hacker’s verse embodied – depicted by the separation of body and word – also distanced women readers like Rich. If Hacker’s early poetics was a product of her male literary environment, one speculates that her intended audience might not have been specifically female.

Rich ends her letter with words of advice that urge Hacker to consider her use of formal technique and reflect on her self-definition, both of which she identifies as crucial to a feminist poetics of women’s poetry:

suppose you were to refuse all the forms of wit and skill you’ve been given and have exploited so dazzlingly, suppose you were to start listening for the sound of your own voice, naked, would it sound like the poems you have been writing or would it have a deeper pitch, a rougher tone, without sacrificing accuracy, fine ear, love of the sounds of words?[21]

As Rich makes formalism the focus of her criticism, she offers to Hacker women’s voice and true emotion as an alternative. For Rich, women poets must move on from a poetry of existence and survival to a necessary poetry of female subjectivity, as women poets such as Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, and H.D. did. By drawing on a tradition of women’s poetry, Rich is recognising that Hacker’s work is fundamentally female in the sense that it is part of a tradition of American women poets in the way it pays “homage indirectly to poets like Louise Bogan and Elinor Wylie”.[22] Reviewing Separations, however, Cheryl Walker warns of the risks of a poetry set in verse forms that can sound “too literary” when “[a] woman poet who chooses to reify the past tradition of female formalists stands in an uneasy position given the shift of our poetic diction toward the conversational and colloquial” (250).

This occasional precocity and disorientating use of voice that Walker identifies in Hacker’s work is what Rich believed hindered a true expression of personal experience. “Those poets who were widely recognized as feminist in the 1970s”, L. Keller and C. Miller explain, “typically wrote in a relatively accessible free verse and offered bold first-person testimony to such female experiences as childbirth, menstruation, and female sexuality, along with celebrations of under-recognized female achievement in the past” (Greene et al. 482). The similarity of their beginnings, as well as their creative abilities, direct our attention toward the strong connection and influence Rich had on Hacker as a woman and as a writer, all of which Hacker explained in her reply to Rich’s letter:

my first reaction [to the letter] was sheer relief: relief at being acknowledged by a woman whose mind and art have been so important to me in these past few years. Also relief on a much less noble scale; the few times we’ve met in the last year in New York I’d convinced myself that for the same obscure reason, or some reason clear to everyone but me, something I’d done or left undone, said or not said, written or left unwritten, you couldn’t extend to me the obvious interest and affection you have, in general for other women writers. I felt hurt, even a bit envious of others. I’ve carried your Selected Poems over two continents, and given a half-dozen copies away, and yet I felt peculiarly cut off from being able to communicate with you.[23]

(strikethrough and underline in original)

Here, the younger poet outlines her vulnerability in seeking the approval of the older poet, which she confronts in writing but fails to resolve with her literary mother by not sending the letter.[24] Both Rich’s intellect and poetry are qualities that Hacker not only admired in Rich, but also wished to appropriate as she came across her work in the early 1970s.[25] In a 1976 letter to Russ, Hacker raves about Rich, “I envy you Adrienne Rich! She’s one of the five people in the world I’d most like to get to know. I carry her Selected Poems around like a prayer book. No, like a scouting manual – showing that the fusion of technique, emotion, political acuity and intelligence can be accomplished”.[26] Yet this immense reverence was subdued when Hacker received Rich’s letter. The tone of Hacker’s letter reveals both affection and hurt that Rich would notice or give attention to younger female poets such as Joan Larking but not to Hacker. Hacker writes of her envy of Rich’s review of Larkin’s work in the feminist magazine Ms.: “I thought, here is Adrienne praising Joan to the skies for all the things she took me to task for in that letter: technique, use of form with modern diction . . . I was envious”.[27] Revising the letter by crossing out “other” and “others”, Hacker tries to conceal her reference to specific poets so as not appear spiteful and envious.

[1] The confusion about this relationship stems from Hacker’s personal life of loving two men at the same time: David, the Englishman, who she had a five-year relationship with during her expatriation to London in 1970 and to whom the poem is dedicated to (for D.G.B.), and her then-husband Samuel Delany. Although this particular poem does not explore the polyamorous and unconventional relationships that marked the 1960s-bohemian counterculture, other poems in the collection such as “The Navigators” articulate this ability of loving two equally: “my two loves have gone, the dark and the fair” (23).

[2] Hacker, letter to Joanna Russ. 4 Nov. 1975. Box 5, Folder 20. JRP.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 3 Oct. 1976. Box 1, Folder 4. MHP.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hacker, letter to Joanna Russ. 12 Oct. 1976. Box 4, Folder 5. MHP.

[8] “From the Archive: W. H. Auden Tribute.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets,


[9] “Bluestocking.” Encyclopædia Britannica (2014): Research Starters. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

[10] Catullus was a Roman poet during the 60s and 50s b.c.e. In his poetry, he wrote much about a woman by the name of Lesbia who he had an affair with for many years. The Lesbia poems are the best known of Catullus’s work (Garrison).

[11] Hacker, letter to Adrienne Rich. 8 Oct. 1976. Box 2, Folder 7. MHP.

[12] Hacker, letter to Hayden Carruth. 3 Sept. 1998. Box 73, Folder 31. HCP.

[13] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 3 Oct. 1976. Box 1, Folder 4. MHP.

[14] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 3 Oct. 1976. Box 1, Folder 4. MHP.

[15] At the time Rich wrote the letter, Hacker had already retuned from her six-year expatriation in London and was teaching two graduate courses in women’s studies at George Washington University.

[16] Hacker, letter to Joanna Russ. 24 Nov. 1976. Box 5, Folder 24. JRP.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 3 Oct. 1976. Box 1, Folder 4. MHP.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Hacker, letter to Joanna Russ. 21 Oct. 1975. Box 5, Folder 20. JRP.

[21] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 3 Oct. 1976. Box 1, Folder 4. MHP.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Hacker, letter to Adrienne Rich. 8 Oct. 1976. Box 2, Folder 7. MHP.

[24] Because the letter was not signed and did not have a concluding remark, I deduced that it must not have been sent. I also emailed the Adrienne Rich Collection in the Schlesinger Library, at the Radcliff institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. I made a query about a letter to Rich from Hacker dated 8 Oct. 1976, but they replied that the collection does not have any correspondence from Hacker.

[25] Although Adrienne Rich’s Selected Poems was published in 1967, Hacker was not aware of it until she settled in London in 1972.

[26] Hacker, letter to Joanna Russ. 21 Oct. 1975. Box 5, Folder 20. JRP.

[27] Ibid.

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