Marilyn Hacker: first notes
I think Yeats talked about making a myth of one’s one life. Not to make something grandious, heroic, but to be able to have a sense of the whole, the wholeness, of a single life, perhaps especially if the life is not one of dramatic action or important doings.
Wordsworth make a kind of myth of his own childhood, and through it a myth about childhood more generally. And he also made the ordinary and the everyday a worthy subject for poetry. Marilyn Hacker is also makes poetry, and so a personal mythology of our times in relation to belonging, exile, Jewishness, gender. She interests me particularly in the way she gets in touch with these large themes through thinking about her own life and that of her family and friends, and talking about this life in very ordinary everyday terms, dealing, as we say, with the quotidian.
Marilyn Hacker writes from a position of where she is in the quotidian world now. This world is the world of kitchens, wine with friends, shopping, conversations, observations of the poor outside her Paris home, thoughts about close friends.
This quotidian themes are placed as quotidian by the way she relates them to wider ideas, often the idea of illness and death, and related to this her own cancer and friends and parents’ deaths, this opening into reminiscence in the light of death of friends and parents. Often also she deals with the idea of home and exile, belonging and non belonging. This theme opens out into her constant awareness of her movement in cities not of her origin, mainly Paris and London, and related to this she is aware of her Jewishness and the Nazi atrocities (history). She is also a ‘stranger’ in her gender, feminism, leftism, and lesbianism. She writes in sympathy with black American poets, and poets writing in Arab against their various dictators and invaders. The theme of home in exile extends to friends who also don’t quite fit in neatly. As the poor around her don’t and yet do belong to their own country. Her poems are set in this quotidian world in the sense that often they represent setting, places, weather, houses, rooms, parks, and particularly family histories.
The poems themselves are quotidian in tone in the sense that they are not dramatic or ringingly ‘passionate’, though they are passionate. They send more often than not like letters shared by others like ‘sharing’ thoughts as intimate as, and often similar to, journal entries.
But in all this the quotidian and the first person are put to the service of something other than the quotidian and the first person, the wider themes of racial prejudice, American involvement in wars, death felt in this very everydayness. They are often apparently casually constructed almost always ending in a non-climax type of resonance.
Hacker manages to incorporate the wider problems of politics and society into the way she talks about her own or friends personal experiences. And she does it also through her translations of other committed poets.
The forms she uses are, at first sight, ‘conventional’ in the sense that she uses forms such as the sonnet, and rhyme, and metrical lines. When asked about this, and about the alleged unpopularity of ‘form’ in American poetry, she points out that all poems have ‘form’, and that there are plenty of American poets, and indeed radical politically aware poets who used metrical forms. She doesn’t uses metres with a pre-conceived ideological ‘point’ in mind, but, as she said, ‘hedonistically’, because like all poets she enjoys the engagement with the touch and sound and resistance of language. But her use of metre by no means implies that her poems are linguistically straightforward. By no means. They often require a very careful reading if we are to get right into them.