Ackerman, Diane

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Nationality: American. Born: Waukegan, Illinois, 7 October 1948. Education: Boston University, 1966–67; Pennsylvania State University, University Park, 1967–70, B.A. in English 1970; Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (Academy of American Poets prize, Corson French prize, Heermans-McCalmon playwriting prize, Corson Bishop prize, Rockefeller fellow), M.F.A. in creative writing 1973, M.A. in English 1976, Ph.D. in English 1978. Career: Social worker, New York, 1967; government researcher, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1968; editorial assistant, Library Journal, New York, 1970; lecturer, Cornell University, 1971–78; assistant professor, University of Pittsburgh, 1980–83; staff writer, The New Yorker, New York, 1988–94. Since 1998 visiting professor at The Society for the Humanities, Cornell University. Writer-in-residence, College of William and Mary, 1982–83, and Ohio University, fall 1983; writer-inresidence, spring 1983, and Director of Writers Program, Washington University, St. Louis, 1984–86; visiting writer, New York University, fall 1986, Columbia University, fall 1986, and Cornell University, spring 1987; master artist-in-residence, Atlantic Center for the Arts, 1988. Contributing editor, Parade, and Travel-Holiday, both New York. Awards: Abbie Copps poetry prize, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1976, 1986; Creative Artists Public Service fellowship, 1980; Black Warrior Review poetry prize, 1981; Pushcart Prize VIII, 1984; Peter I. B. Lavan award, 1985; Lowell Thomas award, Society of American Travel Writers, 1990; Wordsmith award, 1992; New and Noteworthy Book of the Year, New York Times Book Review, 1992, for The Moon by Whale Light, 1993, for Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems, 1997, for A Slender Thread; "Literary Lion," New York Public Library, 1994; the Explorers Club fellow, 1997; John Burroughs nature award, 1997. Also the recipient of numerous other awards and honors, including Board of Directors, Associated Writing Programs, 1982–85, and Poetry Panel, National Endowment for the Arts, 1991.



The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral. New York, Morrow, 1976.

Wife of Light. New York, Morrow, 1978.

Lady Faustus. New York, Morrow, 1983.

Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems. New York, Random House, and London, Chapman's, 1991.

I Praise My Destroyer. New York, Random House, 1998.


All Seasons Are Weather, in Texas Arts Journal (Dallas), fall 1979.

Reverse Thunder: A Dramatic Poem (produced New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1982). Sections published in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), July-August 1980, and Denver Quarterly, winter 1984; published complete, New York, Lumen, 1988.


Twilight of the Tenderfoot: A Western Memoir. New York, Morrow, 1980.

On Extended Wings. New York, Atheneum, 1985.

A Natural History of the Senses. New York, Random House, 1990.

The Moon by Whale Light, and Other Adventures among Bats, Crocodilians, Penguins and Whales. New York, Random House, 1991.

A Natural History of Love. New York, Random House, 1994.

Monk Seal Hideaway. New York, Crown, 1995.

The Rarest of the Rare. New York, Random House, 1995.

Bats: Shadows in the Night, photographs by Merlin D. Tuttle. New York, Crown, 1997.

A Slender Thread. New York, Random House, 1997.

Deep Play. New York, Random House, 1999.

Editor, with Jeanne Mackin, The Norton Book of Love. New York, Norton, 1998.

Recordings: The Naturalists, Gang of Seven Inc., 1992; A Natural History of Love, 1994.


Manuscript Collection: Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Critical Studies: "By Writing Gracefully about Bats, Birds and Whales, Diane Ackerman Has Become One of Nature's Most Effective Cheerleaders," in People Weekly, 36(19), 18 November 1991; "Diane Ackerman: Tight Focus in Small Places" by Barbara Adams, in Writer's Digest (Cincinnati, Ohio), 77(9), September 1997.

Diane Ackerman comments:

People sometimes ask me about all of the science in my work, thinking it odd that I should wish to combine science and art and assuming that I must have some inner pledge or outer maxim I follow. But the hardest job for me is trying to keep science out of my writing. We live in a world where amino acids, viruses, airfoils, and such are common ingredients in our daily sense of Nature. Not to write about Nature in its widest sense, because quasars or corpuscles are not "the proper realm of poetry," as a critic once said to me, is not only irresponsible and philistine, it bankrupts the experience of living, it ignores much of life's fascination and variety. I'm a great fan of the Universe, which I take literally: as one. All of it interests me, and it interests me in detail.

Writing is my form of celebration and prayer, but it is also the way in which I inquire about the world. I seem to be driven by an intense, nomadic curiosity; my feeling of ignorance is often over-whelming. As a result, prompted by unconscious obbligatos, I frequently find myself in a state of complete rapture about a field, and rapidly coming down with a book. For as little as six months, perhaps, or as long as three years, I will be obsessed with flying, or whales, love, the senses, or the dark night of the soul, and eagerly learn everything I can. Any facts I might acquire about the workings of Nature fuel my creative work and are secondary to my rage to learn about the human condition, which I don't think we can see whole from any one vantage point. If I hadn't spent a year as a soccer journalist many years ago, to get atmosphere for a novel set in the soccer world, I would never have learned as much as I did about the history of play, and certainly never written the four soccer poems at the end of Lady Faustus, which have little to do with soccer, but are really about the rhythm of the mind and what it means to know something.

