For years, I have tried to reconcile my belief in poetry with what I think of poets as people. It wasn’t always this way. Like many young adults, I replaced faith in God and religion with a faith in poems and poetry. This, I know now, set myself up for a series of colossal disappointments. How would I have known that poets could be just as corrupt as the Pharisees in front pews? How would I have known about poets’ delusions of being unacknowledged legislators of the world, prophets, god-substitutes? How would I have known that all poets are, to a certain degree, sociopaths, and that, to hijack Rilke’s famous line, every poet is terrifying?
“No artist has ethical sympathies,” Oscar Wilde writes. “An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.” No poet has wrestled more in their work with a lack of ethical sympathy, with a greed for purity, than Diane Wakoski.
The short bio for Diane Wakoski goes something like “is an American poet whose work is most closely identified with the Deep Image School. She has published more than 30 books of poetry and criticism, and is now retired from Michigan State University.”
I would add to this headnote the following: “Diane Wakoski, part of the legendary Black Sparrow Press roster, is an archetypal solipsist-confessional poet whose class-conscious, body-aware, deep-image, mythic, and idiosyncratic work, produced over the past 40 years, still reads as current and influential.”
Lately I’ve thought that it might be time for a Diane Wakoski reassessment. We will have to wait until Wakoski dies to figure where her reputation settles. She will no doubt merit a New York Times obituary, one that is probably filed already; it will probably appear below the fold, with or without an accompanying photograph. A recent essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books on the poet’s “enduring badassery” by Lynn Melnick is a great start, and a long Wakoski poem recently appeared in Poetry magazine, her first in that preeminent journal in decades. As I write this, I do feel that her influence, acknowledged and not, resonates in our time of radical truth-telling and aggressions both macro and micro. The list of Diane Wakoski’s heirs, off the top of my head, would include poets, but also other writers and artists. Mostly women. Any list I come up with would be incomplete.*
Wakoski’s reputation and reception have fascinated me ever since I first picked up a copy of her 1971 collection, The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, at a used bookstore in Philadelphia. It was 1988. I was a college sophomore at work on my first serious poems. Across the Delaware River, I took classes at Rutgers-Camden, where the reading lists included dead white males with Sylvia Plath tacked at the end. I bought The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems largely based on its cover: the poet and a pair of low ape-hanger cycle handlebars in kaleidoscopic triple exposure, and a dedication that took up the top third of its cover:
This book is dedicated to
all those men who betrayed
me at one time or another,
in hopes they will fall off
their motorcycles and
break their necks.
Like Plath’s, Wakoski’s poems could be classified as confessional, but they also had no sense of shame; they were plainspoken but also employed myth and symbolism in ways I hadn’t encountered. Most importantly for me, they also had the intense burn of resentment, of speaking bitterness-as-wisdom, which, as much as many poets may not like to admit it, is a necessary part of being a poet, a vital component to poem-making.
As I think back to my 20-year-old poet former self, I’m reminded of something comedian Marc Maron told Robin Williams, shortly before Williams died, on his WTF podcast. “I’ve gotten old enough to resent people for being young … I get emails from 14- to 18-year-old guys saying I really understand where you’re at, the frustration. And then when they get to be about 20—20 to 35 … I get nothing from them … Then, when they get into their mid-thirties, they say, now I understand it.” I find myself returning to those poets I read when I was young, I think, for similar reasons: to re-embrace and revisit old frustrations, the bitterness and terror. And the greed.
Diane Wakoski was born in 1937 to a poor, working-class family in Whittier, California. Her sailor father abandoned the family early on, only intermittently returning. Her teenage and young adult years were marked by pregnancies, abortions, bad men, and a will to get out of Orange County. She studied on scholarship at UC Berkeley under Josephine Miles and Thom Gunn, then moved (“escaped,” reads one bio) in 1960 to New York City, where she worked at a bookstore and taught junior high. She lived with avant-garde composer La Monte Young. Before they split up, she bore a daughter and gave her up for adoption, an experience she alludes to throughout her work. She joined a varied poetry community, notably Jerome Rothenberg, Clayton Eshleman, Robert Creeley, and Robert Kelly.
