Sunday, April 01, 2012


Poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

Poet Adrienne Rich died this past Tuesday at age 82, of complications of rheumatoid arthritis.

It will take me a long time to feel fully all that her life and work have meant to me. Her poetry and her prose have, over the years, profoundly shaped my ideas of what poetry can be and do in the world, of poetry as a source and sustenance of life, a voice and an act in the moving and making of history.

I first read her poetry in 1974, her book Diving into the Wreck which was her most recent one at the time; I found her book The Will to Change (the most recent one prior to Diving into the Wreck) shortly after that. It took me a little while to warm to her poems -- to begin to feel how the often internal landscapes of her poems connected in a living with with the world outside the poems, and with my own life and thought and heart.

Sometime a couple of years later I read her earlier book Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, and I found poem after poem of hers speaking to me in the most essential and organic way. From that time I've sought out and read whatever I could find by her. Each new book of her poems over the years has been a landmark for poetry, for my own life and writing, and for the lives and writing of most of the poets I know and many more I've never had the pleasure of knowing.

I found news of her death three days ago in poet Philip Metres' blog Behind the Lines, and I've carried books of hers with me each day since then, reading a little here and there through the day. Here are a few passages from what I've been reading of Adrienne Rich the past three days.


From Rich's essay "Poetry and the Forgotten Future," in her essay collection A Human Eye (published 2009 by W. W. Norton) -- Rich talked about Shelley's famous and often-quoted statement that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," and then she continues:

Piously overquoted, mostly out of context, it's taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power -- in a vague, unthreatening way. In fact, in his earlier political essay "A Philosophic View of Reform," Shelley had written that "Poets and philosophers [italics mine] are the unacknowledged" etc. The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded: Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft.

And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him there was no contradiction among poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. [...]

[...] Shelley, in fact, saw powerful institutions, not original sin or "human nature," as the source of human misery. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the "struggle between Revolution and Oppression." His West Wind was the "trumpet of a prophecy," driving "dead thoughts... like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth."

He did not say, "Poets are the unacknowledge interior decorators of the world."


In 1997 Adrienne Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts; she was one of 12 people chosen by the Clinton administration to receive the award that year. In her letter explaining why she was refusing the award, she said, in part, that "the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration." Further on in the letter she said that "art -- in my case, the art of poetry -- means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power that holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor token artists while the people at large are so dishonored."

The quoted passages in the above paragraph are from Rich's article "Why I Refused the Medal for the Arts," in her prose collection Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (published 2001 by W. W. Norton). Rich wrote the piece for the Los Angeles Times Book Review; in the piece, she includes the text of her original letter refusing the award (quoted in the above paragraph), and then she writes further, expanding on her reasons for having refused the award. From the portion of the article that follows her letter:

Marxism has been declared dead. Yet the questions Marx raised are still alive and pulsing, however the language and the labels have been co-opted and abused. What is social wealth? How do the conditions of human labor infiltrate other social relationships? What would it require for people to live and work together in conditions of radical equality? How much inequality will we tolerate in the world's richest and most powerful nation? Why and how have these and similar questions become discredited in public discourse?

And what about art? Mistrusted, adored, pietized, condemned, dismissed as entertainment, commidified, auctioned at Sotheby's, purchased by investment-seeking celebrities, it dies into the "art object" of a thousand museum basements. It's also reborn hourly in prisons, women's shelters, small-town garages, community-college workshops, halfway houses, wherever someone picks up a pencil, a wood-burning tool, a copy of The Tempest, a tag-sale camera, a whittling knife, a stick of charcoal, a pawnshop horn, a video of Citizen Kane, whatever lets you know again that this deeply instinctual yet self-conscious language, this regenerative process, could help you save your life. "If there were no poetry on any day in the world," the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, "poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger." [...]

[...] Art can never be totally legislated by any system, even those that reward obedience and send dissident artists to hard labor and death; nor can it, in our specifically compromised system, be really free. It may push up through cracked macadam, by the merest means, but it needs breathing space, cultivation, protection to fulfill itself. Just as people do. New artists, young and old, need education in their art, the tools of their craft, chances to study examples from the past and meet practitioners in the present, get the criticism and encouragement of mentors, learn that they are not alone. As the social compact withers, fewer and fewer people will be told Yes, you can do this; this also belongs to you. Like government, art needs the participation of the many in order not to become the property of the property of a powerful and narrowly self-interested few.


And her poetry.

Here are some lines from poem IV in Rich's poem sequence "Twenty-One Love Poems," in her book of poems The Dream of a Common Language (published 1978 by W. W. Norton):

I come home from you through the early light of spring
flashing off ordinary walls, the Pez Dorado,
the Discount Wares, the shoe-store.... [...]
[...] I let myself into the kitchen, unload my bundles,
make coffee, open the window, put on Nina Simone
singing Here comes the sun.... I open the mail,
drinking delicious coffee, delicious music,
my body still both light and heavy with you. The mail
lets fall a Xerox of something written by a man
aged 27, a hostage, tortured in prison:
My genitals have been the object of such a sadistic display
they keep my constantly awake with the pain...
Do whatever you can to survive.
You know, I think that men love wars...
And my incurable anger, my unmendable wounds
break open further with tears, I am crying helplessly,
and they still control the world, and you are not in my arms.


On September 12, 2001, Adrienne Rich was scheduled to read here in Minneapolis, on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Classes had been cancelled after the events the day before. During the day on the 12th I called the university English department, and reached a recording confirming that classes were cancelled, and then saying that Rich's reading would go on that evening as scheduled.

The reading took place at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, a large modern building on the West Bank half of the campus, built on the cliffs above the Mississippi River. It was a mild fall evening, just after dark. I showed up for the reading and it was already a packed and highly charged room. I found a seat toward one side and settled in. I spotted a few people I knew in the crowd, though most were strangers. Word had really gotten out.

A professor from the English department came out to introduce Rich, and explained that Rich had been in Kansas City the day before (the 11th) when all flights were grounded, and that she had hired a driver, and they had driven 13 hours through the night so she could be in Minneapolis for the reading. Then Adrienne Rich came out to read. She talked about the events of the day before, she talked about the need to act to counter the hysterical military fever rhetoric that had suddenly swept over the media airwaves and cable lines. She read poems; I remember specifically she read her poem "An Atlas of the Difficult World." She read poems from two or three other recent books, and some poems from Fox, her newest book just out.

It was one of the great poetry readings I've been to in my life. I can't think of any better place to have been on that day, that evening, than in that room crowded with people, all of us reaching for the words and the actions to save the world from itself.


I never knew, or met, Adrienne Rich. I've known her only through her poetry and her other writing. I have friends who did know her as a friend; at least one person who knew her as a close friend for many years. I wouldn't pretend to feel the loss of her in the immediate and person way of someone who knew her. But I will miss her presence, her being in the world.

For many years I've had one of her poems on my wall, "The Observer," from her book Leaflets (published 1969 by W. W. Norton). Here are some lines from the poem:

Complete protected on all sides
by volcanoes
a woman, darkhaired, in stained jeans
sleeps in central Africa.
In her dreams, her notebooks, still
private as maiden diaries,
the mountain gorillas move through their life term;
their gentleness survives
observation. [...]
[...] When I lay me down to sleep
unsheltered by any natural guardians
from the panicky life-cycle of my tribe
I wake in the old cell-block
observing the daily executions,
rehearsing the laws
I cannot subscribe to,
envying the pale gorilla-scented dawn
she wakes into, the stream where she washes her hair,
the camera flash of her quiet


Thank you, Adrienne Rich, for the gift and example of your life and work.

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