Adrienne Rich has fashioned a life in the language arts around the interface of public debate. In form and style it’s an astonishing achievement in that her practice upsets the facile categories bound to certainties of assumption and belief. She belongs to that rare strain in the United States—poet as public intellectual—and she continues to forge an enduring work that stands firmly among the almost-unanimously read of our leading veteran writers and public observers, regardless of aesthetic inclination. Not surprisingly, it is an endeavor as well, given the unquestionable stature of the work and its distinct commitments, all too often misrepresented. This factor can be ascribed, in no small part, to U.S.-American artistic convention—distinctly puritan bequest in this country, short on models that speak to the complex association of pleasure and purpose, to the tenuous links between action and meaning, and to ambivalence in general as a positive force in art that does not view unrest and exuberance as contradictory terms.
The work of Adrienne Rich belongs instead to a legacy that fuses surface effect with affect; whose cultural style, too, can join outrage and joy. Such affirmative promise is what Kenneth Burke referred to as one of shaping attitudes or stimulating action in other human agents; that which, in an expanded sense of the rhetorical, makes palpable the relations of power in such sight and sound activated by the spoken word. To address only the last century in this hemisphere, it’s what led Hart Crane to utilize Elizabethan display to inflect his otherwise seen-as-deviant desire; what drove Lorine Niedecker to score the intervals of sonic pattern as admission into the ravages of history. It’s what compelled César Vallejo to coin, in defiance of too-easy consumption, a geopolitical vocabulary in ethnic counterpoint to the colonial standard, and by contrast, what in his poetic system commanded José Lezama Lima to parade the Iberian with such neo-baroque excesses as to set the stagecraft of former empires on its head. It’s a style that asks whether urgency can shape not only the languages of desire, but the kinds of languages we desire; whether we can think of poetry and politics, not in terms of certain science, but by means of the metaphoric drive to prompt a double world—at once, still wanting and excessive to itself; a world comprehensible only by wager of extreme persuasion.
Rich renders beside the point Auden’s notorious claim that “poetry makes nothing happen”—at least, that is the way commentators have generally read the passage. Auden’s poem to Yeats concludes not with that line, however, but with the performance of a prolonging as it addresses the question of continued existence and encounter. Language and meaning survive in that telling as a “way of happening, a mouth;” for Auden knew, as does Rich, that it’s precisely the orifice of speech that joins erotic and social life together in our various historical interactions within a collective body. Assumption and belief: lyric self as sounded from the city on the hill where urgency is to the “function of art” what delirium is to the impulse of touching. These understandings then—of category, citizenship, and the corporeal—are aspects that activate the work of Adrienne Rich and shape its reception.
This is not the occasion to engage a broader discussion about the shifting borders of style and attitude that have long divided the terrain of poetic practice in this country, nor the place to remark again the structures that arbitrate our various institutions of taste. The effort to make visible that history and its effects are the underlying principle of the tradition to which some of us are indebted, despite the blind spots proper to its field of vision. In an electronic forum that has served as the premier public discussion of advanced poetics, a well-regarded literary critic ponders how a writer such as Rich—described, astoundingly, as an “admirable ‘workshop’ poet”—may refuse to comply with the decorum regulating matter and method for the literary establishment; but ths scholar nonetheless takes the work to task as “re-inscribed,” or pertaining only to that particular, allegedly academic archive. This is to side rigidly with the idea that institutions alone frame the argument of a lifelong body of work, regardless of the claims and forces that a practice can mobilize.
If by “re-inscription” is meant also the oversights of family resemblance, then granted: there is a chapter still to be written that glosses not only the oft-cited turn to Charles Olson in The Will to Change (1971) but that is able to look earlier as well at the elegantly crafted but no less intrepid work that might discover a likeness between Edward Dorn and Adrienne Rich of the mid-1950s (circa The Diamond Cutters, 1955). That study might also examine the time of Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar magazine in a New York City of the late 1960s and so further enable the intertwining of aesthetics by which a poem like “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” appeared in larger historic conversation with a range writers and artists, among them Louis Zukofsky, Carolee Schneeman, Robert Creeley, Diane Wakowski, Robert Bly, Hugh Seidman, Leon Golub, Denise Levertov, Amiri Baraka, and Nancy Spero. Such a standpoint would see the poems of Adrienne Rich as of a piece with James Dickey of “The Firebombing” and “Coming Back to America,” (Buckdancer’s Choice, 1965), Rodolfo ‘Corky’ Gonzalez’s 1965 “I am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin,” Muriel Rukeyser’s The Speed of Darkness (1968), and Robert Hayden’s 1970’s “Words in the Mourning Time” as with the work that developed into Robert Duncan’s epic Ground Work, Gary Snyder’s The Back Country (1968), Audre Lorde’s Cables to Rage (1970), Hugh Seidman’s Blood Lord (1974), and the sequential clusters leading to Michael McClure’s uncanny Rare Angel (1975).