“It is amazing that she survived,” writes her former teacher, David R. Smith. “That she did can be attributed to a number of things: making order out of disorder in her life, she imposed other kinds of order. She could, as she said, turn her miseries away from herself by making good poetry of them. … She survived also because of anger—she began to loose her reined rage. What had been repressed so that it could be studied, so that it wouldn’t interfere, began to bloom.”
It’s this bloomed, loosed, terrifying rage that draws me back to Greed, Wakoski’s longest work, written across 14 books from the late 60s to 2000. I’ll admit here that I have a weak spot for modern poets who write larger works, often over several volumes, like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, or Anne Waldman’s Iovis Trilogy. Greed is Wakoski’s magnum opus, a series of ars poeticas, in which the poet dares exhibit immodesty about her talents, where the personal and political and social combine. Greed is also the book where Wakoski is at her most gloriously terrifying.
“RARELY do I let myself / write, mentioning real names or places,” Wakoski writes in Greed, Part 3,
But in discussing matters of greed,
I, always slightly overweight according to Vogue standards
and living in the richest country in the world,
would not be fairly using the material at hand
were I not to speak of my experiences.
And oh does Wakoski name names. Lots of them. First real name mentioned is poet/editor Robert Kelly, with whom she is in a polyamorous relationship with another woman. Names pop up and appear again, a recurring cast of poets.
“I wish Clayton Eshleman could still be friends with me,” Wakoski writes in Greed’s Book 14,
oh how I wish that,
even though I have never really understood
his scatological vision. Perhaps
Eshleman dismissed me from his table
because I could not understand Stevens’ serpent
in the sky?
Both Kelly and Eshleman suffer from “The greed to know everything, / to be everything, / to say everything.”
Rarely are a poet’s yearnings and jealousies so foregrounded, so examined at such an extended length as in Greed. I have a particular affection for Wakoski’s extended riffs on the “Poetry Robot” who “says everything beautifully,” who wins all the prizes and is handsome and perfect. She quotes some of the Poetry Robot’s lines. A present-day Google search tells us that the Poetry Robot is none other than Mark Strand. This is the 1980s poetry scene equivalent of what we would now call a “subtweet” or “vaguebook,” calling out or throwing shade at a specific person without naming that person. In any coterie there will be winners and losers, favored and disapproved. As the years have gone on in my writing life, I have embraced the poetics of loserdom and disapproval.
“Despite your absolutizing statements about Wakoski being terrifying at the beginning of the essay,” my student writes after reading a draft of what you’re reading now, “I became sincerely interested in Wakoski and her poetry.” The student had dialed up video of a 2008 Wakoski reading at a college, and what he saw, he writes, “was a little old lady with a white bob parted in the middle, big circle glasses, and a deep blush caused (I assume) by the situation of speaking in front of a large group.” In class, the student describes Wakoski’s appearance circa 2008 as resembling “Edna from The Incredibles.”
Describing her appearance in the essay, he says, “could balance the psychological fear she inspires in you.”
He’s right about her appearance. Wakoski is a tiny woman, now approaching 81. It isn’t Wakoski’s appearance I find terrifying so much as her poetry, and terror, at least when it comes to poetry, doesn’t bring about fear so much as inspiration. It is true that Wakoski was one of those poets who put photos of themselves on the covers of their books (The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems is one example), as well as large-format author photos on dust covers, at least earlier in her career. It was, as we say, very of its time. I suspect the photos were her publishers’ way of stressing that Wakoski was a young poet who wore straight hair and octagon-shaped wire-rimmed glasses and was writing new, hippie-friendly poetry. Either that or Wakoski had a lot of photographer friends.
