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In the novel Babel-17 the protagonist Rydra Wong is both a space captain and a poet. I have seen it asserted that Wong's poems are to some extent based on those of Marilyn Hacker.

Hacker was married to Samuel R. Delany when Delaney wrote Babel-17 and they edited Quark: A Quarterly of Speculative Fiction (4 issues; 1970–71) together. Hacker has been considers a member of the "New Formalist" school of poetry. She has won the National Book Award for Poetry, a Lambda Literary Award, The Nation's Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, 1996 Poets' Prize, the 2001 Audre Lorde Award, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004. In 2013, she was inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame.

I am looking for any or all of: statements by Delaney or Hacker that Wong's verse is based on Hacker's work (or that it was not); published literary analysis comparing the two, or analysis by a poster here.

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    Possibility: "... Rydra Wong remembers the two men with whom she was in a triple marriage, a fellow writer named Muels Aranlyde and a geologist named Fobo Lombs. Muels Aranlyde is not just an anagram for Samuel R. Delany, he is also the author of a novel called Empire Star, which just happens to be the title of a novel Delany published earlier this year (reviewed here by our own Jason Sacks). Fobo Lombs is an anagram for Bob Folsom, a friend of the Delanys, to whom Babel-17 is dedicated."
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Nov 22, 2021 at 19:11
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    Possibly adding some context to that quote, apparently Delaney was openly gay, and Hacker identified as lesbian after the divorce.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Nov 22, 2021 at 19:15
  • Is much of Wong's verse actually quoted? I can only think of two lines. Commented Nov 22, 2021 at 19:41
  • The reviews I've seen indicates that it starts the chapters.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Nov 22, 2021 at 19:51
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    @FuzzyBoots Those epigraphs are explicitly attributed to Marilyn Hacker (and "published with permission..."). They are not implied to be Wong's poems. Commented Nov 22, 2021 at 19:57

2 Answers 2

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As far as I can see, Rydra Wong's poems are only quoted in two places in the text. The first occurs when she is speaking to General Forester, and quotes two lines of her poem "Advice to those who would love poets":

Young man, she will gnaw out your tongue.

Lady he will steal your hands.

The second example was a line quoted by Dr T'mwarba:

"A worm. Some where in Eden now, a worm, a worm." That was one of her earliest poems.

Unfortunately three lines of poetry is not much to perform a literary analysis on.

The epigraphs separating the different sections are attributed to "M.H" i.e. Marilyn Hacker. As Silly but True mentions, these are credited at the start of the book:

All epigraphs are from the poems of Marilyn Hacker, reprinted by permission of The Washington Square Review, Ravich Press, and International Authors’ Representatives.

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Possibly

The copyright page credits epigraphs in book to poetry of Marilyn Hacker. However, the epigraphs themselves include the initials “M. H.,” not for example “R. W.,” as could be expected if the epigraphs were intending to be the fictional work of the fictional protagonist Rydra Wong.

While the protagonist Rydra Wong is herself a symbolic representation of Marilyn Hacker, Rydra’s work as a poet coyly predates the events of the novel, as she states on Pg. 6 of the novel:

“‘At nineteen, I quit the Military and, well, got . . . married, and started writing seriously. Three years later my first book came out.’ She shrugged, smiled. ‘For anything after that, read the poems. ' It's all there.’”

As a result, not much of Rydra’s verse exists in Delany’s text, and by all accounts even if the character’s fictional work was created or inspired by Hacker, only the epigraphs are credited to Hacker; the novel’s text, including Wong’s poetry verse appearing in the text are credited to Delaney.

By the time Delany wrote Babel-17, published in 1966, he was in a relationship with Hacker. However, at that time, she had no professional poetry career yet to speak of. Her first published poetry appeared in Cornell University's venerable Epoch after she began sending her work out for publication at age 26 in 1968. She may have created a body of unpublished work, however, which could still have inspired Rydra’s fictional poetry in Babel-17.

I personally accept that given Wong’s inspiration as a character is developed from Hacker, that Wong’s poetry would likewise originate from Hacker’s connection too.

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    But these epigraphs are not Wong's poems - when they are quoted they are explicitly attributed to "M.H." i.e. Marilyn Hacker. Commented Nov 22, 2021 at 20:01
  • Agree on the distinction. Fair Point. Commented Nov 22, 2021 at 20:22

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