Marilyn Hacker (b. 1942) is a poet whose work combines the political and the personal, the traditional and the radical, to startling effect. She is a New Yorker, born in the Bronx to Jewish parents who were the first in their respective families to go to university. Hacker was a precocious student, beginning her studies at New York University when she was only fifteen. Her core subjects were science but she also developed interests in philosophy and French literature and read voraciously. In 1961, a year before she was due to graduate, she married the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. Their marriage was sexually open with both of them having affairs with other partners, including those of the same sex. Since the late seventies, Hacker has lived openly as a lesbian. The couple have one daughter, Iva, born in 1974, and although they divorced in 1980, have remained on friendly terms. During their time together in the 60s and 70s Hacker and Delany lived a bohemian life centred on New York’s East Village. The radical politics of the period and the flamboyant characters of the city’s street scene were to be important subjects in Hacker’s poetry. Early in her career Hacker largely made her living as a commercial editor with a stint in the early 70s as an antiquarian book dealer in London. It was here that her poems started to gain a readership through publication in British magazines such as Ambit and The London Magazine. A significant breakthrough came when the distinguished New American Review published three of her poems and the editor, Richard Howard, began to promote her work to US publishers. Her first book, Presentation Piece, was published in 1974. Its combination of traditional forms, including sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, blank verse and heroic couplets, with a tone and subject matter that were personal, even racy, made an immediate impact, winning both the Lamont Poetry Prize and the National Book Award.

With this book Hacker established a signature style, a radical formalism which The Washington Post Book World has accurately described as a “colloquial sublime”. Her use of form has been interpreted by some critics as subversive, a “taking on” of traditional male territory, but Hacker has denied this, saying her love of form is “purely hedonistic”. What is incontrovertible is her technical brilliance in allying form to a brash, contemporary language so that her poems seem both spontaneous and perfectly controlled. The stuff of life – people, places, food, politics – has remained her material, her poems busy with incident and restless energy. The lives and experience of women are central concerns as in her 1986 narrative sonnet sequence Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons, a passionate chronicle of a love story between an older poet and younger woman. Her tone has darkened over time: her sombre collection Winter Numbers: Poems (1995) records her own struggle with breast cancer and the deaths of close friends from AIDS. Her latest collection Desperanto: Poems 1999-2002 is informed, as the title suggests, by her despair over the consequences of recent US foreign policy.

As well as her ground-breaking poetry, Hacker has had an important influence through her role as an editor and teacher. She has taught at many leading universities and is currently director of the Creative Writing MA programme at City College of New York. Her editorship of The Kenyon Review from 1990-1994 took this venerable institution into new territory, publishing many more minority and marginalised voices alongside established literary names. Her own work has continued to win plaudits including the Lambda Literary Award, the Lenore Marshall Prize and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Ingram Merrill Foundation.

The poems you can listen to here encapsulate the essential sociability of Hacker’s poetry, three of them being written to or for close friends. Hacker’s radical politics has always found expression through personal experience as she herself has acknowledged: “It’s not a question of an issue, but a question of the people I know who are close to me, who are health-care workers, or living with illnesses, or the neighbours, housed and homeless…” This is particularly true of her portrait of good times in East Village, ‘Nights of 1964-1966: The Old Reliable’ which celebrates the colourful characters and sexual and intellectual energy of her youth. It’s typical of Hacker that the free-wheeling tone and use of enjambment almost disguises the strict abba rhyme scheme. This poem is revealed as elegy only in the last quatrain, a note of mortality which is central to the other poems here; in her exploration of the struggle of her friend, the poet Muriel Rukeyeser, in recovering from a stroke; her moving elegy for the writer and activist, June Jordan; and her sestina ‘Morning News’ which records her sense of the violation of domestic space at the outbreak of the Iraq War. Throughout, Hacker’s pacy delivery and the spiky rhythms of her native accent chime with the sense of urgency in these poems, the desire to capture life’s texture even when dealing with loss.

Marilyn's recording was made on 28 February 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Poems by Marilyn Hacker

Crepuscule for Muriel - Marilyn Hacker
Elegy for a Soldier - Marilyn Hacker
Morning News - Marilyn Hacker
Nights of 1964-1966: The Old Reliable - Marilyn Hacker

Books by Marilyn Hacker


Ingram Merrill Foundation Fellowship

Prize website

Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship

Prize website

Lambda Literary Award

Prize website

Lamont Poetry Prize

Prize website

National Book Award for 'Presentation Piece'

Prize website

National Book Award for 'Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons'

Prize website

National Book Award for 'Going Back to the River'

Prize website

Willis Barnstone Translation Prize

Prize website

PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for King of a Hundred Horsemen by Marie Étienne

Prize website

first Robert Fagles Translation Prize from the National Poetry Series

Prize website

PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry

Prize website

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