Every poet is terrifying, even beloved ones. On March 26, 1959, a dinner to celebrate Robert Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel featured a speech by literary critic Lionel Trilling. The Columbia professor’s remarks described the guest of honor as “a terrifying poet.” Many, if not most, attendees were shocked to hear this characterization of America’s traditional poet of Yankee rural life. One wonders what Frost, who was sitting feet away, thought as Trilling wrapped up his speech:
[L]ike you, Sophocles was the poet his people loved most. Surely they loved him in some part because he praised their common country. But I think that they loved him chiefly because he made plain to them the terrible things of human life: they felt, perhaps, that only a poet who could make plain the terrible things could possibly give them comfort.
Sensing a “deep affront,” Trilling left the dinner early. The fallout continued three weeks later in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. “Come out of the Freudian wood, Professor Trilling,” J. Douglas Adams wrote in his account of the speech. Trilling, Adams writes, exemplifies “the most virulent forms of snobbery we have today—literary snobbery.” Weeks later, the Times published 11 letters applauding Adams’ taking “the so-called professor out to the woodshed.”
Anyone who has read “Provide, Provide” or “The Demiurge’s Laugh” would not be so affronted to hear Trilling’s characterization of Frost as terrifying. It’s the anti-social, misanthropic aspects of Frost’s work that have added new dimensions to his lasting appeal. If anything, it’s his terrifying qualities that have enhanced his reputation in recent years.
Frost himself took no offense. “You made my party a surprise party,” Frost wrote to Trilling from Vermont that June. Trilling “depart[ed] from the Rotarian norm in a Rotarian situation. You weren’t there to sing ‘Happy Birthday, dear Robert.’”
“Poetry has nothing to do with tact, diplomacy, helping people, being nice, or even with teaching,” Wakoski writes in her essay “Form Is an Extension of Content.” “Consequently poets get into hot water. Since poets are their own critics and live together in a community of poetry, they try to respond to each other’s poetry with tact and diplomacy. It is impossible to find a poet in the poetry world who will like your poetry if you tell them you do not like his. That’s hot water, and not the kind I’d sell my soul for.”
Over the years, I have returned to Wakoski’s Greed and her grumpy real-talk essays. I find solace that someone else was feeling something similar to what I was feeling and then look at my own poetry shelf. In one contemporary poetry book, picked at random off my own shelf, I find poems covering the following subjects: an axe left in a tree stump, a vacation spot in New Hampshire, a howling dog, a graveyard in the rain, and the joys of a hayride. There were among them, miraculously, poems that were good and surprising and avoided sentimentality. And there wasn’t one shred of evidence these poems were written after, say, 1917. I can’t bring myself to give you the name of the poet, as Wakoski does in Greed. I’m the type of critic who has turned down reviewing books if I found them terrible, at the risk of causing hurt feelings.
From the start, Wakoski endured a disproportionate amount of negative criticism. She fought back, calling out clueless critics, early and often. Smith recalls a letter from the young poet that mentions an early review by Gilbert Sorrentino of Four Young Lady Poets, from LeRoi Jones’ Totem Press, in which Wakoski’s work appeared. “I was damned for being too naïve and too middle class,” she wrote. “He compared me to Edward Albee, as a sell-out to the middle class. I wish I were more middle class, so that I didn’t have to worry about jobs and going back to school and living with men who don’t really care about me and having children that are given up for adoption and not being able to socialize and I guess the fact that I worry about these things makes me too middle class for most poets’ taste but not middle class enough for the academy.”
Wakoski was looking for a way to make a living, to join the middle class. Which, to any actual working-class person, isn’t such a bad thing. She never played the poetry world’s bourgeoisie game, nor did she stick to any preapproved proletariat-friendly counter-script. Her work actually reeks of pleasure for life. Good wine and cheese? A nice cup of tea while reflecting on bad choices in men? Who wouldn’t, after a childhood deprived of such things, want these things in adulthood?
“I still think that what poetry is all about is secrets,” Diane Wakoski writes. She’s talking about her secrets, in case that isn’t obvious.
At a poetry conference I attended 20 years ago, a fairly famous male poet felt completely at ease saying he disliked Wakoski’s poetry and ideas in front of a classroom of young poets. Not just dislike: he hated it, he said. Couldn’t stand it. No one knew who Wakoski was, and no one thought the pronouncement controversial. I didn’t say anything. In my messenger bag was my copy of The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems.
