By Kelsey Block
*Please note that the following quotation also appeared in “An Afternoon with Diane Wakoski: Part 1”
“Poetry is for those moments when something moves you because of its beauty, pure beauty, for anything that engages you to look at it and experience its transformative power,” the 76-year-old poet said. “Beauty transforms you.”
But not all find Wakoski’s poetry to be a thing of beauty. Peter Schjeldahl wrote in a 1970s review that Wakoski’s “pervasive unpleasantness makes her popularity surprising. One can only conclude that a number of people are angry enough at life to enjoy the sentimental and desolating resentment with which she writes about it.” Schjeldahl’s somewhat mixed review also notes that Wakoski’s poems are “professionally supple and clear.”
Wakoski said she is not surprised that some people consider her work difficult.
“I do write about difficult things, but I am looking for a little jewel, for the starkness of something and its passionate simplicity,” she said. “I want to talk about beauty, but I don’t want it to be prettified … I guess that person mean that somehow reading my poetry meant they had to wade through some muck or get their hands dirty.”
Wakoski also referred to another one of her works, “Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch,” in the discussion about “unpleasantness.”
“I’ve always been an angry poet, but that’s one of the things art has to contend with,” she said. “It wants to enter your life, but people are reluctant to let things in that are going to disrupt your life.”
Wakoski granted that she is not an “easy poet.”
“I guess what I want a Diane Wakoski poem to be is a room with all these treasures that you want to enter and just look at them for a while,” she said.
Indeed, Wakoski certainly has her supporters. Maryfrances Wagner, a poet and editor of The I-70 Review, wrote a glowing review of Bay of Angels that appeared last month. Wagner writes:
“The poems tell stories, even a story within a story, and yet the whole book is a big story of a full life she has lived. It’s hard sometimes to know which details are imaginary and which are real, which characters represent real people or are made up personae because they all blend together so well.”
Additionally, at her reading on Wednesday night, Wakoski was introduced by four former students.
The retired Michigan State University professor said that teaching others about poetry helped her to learn what a wonderful process revision is. Before she started teaching, Wakoski said she never revised her poems.
“It was something I didn’t know until I started teaching. I had to figure out how to talk about peoples’ poems,” Wakoski said, adding that she didn’t teach poetry – she professed it.
“I like students, don’t get me wrong, but to me it doesn’t matter what students get out of it. I am professing it and I’m doing it in every possible way I can think of that will get these great ideas of the past out, and if you’re struggling, I’ll think of even more ways to do it,” Wakoski said. “But the bottom line is, that it is what it is, and if you can’t get anything out of it, you shouldn’t study with me … It seems like if you coddle people, you don’t help them be strong. I know that there are students who say I’m unpleasant because I didn’t do whatever it is they wanted me to do. On the other hand, that’s never bothered me, because all I care about is the good students and being true to literature; if there’s one place you can find truth, it ought to be poetry.”
Despite her distinguished career, there is one thing the 76-year-old poet has not yet accomplished: to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
“As long as I keep publishing poetry there’s still a chance,” she said. “Now, I realize it doesn’t make everyone in the world suddenly love you. I think when I was young I thought it meant something, that the world recognized how good you were, and it’s always been my goal, growing up poor and having only one thing – my brain – to make the world recognize that I was worth something. I don’t believe it anymore, but I still want to win it.”