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The Suffering of Others: On Adrienne Rich


[clock] 13-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2013

Later ​Poems: ​Selected ​and ​New,​​ 1971–2012. By Adrienne Rich. W. W. Norton, 2013. 530p. HB, $39.95Sometime in the 1970s, Adrienne Rich came home with a bagful of groceries, brewed coffee, and daydreamed about her lover. Her stack of mail, however, brought news of a tortured and imprisoned twenty-​seven-​year-​old man. Rich recalled at that moment “my incurable anger, my unmendable wounds … I am crying helplessly.” The passage comes from “Twenty-​one Love Poems,” and it tells us a great deal about its maker: She bears an almost disabling pity for the wounded, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the abused. 

Hence, over the course of a long and productive career, Rich championed just about every major liberal social cause of our time—​human rights, gay rights, feminism, and environmental reform. Sometimes Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971–​2012 reads like a diary of them. Rich, who died last year, wrote in a celebrated style that makes little distinction between the authorial persona and the poet herself—​they are viewed as one and the same by readers. Rich was keenly aware of her leadership role as a feminist and lesbian poet. She was a mentor and role model to generations—​feminists especially.

She has been called one of the greatest poets of the last century, and many prizes ratified the title: a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952), a National Book Award (1974), the inaugural Ruth Paul Lilly Poetry Prize (1986), a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1994), and the Yale Bollingen Prize (2003), among other honors. She is famous for the honors she refused, too. A thirteen-​minute Democracy Now segment on her death praised her championing of women’s rights, LGBT rights, and racial desegregation, and it discussed at length her National Book Award for the 1973 collection Diving into the Wreck. Declining to accept the honor alone, Rich invited writers Audre Lorde and Alice Walker to join her, and they received it on behalf of all women. She went further a quarter century later, rejecting outright the National Medal of Arts in 1997 because of “the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.” The news segment includes a clip where Rich reads a signature poem, “What Kind of Times Are These”—​a good poem with a great close, but not her best. No discussion in the broadcast considers her use of language, the distinctive stamp on her body of work. Few people seem willing to talk about poetry in any depth nowadays. It’s a problem that afflicts our culture as a whole.

Rich began as an anointed poet, handpicked by W. H. Auden in 1952. The elder poet’s remarks on bestowing the Yale Younger Poets prize, the crowning honor for an up-​and-​coming poet, have become a classic example of damning with faint praise. Bizarrely, he noted her poems “are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.” The comment rankles. He made a number of embarrassing pronouncements over the years, this one among them. These early poems have been justly lauded, though they are not mature fruit, but rather the tight, early buds of an impressive gift. Form in poetry still has a bad name today, but it is much more than a linguistic corset. A metrical demand or search for a rhyme forces one’s mind into less obvious directions. For example, in the blank-​verse poem “The Tourist and the Town,” Rich observes posters on the station wall exhorting “Come, take a walking-​trip through happiness,” and ponders the foreign city’s role in her life: 

…She need not suffer 
Or die here. It is none of her affair,
Its calm heroic vistas make no claim.
Her bargains with disaster have been sealed
In another country…

She concludes that “To work and suffer is to be at home”—​these are the ways we own a place. She has taken on one of the mysterious charges of poetry: to take a little observation and make a big matter out of it.

Although Rich later disparaged many of these poems as “incredibly derivative” and claimed that form was a kind of “asbestos gloves” for poetry, this poem and others show it to be something else entirely—​not handling the divine fire with tongs, but pouring it into a cup so that you can drink it. Rich nevertheless turned to free verse, and wrote more than thirty books of poetry and prose in six decades. A dozen later collections are revisited in this 530-​page volume. Any collection this long is going to be uneven. Many of the poems read like pages ripped from a journal, lacking the narrative tautness of arresting poems. Her poems often pour out in an unpunctuated, fragmented rush. A growing audience of fans waited for each self-​revelation, and it’s hard not to play to the bleachers. Who, after all, can resist a love bomb? 