I try to give myself passionately, totally, to whatever I'm observing, with as much affectionate curiosity as I can muster, as a means to understanding a little better what being human is, and what it was like to have once been alive on the planet, how it felt in one's senses, passions, and contemplations. I think of myself as a nature writer, if what we mean by nature is the full sum of Creation.

Poets tend to be bothered by disturbing questions. Only two questions bother me, but they bother me a lot: 1)How do you start with hydrogen and end up with us? Or, if you like, How did we get from the Big Bang to the whole shebang? and 2)What was it like to have lived? Everything I've written thus far, in poetry or prose, has been an attempt to elaborate or find answers to those two questions. Deep-down, I know they should take from birth to death to answer and include all consciousness. And I suppose some would find that rather overwhelming and fraught with built-in failure. I don't think of it in that way—in terms of goal, success, or self-esteem—but rather as a simple mystery trip. The world revealing itself, human nature revealing itself, is seductive and startling, and that's fascinating enough to send words down my spine.

*  *  *

The work of Diane Ackerman in poetry and prose is a history of her extraordinary enthusiasms. Her memoirs recount her experiences on a cattle ranch (Twilight of the Tenderfoot) and in learning to fly (On Extended Wings), and, like her later books (A Natural History of the Senses and A Natural History of Love), they explore in depth and with intensity the full extent of the subject—its history, its detailed ins and outs, its poetry, and ultimately its meaning. She is a prodigious explorer of the world, if by "world" we mean, as she puts it, "the full sum of Creation." Her poetry is distinctive in finding its source in that same enthusiastic energy; she explores the world, inner and outer, with a scientist's poetic eye, recognizing, as the chaos scientist Mitchell Feigenbaum put it, that "art is a theory about the way the world looks to human beings."

Ackerman's book-length poems The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral and Reverse Thunder: A Dramatic Poem are the most impressive results of her effort to draw scientific and poetic curiosity (and understanding) together into a unified field of electric language. The first is a long meditation on the planets in our solar system, and the second is a verse play about Juana Inés de la Cruz, a late seventeenth-century Mexican woman who actually lived Ackerman's ideal life as poet, scientist, and genuinely independent and creative thinker.

The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral is a set of poetic explorations and meditations on the planets, Cape Canaveral, the asteroids, and even the blurry disappointment of the comet Kohoutek. In form and content it ranges widely and well—its science up-to-date and accurate and its poetry a display of dazzling wit. It roused Carl Sagan to say that it demonstrates "how closely compatible planetary exploration and poetry, science and art really are." It bridges the "two cultures" with a vigor and success not witnessed in English and American poetry since the eighteenth century, when Newton's Opticks and its implications excited poets and roused their imaginative responses.

At the end of The Planets, Ackerman returns to Earth "like a woman who, / waking too early each day, / finds it dark yet / and all the world asleep." This situation also sums up her dilemma as a poet, having pressed poetry into a service far beyond that of most of the poems of her contemporaries and now being faced with the choice of whether to join that sleeping world or to return to planetary exploration. In the poem she concludes, "But how could my clamorous heart / lie abed, knowing all of Creation / has been up for hours?"

Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, the heroine of Reverse Thunder, faces that same dilemma and answers it in much the same way. She is tragically out of step with her place and time, but she triumphs in the work that she passes down to our time, when she finally can be (or almost can be) fully understood in all her complexity. This fascinating woman, as Ackerman pictures her, draws together in her life as a nun in seventeenth-century Mexico almost all of the conflicting and contradictory strands of life at that time. She is a nun who loves a man passionately, a believing Christian who explores the scientific view of the world, a spiritual and spirited poet who draws her inspiration from both the life of the body and of the mind, and a materialist who comes to understand that matter is so much more than it appears to be:

   If ever there was a good person in this world,
   one just or pure or altruistic or visionary,
   no matter who, or how many, or if only one,
   then purity, or justice or mercy or vision,
   is something of which matter is capable.
   That paradox of the apparent indifference
   of matter to such things as Good and Evil,
   and, yet, at the same time, the reality
   of its complete involvement:
   that's why beauty stuns and touches us.

In her collections of short poems, Wife of Light and Lady Faustus, and in the fifty-two new poems in Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems, Ackerman apparently strives to write as Sister Juana would if she were writing today, recognizing no limits to the range of her interests or her voice. Whether she is being earthy, playing a bluesy "Menstrual Rag" or singing the true joy of sex with a metaphysical force, or diving under the sea, flying an airplane, brooding over rivers and bridges, confessing the depth of her love, or speculating about the very nature of thought, her wit runs a full range, exhibiting mind, memory, sense, the senses, sensuality, sanity, ingenuity, acumen, real thought, witty banter, and productive persiflage. Her enthusiasm carries her forward but never beyond the bounds of genuine feeling and serious understanding.

As she put it in the title poem of her collection Lady Faustus:

       I itch all over. I rage to know
     what beings like me, stymied by death
   and leached by wonder, hug those campfires
            night allows,
     aching to know the fate of us all,
   wallflowers in a waltz of stars.

—R.H.W. Dillard