Authors: Diane Wakoski

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


Coins and Coffins, 1962

Discrepancies and Apparitions, 1966

The George Washington Poems, 1967

Inside the Blood Factory, 1968

The Moon Has a Complicated Geography, 1969

The Magellanic Clouds, 1970

The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, 1971

Smudging, 1972

Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, 1973

Looking for the King of Spain, 1974

Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands, 1975

Waiting for the King of Spain, 1976

The Man Who Shook Hands, 1978

Cap of Darkness, 1980

The Magician’s Feastletters, 1982

The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13, 1984 (part 1 pb. in 1968)

The Rings of Saturn, 1986

Emerald Ice: Selected Poems, 1962-1987, 1988

Medea the Sorceress, 1991

Jason the Sailor, 1993

The Emerald City of Las Vegas, 1995

Argonaut Rose, 1998

The Butcher’s Apron: New and Selected Poems, Including “Greed: Part 14,” 2000


Creating a Personal Mythology, 1975

Toward a New Poetry, 1980


Diane Wakoski has become well known for the “personal mythology” she has woven by imaginatively reworking her own history into mythic poem-stories. Born in the small California town of Whittier, Wakoski endured a childhood marked by poverty, separation from her father, and feelings of disassociation from her family and community. When she was fifteen months old, her father joined the Navy, and from then on she saw him only on his brief visits home, while his marriage to her mother came apart. Wakoski’s feelings of abandonment from this early experience played a large role in her later life and influenced her writing. She began writing poems when she was seven years old. Later, attending Fullerton High School, she was encouraged in her writing by her teachers. She also belonged to a poetry club that met after school, and she haunted the school library.{$I[AN]9810001566}{$I[A]Wakoski, Diane}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Wakoski, Diane}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Wakoski, Diane}{$I[tim]1937;Wakoski, Diane}

Diane Wakoski

(© Thomas Victor)

Wakoski attended the University of California at Berkeley, where her teachers included poets Thomas Parkinson, Thom Gunn, and Josephine Miles. Writers who strongly influenced her at this stage of her career included Wallace Stevens, Federico García Lorca, and Gertrude Stein. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English in 1960, she moved to New York City with composer La Monte Young; there she worked in a bookstore, acquired a temporary teaching credential, and taught in a junior high school. Throughout this time she wrote prolifically. Her first book, Coins and Coffins, which contains a number of dramatic narrative poems, was published in 1962. In 1965 she married a photographer, S. Shepard Sherbell; they were later divorced, and she married Michael Watterland in 1973.

Although Wakoski has been given the label “confessional poet,” she has several times stated her dislike for the term, which to her implies that using one’s personal experience in writing is wrong, that the experiences described are neurotic, and that imagination plays no role in transforming such experience into poetry with larger implications. She began creating her own personal mythology when she was still in college, after falling in love with Greek tragedy and with the long story poems of California writer Robinson Jeffers.

She makes reference in some poems to having borne two children out of wedlock, and in a long autobiographical essay published in 1984 she describes giving this son and daughter up for adoption. However, many other characters who appear in Wakoski’s poems (including “the King of Spain,” “the Blue Moon Cowboy,” “George Washington,” and others) are either fictitious or are very loosely based on people the poet has known. Even the “Dianes” who turn up from work to work are often just aspects of the writer’s self, creatures who change personality from poem to poem.

Much of Wakoski’s work has been sparked by the failure of various relationships with men, and her most commercially successful book, The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, came as the result of her breakup with motorcycle racer Tony Weinberger. The 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.”

Wakoski was for a number of years an itinerant poet, giving as many as eighty readings a year and teaching occasional writing workshops. In the early 1970’s she held posts at colleges and universities throughout the United States and won National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships while continuing to write voluminously. In 1975 she began an affiliation with Michigan State University in East Lansing, where she eventually became a permanent faculty member in the English department. In 1983 she married photographer Robert Turney, her third husband. Throughout her career she has won a large following of readers, but she received little critical honor until 1989, when she was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award for Emerald Ice.

Much of Wakoski’s work draws heavily on place. California, her early home, recurs throughout her poems, as does Las Vegas, where she has often been a visiting writer. Las Vegas plays a large role in her thirteen-part poem Greed, which was published in small segments beginning in 1968 and gathered under one cover in 1984. A fourteenth part was published in The Butcher’s Apron in 2000.

The author of more than forty books of poetry, Wakoski has long been one of the most prolific of contemporary American poets. Her work revolves around a quest for beauty and for love, sex, and romance. She seldom writes in established poetic forms but rather lets each poem find its own form organically. Wakoski’s poems are often extraordinarily beautiful in their juxtaposition of everyday objects and philosophical ideas.

BibliographyBrown, David M. “Wakoski’s ‘The Fear of Fat Children.’” The Explicator 48, no. 4 (Summer, 1990): 292-294. Brown observes how the poem’s common diction and grotesque imagery work to create a successful postmodern confessional in which the speaker expresses not only guilt but also the urge for self-reformation.Gannon, Catherine, and Clayton Lein. “Diane Wakoski and the Language of Self.” San Jose Studies 5 (Spring, 1979): 84-98. Focusing on The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, Gannon and Lein discuss the betrayal motif in terms of the speaker’s struggle for identity. The poems’ speaker uses the moon image to consider possible alternative images for herself, and in the last poem of the book she achieves a “richer comprehension of her being.”Hughes, Gertrude Reif. “Readers Digest.” Women’s Review of Books 18, no. 7 (April, 2001): 14-16. Treats The Butcher’s Apron along with collected works volumes by Carolyn Kizer and Kathleen Raine. Gives high praise to “Greed, Part 14,” which is granted the status of a major long poem that redeems much else in the collection.Lauter, Estella. Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-Century Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. Lauter devotes one chapter to Wakoski’s handling of moon imagery in several of the poet’s books. There is also a related discussion of Isis and Diana as aspects of the speaker’s personality.Martin, Taffy Wynne. “Diane Wakoski’s Personal Mythology: Dionysian Music, Created Presence.” Boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature 10 (Fall, 1982): 155-172. According to Martin, Wakoski’s sense of absence and lost love prompts desire, which in turn animates the poetry, giving it life. Martin also discusses Wakoski’s mythmaking, her use of digression as a structural device, and her use of musical repetition.Newton, Robert. Diane Wakoski: A Descriptive Bibliography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987. Newton unravels Wakoski’s career in print through its first quarter century.Ostriker, Alicia Luskin. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. An outstanding history of women’s poetry, Ostriker’s book includes extended readings of some of Wakoski’s works, especially The George Washington Poems. For the most part, Ostriker focuses on the divided self (the all-nothing and the strong-weak) in Wakoski’s poetry and discusses the ways in which the poet’s masks and disguises become flesh. There is an extensive bibliography concerning women’s poetry.Wakoski, Diane. Interview by Taffy Wynne Martin. Dalhousie Review 61 (Autumn, 1981): 476-496. Martin elicits detailed answers from Wakoski about a wide range of topics: part 10 of Greed, her relationships with her parents, the literary influences on her poetry, and her responses to many new American poets. Of particular interest is Wakoski’s discussion of how memory functions as narrative and how it can structure a poem.Wakoski, Diane. Toward a New Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980. The book includes not only Wakoski’s criticism, much of which is commentary to her own poetry, but also five revealing interviews, only two of which had previously been published in major journals. In the introduction, Wakoski lists her “best” poems, the ones she believes illustrate her personal mythology, her use of image and digression, and the kind of music she thinks is important to contemporary poetry.
Categories: Authors