It remains unclear why from certain vantage points of the poetic landscape a discerning poet-essayist—and visible public servant—would wax elegiac about the absence of civic intellectual life among our poets yet fault Rich for having become “more overtly ideological” in “disjointed poems” that reflect a “grim intellectuality.” This assessment draws from the belief that to denounce human recklessness is to eschew the troublesome gratification derived when we give name to—and momentarily arrest—the stupefying grandeur of misfortune. For further counter-evidence to the charge of Rich’s pessimism, we need only turn to her awesome celebrations of social awakening in the voluptuous terms of physical love and lesbian desire, both prior to the “Twenty-One Love Poems” that anchor The Dream of a Common Language (1978), and after.
If, however, by “re-inscription” is meant the convenient taxonomy of group configuration, then these two critiques pitted together expose respective limits; they reveal an analogous need to deploy Adrienne Rich and her work to say something else that is at issue or to compensate for a deficiency. There is in U.S. American poetry a glaring disdain across the aesthetic gamut of lyric address for what other formats—photography or the moving image—advocate as “strong humanitarian content.” And it’s of worth to imagine what the foregoing censures would look like if Rich’s medium weren’t that of language but of the image, mechanically reproduced as a studied picture or snapshot—a metaphor not irrelevant to Rich’s writing. In one important sense, she shares company with documentary or so-called street photographers, many of them women, who see the perverse with great generosity: recall Tina Modotti (about whom Rich has written a compelling sequence); or think of Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Graciela Iturbide, and Susan Meiselas.
And so the poems of her most recent collection, The School Among the Ruins, are especially powerful reminders that it is still possible to address the catastrophe of the historic present and to resist its harrowing world effects with a sensual optimism of body and language. At a juncture when so much writing recoils, even across generational divisions, into such staggering disavowals of the present—or otherwise, as Rich cautions us, with its back turned away “from human conversation” or altogether “estranged from music and body”—her poems reanimate a practice whose social or cultural relevance has become increasingly negligible. I admire the intelligent gravity sung in this work because it prompts crucial questions of address and intercession. It is poetry of startling exactitude and unsettling beauty, by which I mean fearlessness and integrity.
… this will be a night
unauthorized shock troops are abroad
this will be a night
the face-ghosts lean
over the banister
declaring the old stories all
froze like beards or frozen margaritas
all the new stories taste of lukewarm
margaritas, lukewarm kisses
There are extraordinary moments in The School Among the Ruins; one that is particularly poignant for me proliferates in the second section of “Tell Me”. To struggle with the image of “unauthorized shock troops [ . . . ] abroad”—with stories as old as they are new—is for the poet herself to wage a double deployment: with the word margarita respectively frozen or lukewarm and blurring into kisses. This gesture contains volumes. That beautifully humble word: common daisy, cocktail that is the commodity form of leisure time in the overdeveloped United States—exotic festiveness signified south of the border—so brisk and intoxicating in the lush life of evening yet so impoverished and unappealing when the party’s over. It’s an incredible moment leading to the potential for language to reclaim an exhausted body and to make syllables smolder anew.
Rich illuminates erotic surmise under the chiaroscuro of global capital and the manifold violence of its onslaught. Her poetry survives the wreck of our present geopolitical circumstance and the self-satisfied convenience of our cultural politics. The School Among the Ruins is written as if in the hangover of senselessness, in the smoldering day of catastrophe’s aftermath, but it finds authority in those fragile-most forms apt to break stones, in the recurrence of daily rituals or descriptions—“There Is No One Story and One Story Only”—or in the refrain of indelible words such as tendril and transparency. Her account is a struggle with the moments we turn to (or is it into?) the murderers—when, unconcernedly, we allow values to be decided on our behalf. It is also a conversation pieced together from those remnants of the past ignited in such a way as to remind us of the cloudy divisions that are the hours and days by which we make our lives accountable. Hope endures even when faith is divided by regret for the world.
I didn’t say Your war is here
but could you have believed
that from a small thing infection
would crawl through the blood
and the enormous ruffled shine
of an ocean wouldn’t tell you.
For Rich to show the interval between circulatory system and oceanic feeling is to demonstrate also how position and locality—as a U.S. citizens and cultural maker—are as critical to the production of art as any potential meaning is to its representational effects. In this sense, she can discuss the question of U.S. imperialism as a function that so traverses the globe as to be constitutive now of our citizenry and as to override our various social and aesthetic identities, no matter how pliable. She insinuates throughout her poetry that our cultural attributes are to the stress with which we represent the world in language, what a political standpoint—the self in relation to looming homeland regulation—is to art and its decisive power to appraise what we do and do not value.
There are few other poets I want to read just now.