By Kimberly Reyes
On November 2, Rutgers University welcomed poet Marilyn Hacker as part of its Writers at Rutgers reading series. In anticipation of the large turnout, the Zimmerli Art Museum had set out more chairs than usual, but still needed to add more to accommodate the crowd. Ms. Hacker is a writer who has been given many labels to help readers appreciate her poetry: neoformalist, lesbian activist, Jewish, feminist, cancer survivor. After the excited buzz of the audience was hushed, Professor Brent Hayes Edwards mentioned this list and added another, introducing her as one of the “great American city poets, an author who takes up verse and takes it to the streets.”
Neoformalism or “New Formalism” arrived on the American scene in the late twentieth century, founded on the idea of reviving poetic traditions of rhythm, meter, and stanza that had been neglected in the 1960s and 70s by poets working in free verse. Marilyn Hacker is among the movement’s most notable poets, resurrecting poetic traditions and applying them to contemporary themes.
At the reading, Ms. Hacker gave the example of a ghazal, an Urdu poetic form that originated in the tenth century. Her “Ghazal on Half a Line by Adrienne Rich” is written in twelve couplets, with a rhyme scheme taken from the first couplet. The repeating rhyme presents a challenge to the poet by matching not just the last syllable of the line, but by repeating the final word and rhyming the preceding few syllables. Ms. Hacker’s ghazal borrows the words “she waits for certain letters” from a poem by Adrienne Rich, and makes it the key phrase:
In a familiar town, she waits for certain letters,
working out the confusion and the hurt in letters.
Whatever you didn’t get – the job, the girl –
rejections are inevitably curt in letters.
This is a country with a post office
where one can still make oneself heard in letters.
The more that readers know about this ancient form, the more they can see how Ms. Hacker is playing with it, stretching its traditional content to fit her subject. But at the reading, even listeners who were completely unfamiliar with the form appreciated Ms. Hacker’s mastery of language as the four-syllable rhymes built up through the poem. The audience cooed in amusement as Ms. Hacker came up with inventive ways to meet the rhyming requirements, ending on the couplet: “What does Anonymous compose, unsigned / at night, after she draws the curtain? Letters.”
Ms. Hacker developed a talent for reading and writing early in her life. She was born in the Bronx in 1942 to a working-class Jewish family, and throughout her early years at school she excelled in academics. She was able to enroll at NYU at the age of fifteen, where she eventually became the editor of the university’s literary journal. Her professional writing career began with a series of submissions to familiar literary journals, and with the publication of Presentation Piece in 1975 she won the National Book Award. Ms. Hacker’s ten additional books of poetry have earned much recognition, including the Lambda Literary Award, The Nation’s Lenore Marshall Prize for Winter Numbers (1994), and the Poet’s Prize for Selected Poems 1965-1990.
Her latest collection, Desesperanto, is highly personal and revolves around the theme of loss. Ms. Hacker confronts the pain of watching her friends deteriorate from various illnesses. Another important subject of Ms. Hacker’s new poems is the loss of sanity in a world overcome by political and social turmoil. In addition, two of the elegies she read dealt with the loss of youth as understood through memories of musical artistry, reminiscing on how “Janis packed the Fillmore West with heartbreak,” and asking, “Why did Alice Coltrane stop cutting records?” She joked that although she never got up the courage to talk to her, she “used to drink at the same bar in San Francisco” as Janis Joplin, and saw the famous singer there often.
Ms. Hacker also decided to read some of her translations of Venus Khoury-Ghata’s poems. Ms. Hacker lives in both New York and Paris, and she makes this cultural binary a recurring theme in her work. As the translator of French poets
Venus Khoury-Ghata and Claire Malroux, Ms. Hacker says she finds the act of translation to be especially productive, she said, because “it keeps your hands dirty in the clay of language.”
The poem Ms. Hacker chose to conclude the reading was the highly moving “Elegy for a Soldier,” which is dedicated to her friend poet June Jordan, who died of breast cancer in 2002. Again, the theme of loss was present:
Who gets to choose what battle
takes her down? Down to the ocean, friends
mourn you, with no time to mourn.
At the reception after the reading, Ms. Hacker signed books and spoke with many enthusiastic fans, who came away from the reading with an appreciation for both the clarity and the musicality of poetic form, and for the powerful potential of words.
More about Desesperanto
Writers at Rutgers