16 books, Diane Ackerman is perhaps best known for her natural histories and creative nonfiction, most famously, A Natural History of the Senses (1990). Nevertheless she considers herself a poet first and continues to write dazzling collections of verse, six in all. Perhaps following Henry David Thoreau's dictum that before one can write one must live, she has filled her life with rich experience and far-flung adventures, each one culminating in a book. Consequently, her poetry displays a striking breadth of subject matter (scientific study of planets, deep-sea diving, piloting airplanes, gaucho wrangling, Arctic and jungle explorations, and so on). Hers is an accessible, usually free-verse poetry, written in the first person with narrative elements, imaginatively realized in brilliant, often exotic imagery, and demonstrating a careful attention to rhythm and the sounds of words.
Born in Waukegan, Illinois, Ackerman received a B.A. from Pennsylvania State University and an M.F.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Cornell University, where she studied with A. R. ammons and the physicist Carl Sagan. She has won the Academy of American Poets' Lavan Award (1985) and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1986 and 1976) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1974).
In her first collection, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (1976), Ackerman began her lifelong mixing of science and art; with Sagan as "technical advisor," she created "scientifically accurate" poems about the planets (Richards 5). Her second collection, Wife of Light (1978), continued this interest in science and began her poetry of geographic adventure. Lady Faustus (1983) broadened her search for experience as a "sen-suist"—her term for one who rejoices in sensory experience—recreating adventures in undersea diving, night flying, and sexuality. In "Christmas on the Reef," when her guide indicates with a sweep of his hand that we have the tide within our bodies, she writes, "My eyes watered . . . and for a moment, the womb's dark tropic . . . lit my thought." Most recently, in I Praise My Destroyer (1998), Ackerman's poetry unflinchingly confronts death and suffering while still holding to an edge from which it can praise. From the haunting elegy for Sagan, "We Die," to the final sequence "Canto Vaqueros," the voice ranges far and affirms "this life where wonder / was my job." Perhaps responding to the dissolution of death with a rage for order, the poetry explores these subjects with form, as in the vil-lanelle "Elegy": "My own sorrow starts / small as China, then bulges to an Orient." In a century of poetry whose dominant tone was irony, Ackerman has held fast to a genuine poetry of wonder.
Was this article helpful?