In an era when poetry often becomes self-​absorbed and solipsistic, someone responding to the issues of our times becomes a hero. But every poet goes through purgatory after death, and the good and the bad must be weighed on the scales of time. Not everyone will be a fan along the way, nor should that be required for a body of work to endure. To her credit, at a time when too many poets are talking to themselves, Rich never lost touch with her audience; however, this awareness came at a price, sometimes sealing her off from those who might have challenged her choices and, sometimes, taste. 

Rich was often explicit when discussing love or sexual pleasure. At times, these passages turn readers into voyeurs—​an egregious example is the scene of imagined sex with paraplegic GI Vic Greenberg (“mouth-​tongue to vulva-​tongue to anus  arlobe to nipple”). The line is not a particularly successful one in any case, but a disturbing question presents itself: Would she have described the sex so explicitly if Greenberg were not a paraplegic? The question returns us to that moment with the groceries and the coffee and the mail: Why is it important that we see her tears? The love poem shifts from the tortured prisoner to the poet weeping for him—​almost as if, while the prisoner may be expected to recover, the “unmendable” poet will not. 

Her strongest poems are precisely the ones where she steps away from the prison and theater of self, where she revels in the simple delight in language that brought her to poetry in the first place. Who will look at redwoods the same way after reading her description in “Waiting for You at the Mystery Spot”?

I sat listening to voices watching the miraculous migration
of sunshafts through the redwoods
the great spears folding up
into letters from the sun deposited through dark green slots
each one saying
I love you but
I must draw away             Believe, I will return

And this show-​stopping moment, dropped toward the end of her 1998 poem “Victory,” leaps out at us across the millennia:

the Nike of Samothrace
on a staircase             wings in blazing
backdraft             said to me
 : : to everyone she met
Displaced, amputated             never discount me

 

In the poem “Amends,” moonlight plays on the surf, the cliffs, and the sand in language that is spare and powerful. Or consider “Usonian Journals 2000” where, with a keen reportorial ear, she records the overheard language of our tribe with amused, detached precision: “And you went waowh! and I went, right, I went O.K., it’s only I was clueless? so now we can grab something nearby, cause I’m due on in forty-​five?”

Wisdom visits some of these pages, as with this uncollected poem that closes the volume:

The signature to a life requires
the search for a method
rejection of posturing
trust in the witnesses
a vial of invisible ink
a sheet of paper held steady
after the end-​stroke
above a deciphering flame

That said, a writer’s best friend is the wastebasket. Many of the longer, rambling poems would be more effective whittled to half their size. The bigger issue for Rich’s legacy is that this unwieldy volume won’t bring in new readers; a ruthlessly edited Selected might have, and so it’s a pity. Here, Rich herself decided which poems would be included. This volume is not meant for the heathen, it is a Bible for the converted.

Sure, the Manichaean politics hurt her, but not because politics is off-​limits for poetry. It doesn’t injure Auden’s “September 1, 1939” about “a low dishonest decade,” and Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry is often immersed in politics (think of “Report from the Besieged City”). Robert Hass also handles the same material with a more deft hand. With Rich, too often we are marched down the “revolutionary road,” knowing exactly where we are being led and what we’re going to be taught in her catechism. We never question who the good guys are, and who the bad are. We know which victims will be revealed, and we can point at the oppressors. In that sense, Rich often preaches to the choir, using the era’s conventional buzzwords, which all the singers understand. She also directs the choir: “I knew / how to make poetry happen.” Politics puts one under the laws of time and fashion, rather than the sanctuary of language, and lends itself to cliché and occasionally bathos (“the ship of hope shuddered on the iceberg’s breast”). Even in one of her most famous poems, “The Phenomenology of Anger,” this example of environmental kitsch seems to prefigure the box-​office success of Avatar:

I would have loved to live in a world
of women and men gaily
in collusion with green leaves, stalks,
building mineral cities, transparent domes,
little huts of woven grass
each with its own pattern—
a conspiracy to coexist
with the Crab Nebula, the exploding
universe, the Mind—

When Czesaw Miosz published a poem (“Sarajevo”) that wasn’t up to snuff, he commented to Hass, “Sometimes it is better to be a little ashamed rather than silent.” One wishes Rich husbanded her energies more judiciously, saving herself for the best. As Susan Sontag, who once said great literature was “an education of the heart,” warned Rich in their 1975 spat: “If the point is to have meaning some of the time, it can’t be made all the time.” A gruesome melée of torture, murder, vomiting, bloody bellies, botched abortions, wired wrists, gagged mouths, slashed faces, and sexual mutilation surface so repeatedly in her poems, often for shock value, that in the end we don’t respond the way she presumably intended. And sometimes this learned, loving, and much-​loved woman seems to be measuring out her life in teaspoons of grievance.