After reading a draft of this essay, an editor remarked that mentioning this story “didn’t really add anything” to the essay. Nor did discussing stories about economic class or the idea that poets are, by and large, terrifyingly flawed people.
I disagreed. These were the only stories that were worth writing about, I wrote back. I withdrew the essay shortly after that.
In large part, I think this idea of terrifying and not-terrifying has to do with class. We live in an age when a large segment—I would say the majority—of poets come from the uppermost backgrounds, upper middle class and upper class, were brought up in the wealthier towns, and attended the most expensive, correct, and connected schools. A couple years ago, NPR’s Planet Money crunched data from a longitudinal study by the Department of Labor, which tracked family incomes and job histories of more than 12,000 families. By whichever measure—household income during childhood, percentage change in income between childhood and adulthood—writers came from some of the highest household incomes and reflected the highest negative percentile change in income, at about 35%.
A sociologist at Cornell looked at National Center for Education Statistics data and found that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies.
English majors, for example, had the richest parents.
“The lament of ‘I Have Had to Learn to Live With My Face,’” Wakoski writes of one of her best known poems, “is that the body is the self.”
It occurs to me that Wakoski might be one of the last of a dying breed.
“I remember the rage and frustration I used to feel when people did not understand or care about my specialness,” Wakoski writes. “Does everybody feel that? What is poetry? Is it everything? Is it nothing?” In Greed, Wakoski mentions Jerome Rothenberg, Ted Berrigan, David Antin, Denise Levertov (“the Ice Queen”), Sylvia Plath, June Jordan, Charles Bukowski. Each poet is presented as greedy in their own way, culminating in Greed’s final book, which cross-examines Wakoski herself:
Oh Diane, Diane, who hates all poets who are
awarded MacArthur “genius” grants.
Who longs for the Pulitzer Prize but has something
uncomplimentary to say about every book that wins it.
Greed qualifies as that most damned of damned praise, a “poet’s poetry book about poetry.” Wakoski’s shout-outs to fellow travelers in corners of the poetry world—from post-Beat and California Confessional to Deep Image and Objectivist—add up to a poetics of coterie that won’t garner a general audience, but for the poet, Greed comes jam-packed with yummy poetry back-fence talk.
It might not be the biggest or most important revelation to say that, when I am reading Diane Wakoski, especially when she is at her most personal and specific, often bemoaning the state of poetry or her career, pointing out daily hypocrisies big and small, I can easily swap in myself and my own disappointments and jealousies and greed.
One afternoon in August 2005, my first day on campus as a full-time college professor, I walked into my office building and was mistaken for someone from the maintenance department. I wore blue jeans, a Carhartt short-sleeved shirt, and Doc Martens: pretty much my uniform walking around New York City. Upstate, however, with my wide, stocky frame and facial hair, my look indicated something else.
One secretary mistook me. Then another. Why did this happen? Maybe it was something else, something deeper. Was it the way I carried myself? The way I talked? Maybe my body language in 2005 said I am here to work on your HVAC system rather than I am here to get my office keys and mailbox.
Or did I terrify? I felt, in some small way, like Diane Wakoski.
Cut to ten years later on the same college campus. I flip through volumes of Contemporary Literary Criticism in the library and read reviews of Diane Wakoski’s work over the years, most filled with grim condescension and repulsion. “Some call her tone self-pitying, but others find it unrelentingly honest,” Estella Lauter writes in Wakoski’s entry in The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing. “Unwilling to join any political movement despite the obvious effects of patriarchal power on her own self-esteem,” begins another sentence.
“Diane Wakoski is another young poet(ess) of turned-on imagination,” a 1969 Virginia Quarterly Review reads. “This is what the young seem to be doing these days.”
Prairie Schooner, 1973: “When I first read The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, I thought, help, here is a neurotic woman whose mind can’t get untracked from the loss of her man. Who wants to read all this?”
Same year, Parnassus: “With Wakoski’s long wordy books, one can reach in anywhere for an illustration of flaccid writing.”
