Peter M. Sacks
Books and Awards
Peter Sacks has published five books of poetry: In These Mountains (Macmillan 1986), Promised Lands (Penguin Books 1990), Natal Command (University of Chicago 1997), O Wheel (University of Georgia 2000), and Necessity (W.W. Norton 2002). Individual poems by Sacks have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Boulevard, The Paris Review, and other publications. He is also the author of The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spencer to Yeats (Johns Hopkins University 1985) and an art historical study, Woody Gwynn: An Approach to the Landscape (Texas Tech University 1993).
He received Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Award for The English Elegy in 1985, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1997, and was the 1999 winner of the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series contest. In 1999 he was a Lannan Foundation writer in residence in Marfa, Texas.
Sacks was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and grew up in Durban. His father was a physician, and for a time Peter expected to follow in his footsteps. He attended Princeton University (B.A. 1973), Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar (M.Phil. 1976), and Yale University (Ph.D. 1980). Sacks taught English at Johns Hopkins University between 1980 and 1996, being promoted to full professor in 1989. Since 1996, he has been a professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.
His first wife was Barbara Kassel, a painter and teacher of painting.
Sacks married Pulitzer-prize winning poet Jorie Graham in 2000. Graham's relationship with Sacks was briefly the subject of controversy in the poetry community when the website Foetry.com revealed that she judged the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry series contest that selected Sacks's manuscript "O Wheel" as the first place winner. Although contest administrator Bin Ramke refused to name the judge who had selected Sacks's poems, the allegation was shown to be correct when documents were released following a Georgia Open Records Act request. Although (according to the Los Angeles Times) Graham had not yet arrived at Harvard or married Sacks when the prize was awarded, she did not deny that she and Sacks knew each other at the time of the contest, and said that she felt awkward enough about it to ask series editor Ramke to make the call.
Overview of the Art
In 1999, during a period of indecision, Sacks began painting over photographs using thick white acrylic. This led to an interest in what he might be able to accomplish as a painter. He now exhibits his work in France and around the world. A 2009 show of his finely textured large collages at Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery in New York City  received a laudatory review in Artforum (November 2009) by distinguished critic and Columbia University art historian Rosalind Krauss. Following that show, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston acquired large triptychs. In 2010, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts acquired another triptych from an exhibition at the Wade Wilson Gallery. His most recent work is on view at Paul Rogers/9W Gallery through the end of January 2013. Of his work, Sacks said, “I see my paintings as a cross between cave paintings, medieval frescoes, illuminated manuscripts, and late 20th-century abstract paintings,” says Sacks, “The show is about survival. It is about what endures.”
Overview of the Poetry
The Library Journal, reviewing In These Mountains, said, “This first volume of poetry by a South African living in America is a quiet, understated, and complex work, ranging in subject from travel to homelessness; in feeling, from celebrations of beauty to painful recollection. Weaving together myth, memory, and history to narrate the fate of South African Bushmen, the long title poem expresses Sacks's complex feelings—sorrow, outrage, loss toward his homeland. Sacks is a visual poet – an image maker rather than an abstract or discursive one – and his images, like his feelings about South Africa, are double-edged.”
Regarding Promised Lands, J.M. Coetzee described Peter Sacks as “a poet whose sense of history lies deep in his bones." Others have praised his ability to communicate passion, pain, and the desire for redress, side by side with submission to the fact of mortality.
Natal Command chronicles the poet’s despair as he watches his father die and his fatherland change. The figure of the poet as swimmer and runner, of sensual man as natural athlete, is central to the book.
O Wheel is a millennial collection of poems – some of them masquerading as diary notes – celebrating the beauty of the American West and the poet’s love of his African home. The work also looks back at a century of unprecedented violence and the wrenching death of his father. In “Two Mountains,” the poet, recognizing himself as Isaac at the place of sacrifice, becomes the invoked Muse. Powell's Books described O Wheel as "a book of amazing delicacy, intricacy, and formal beauty that reveals terrifying truths. Its backdrop is an edgy mix of the intense violence of South Africa's recent history, the personal struggles of the human soul for the rights to speak freely and to experience justice, and the expanse of the American literary landscape. Peter Sacks employs a variety of poetic styles and approaches that break new ground formally as well as thematically. With a vision that is at once personal and public, he contends with nihilism and extracts hope from even the most barbaric aspects of human nature. O Wheel offers sensitive and striking poems that menace, overwhelm, entice, provoke, and deeply move the reader."
Sacks says about Necessity, “The poems make and record an unavoidable but potentially self-clarifying quest in the face of injustice, atrocity, beauty.”
- Peter Sacks website
- NY Times Article: Where a Thousand Words Paint a Picture
- The poet and novelist Ben Lerner on Sacks in Art in America
- Alex Beam, "Website polices rhymes and misdemeanors," Boston Globe, March 31, 2005, available here
- Tomas Alex Tizon, "In Search of Poetic Justice," Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2005. Available at the LA Times (subscription needed). Text is available at New Poetry Review or SFgate (accessed 16 March 2007)
- "Swimming in Words", Harvard Gazette
- Foetry.com archive
- Foetry page on Jorie Graham
- Photographs and discussion of Sacks's artworks, Galerie piece unique
- Bloch, Talia (November 2012). "Peter Sacks: New Paintings". The Brooklyn Rail.
- Program announcement, Folger Shakespeare Library