Politics dates you—​and usually not in an interesting, archaeological way. Hence, we love John Milton despite, not because of, his propaganda for the Cromwell regime. We always expect history to vindicate our opinions and judgments, but when the jury returns from the hidden room, the verdict usually surprises us. Inevitably, the fading echo of our voices will have a different sound after they ricochet off the walls of the future. Already, many of the ideas that provided fodder for Rich do not wear their years well. Words like “liberation,” “patriarchy,” “sisterhood,” and “solidarity” carry such a heavy rhetorical baggage that even used sparingly, they quickly exceed parts-​per-​million for aesthetic toxicity. Today’s avant-​garde activism too swiftly becomes tomorrow’s nostalgia. 

In this collection, words such as “dream,” “vision,” “vatic,” “spirit-​vision,” and “visio beatifica” recur persistently. Even her much praised “Axel Avákar” had its source in a dream, she told the Paris Review. Presumably, she wasn’t on hand for the mayhem and murders she describes, and other incidents are tangled or improbable. It can be hard to tell, at times, what was witnessed and what was concocted. Imagination is a necessary tool for a poet—​but for a poet focusing on the hot topics of our times, it’s loading the dice.

On the matter of poetry’s curative power, Rich wrote in a 2006 Guardian article:

There’s actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it’s unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together—​and more.

I agree with her argument regarding the value of poetry. But such suffering still has to be transformed into art, or else it’s a Twitter feed. And there’s a dangerous curve along the road: At what point is suffering used to fortify one’s sense of self, one’s sense of oneself as a compassionate person? If one is using “transfusions of poetic language” for utilitarian ends, even noble ones, it’s unlikely to remain art. The muse doesn’t take to harness.

Rainer Maria Rilke said, famously, that we are wasters of sorrow. But Rich won’t let others’ suffering go. Sometimes her admirable compassion waylays her; she seeks new political or societal victims to write about, and the process can become repetitive and reductive when she injects or channels herself into other lives—​René Char, Tina Modotti, Ethel Rosenberg, Marie Skodowska-​Curie, and Hannah Arendt, among others. By the time we’ve waded into these fantasized lives, we begin to have the uneasy feeling that they are being used as props for Rich’s self-​fashioning—​as when she pads after photographer and revolutionary Modotti down the corridors and darkrooms of her life (“of course this is how I’ll find you … these footsteps I’m following you with”). 

One example, in particular, caught my eye—​“For a Sister,” a 1972 poem about the Russian poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya. The Soviet dissident had been marshaled into Rich’s cast of victims, pulled into a sort of dreamscape as Rich tries to imagine her life, presumably having learned about the poet’s arrest and incarceration in the news: 

Little by little out of the blurred conjectures
your face clears, a sunken marble
slowly cranked up from underwater.
I feel the ropes straining under their load of despair.

I met Gorbanevskaya in Kraków in 2011. The poet, by then in her midseventies, was short and unfashionably dressed, with short, grizzled hair and thick stockings. She held the small stub of a cigarette like a defiant wand, its end glowing in the dying day on a sidestreet in Kazimierz. When she spoke to me, in French (Paris has been her home since 1976), her voice was probing and intelligent, her eye contact unflinching. She seemed tough-​minded, durable, and utterly lacking in self-​pity. The Russian poet is somehow diluted in Rich’s reimagining, a lesser essence than the survivor I remember. The difference between the two—​the vital original and her drab reproduction—​calls into question the spectacles Rich insists on wearing.  

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