And these were the good reviews. It only gets worse.
Every poet is terrifying. I can remember, word for word, each discouragement every teacher and mentor gave me, each negative review of my work. I can summon memories of every literary event where I felt less than welcome. I could say it’s those things that drive me to write, but that’s just a rationalization. When I read Wakoski exploring her greed, however, I feel less alone, less unwelcome.
I can’t think of any other female poet who makes me think more often: “But if she were a male poet …” If Diane Wakoski were a man—some fellow writer on the backlist of Black Sparrow Press, Charles Bukowski or maybe Michael McClure—the reception of her work would be different, of this I have no doubt. But that would presume that a male poet would name names and call out bad behavior or fallings-out.
I do wonder, however, that if Diane Wakoski were coming up today, male or female, how she would fare. There’s no doubt, for me at least, that for Diane Wakoski, poetry led to prosperity. In her criticism and poetry, Wakoski helps me realize I’m not crazy, I’m not seeing things, that it’s possible to write poems in spite of not being part of the genteel poet set, and to celebrate how poetry does, for some, lead to comfort and, if not prosperity, a sense of belonging.
I so don’t want to make this a Male Thing or Female Thing. I want this to be a Diane Wakoski is as Audacious as Fuck Thing.
In his review of Emerald Ice, Wakoski’s 1988 collection of selected poems, Gary Lenhart praises her work with major caveats, among them the “burning grudges” with other poets in her work—he mentions Anne Sexton, but we would also include Joyce Carol Oates (who, she writes in a poem, has taken up piano after winning her Pulitzer and married her sweetheart), Denise Levertov, and others. And then, almost as an afterthought, Lenhart says the thing that no one seems to say, even now: “Class is still among the most undiscussed subjects in writing about poetry.”
Almost twenty years later, in his 2006 book The Stamp of Class, Lenhart revisits his begrudging assessment. “For those of us from the working class, beauty must always remain suspect,” Lenhart writes. Reading Wakoski again, he writes, “I’m less conscious of the grating resentment than the frustrated yearning for transformation.”
Thirty years since I picked up my first Wakoski book, I still find I am drawn to her “resentment”: unfettered by manners, aesthetic schools, loyalty oaths. In a 1985 essay, Wakoski equated the New Formalist movement with conservative Reaganism—a view that, looking back, seems quite reasonable. She wrote this after hearing John Hollander decrying free verse on a panel at an MLA convention, and remarks from Robert Pinsky, who referred to e.e. cummings as having “no music.” Hollander was speaking for poets who, Wakoski observed, “believed, like the new batch of Republicans, including all those college kids who helped Ronald Reagan into a second term in the White House, that we need to return to old values.”
I’m writing this at a time when poetry can fight back, can terrify.
“I know that I have earned a reputation among other poets for being a mean or bitter person because not only can I not gratuitously praise any poetry, and most especially that of trendy or prize-winning poets,” Wakoski writes in Greed, Part 14. “This ‘honesty’ has made me a tormented woman.”
I don’t want to be tormented; therefore I am, by and large, not an honest person, at least when it comes to poetry. I don’t want to be terrifying, and so my poetry suffers, ducks truth. I find myself, more often than not, leery when I am in the company of poets, since I know they have a job to do, which is to be honest, to be greedy, to terrify. From time to time, I find myself reading Greed and thinking about my past life as a poet. I write a poem, an honest one. Most of the results are disappointing. But sometimes my faith comes back, and I want to write more poems. In those moments I feel more pure and full of greed.
* And here’s where I need to address that “mostly women,” which I hope doesn’t pigeonhole female writing as being concerned with confessional-body-relationships subject matter so much as lament how few of my cis-male straight counterparts have figured out a way to make art out of these strains of material without, well, coming off as assholes. Presented with the poet’s moral blank check, the male bourgeoisie poet will, more often than not, catalogue transgressions, act out, self-damage, then brag or make amends after the fact, maybe write a manifesto or establish a group litblog. It’s all kind of embarrassing.