A poet, essayist, and naturalist, Diane Ackerman received an MFA and a PhD from Cornell University. She is well known for both her poetry and her nonfiction writing—which includes The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007), winner of the Orion Book Award, and the best-selling A Natural History of the Senses (1990). Ackerman has also written several books for children and co-edited Norton’s Book of Love (1998) with Jeanne Mackin.
Ackerman brings the same wonder and attention to the particular to her poetry as she does to her prose, and she often works on projects in both genres at the same time, incorporating ideas from one into the other. Defending her use of scientific language and material in her poetry, Ackerman has said, “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.”
Ackerman’s poetry, often rhymed, engages the world around her, and her poetry collections, like her prose, are usually structured as lyrical searches. She has published more than half a dozen collections of poetry. Her first, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (1976), was written while Ackerman was a student at Cornell. Her research for the book included “night watches at the space shuttle” and watching the fly-bys at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Astronomer Carl Sagan, who was also a member of her doctoral committee, served as technical advisor for the book.
Ackerman has won both the Poets Prize and the Peter I.B. Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets. Other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the John Burroughs Nature Award, the Lavan Poetry Prize, and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has also been named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. Her poetry has been widely anthologized, including in The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets (1985) and The Norton Introduction to Poetry (1986). Ackerman has even had a molecule named after her: dianeackerone.
Of the difficulty that critics often face in categorizing her work, Ackerman said in a January Magazine interview, “I write about nature and human nature. And most often about that twilight zone where the two meet and have something they can teach each other.” As the Chicago Tribune observed, she is “smart and capable, and successful in the world of grownups. But still brimming with the kind of infectious enthusiasm and wonder found generally only in children.”
Ackerman has taught at the University of Richmond, Columbia University, and Cornell University. She lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband, novelist Paul West.