To read poet Marilyn Hacker's work is to enter a landscape both wild and artfully contained, where classic forms of poetry are no longer emissaries from a lost world of meticulous manners and pristine hosiery, but are transformed into a call for dynamic action or a lament for fallen revolutionaries.
Phoenicians will get to hear the poet read her work this Wednesday, April 13, at the Phoenix Art Museum as part of its ongoing collaboration with the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Starting at 7 p.m., local poet Deborah Berman-Montaño will open for Hacker, who will read for about 35 minutes and then answer questions.
"She has a 40-year career as one of our leading voices in poetry," says Tyler Meier, the executive director of the Poetry Center. He describes Hacker as a "master of formal poetry and of using received forms —
villanelles, sonnets, Japanese renga forms — as devices that set off what else is happening in her poems."
Hacker, a New Yorker who now lives in Paris, published her first collection of poetry, Presentation Piece, in 1974, winning the National Book Award that year. The intervening years have brought more collections and awards, including two Lambda Literary Awards and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and her work as a translator of poets has also garnered consistent praise.
"I wish more people knew more languages," Hacker says. "A world of polyglots is more interesting. The liminal space between languages and how that works and how one can play within that in poetry interests me."
While the creative use of form is something that goes hand-in-hand with her poetry, she's quick to point out that definitions of form are broad.
"Open form, for the last 100 years or so, is form. That's what poetry is for many people, against which I have nothing. To talk about form versus something else — there are different kinds of invented forms or received forms. In a sense, any poetry has got some kind of form, which is why it's not journalistic prose."
Within the poetic structure, waves of yearning, desire, defeat, and even bitterness ripple her poems' surfaces, surprising the reader lulled along by rhythm and rhyme. In her poem "Glose," which appears in the 2009 collection Names, she writes, ""But peace requires more than one creature/released from the habit of craving/on a planet that's mortgaged its future/to the lot who are plotting and raving."
Much of Hacker's work, whether original or that of the poets she's translated, has a political bent where poetic observations swiftly turn into indictments. When asked about what is capturing her attention on the world stage today, she moves forward and back in time, highlighting the congruencies between one generation and another, citing harrowing histories in disparate lands that feel frighteningly up to date.
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"Living in Europe ... the presence and situation of political refugees is much more omnipresent, and not in an abstract way. As it happens, several of my close friends are political exiles or refugees from Syria. The experience of exile, the experience of the refugee, in my mind as an American non-Zionist Jew, goes back to the situation of refugees a generation ago [during World War II], refugees in Cambodia and Vietnam. It is part of the human situation, but part of the human situation that is very much with us right now."
Hacker has frequently translated poets who haven't always gotten a lot of play in the Anglo-American publishing world — Moroccan poet Rachida Madani, the Lebanese-born writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata, and Emmanuel Moses, who was born in Casablanca and raised between Paris and Jerusalem.
"Writing always seems to be an ongoing conversation with people who have written in the past or the present, whether they are alive or not alive," Hacker says. "Those conversations are always going on — the American Adrienne Rich, [Palestinian poet] Mahmoud Darwish, who I have read in three languages — painfully, but painstakingly I read him in Arabic, which is another kind of discovery to see what the poet is really doing with his language. The people one is talking to in one's head are not necessarily people one has met, except on the page."
Marilyn Hacker will appear for a reading on Wednesday, April 13, at 7 p.m. at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue. The event is free.