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Will, Change, and Power in the Poetry of Adrienne Rich

ISSUE:  Spring 2006

On the Job

I’m in the back of Dishes, on 45th off Fifth, on my lunch hour. The Fact of a Doorframe is open on the table, and I’m reading to write, the way I might read to write a poem, although now it is this tribute that I want, although I’m writing this tribute as if it were a poem, a poem to Adrienne. I’m reading alone as one always reads the poem alone, yet the poem is bringing me back into the poem, is bringing me back into the community of all who would read the poem, though it may be that at any moment we may feel we can do nothing about our lives. In “Letters to a Young Poet” she says:

if a woman as vivid as any artist
can fling any day herself from the 14th floor

would it relieve you to decide?     Poetry
doesn’t make this happen


Close Encounters of the Second Kind

I suppose that each artist must define her relationship to the world, either directly or indirectly. I am thinking of something I believe I remember having once read by Paul Klee: an artist expresses herself, the history of her art, and the time in which she writes. Some poets accept the world as it is; others push back on that world. Adrienne is and always has been a poet of the second kind.

The question at hand, as I received it from VQR, posed the age-old canard of whether or not poetry “changes” anything in the “social or personal” world. (My wife immediately shot back: poetry doesn’t change anything, poetry changes people.) And, specifically, VQR invoked W. H. Auden who votes emphatically NO on the question of public change in his well-known elegy for William Butler Yeats when he laments: “poetry makes nothing happen.” (In the poem, Auden is referencing, at that moment, the unchanging “madness” and “weather” of Ireland that Yeats’s verse had failed to alter.) However, Auden votes resoundingly YES (mirroring my wife’s take) with regard to the personal realm, as he finally instructs the “poet” (now morphed, as I read it, from Yeats into some generalized practitioner):

With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
… .
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

School of Our Art

I first met Adrienne when she taught in the first two years (1967–69) of Columbia’s new MFA program in creative writing at the School of the Arts. (Stanley Kunitz was the other poet.) I was working as a programmer/librarian in the Columbia Computer Center when I found myself accepted into her class. She had recently come down to New York from Cambridge with her three sons and her husband, Alfred Conrad, an economist and professor at the City University of New York (CUNY). (Later, for a time, after having left Columbia in the fall of 1969, Adrienne would also teach at City College of CUNY in an ardent commitment to open admissions and the SEEK program—reveling in the long hours and tough work of instructing minority students who often could probably barely read or write. Note: According to a recent statement by Michael Moore, 40 million American adults can neither read nor write past a fourth-grade level.)

It was a time of intense social disturbance. Most males fretted about the draft. (I had worked, for instance, with a conscientious objector who was doing alternate service at the Computer Center.) In 1968, the year of the North Vietnamese Tet offensive and the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War, 11,000 Americans were killed and 45,000 were wounded. That spring students sat in and shut down Columbia, and sit-ins and demonstrations at other colleges sprung up here and abroad. A week later, after peacefully removing the actual demonstrators from the buildings, there were broken heads on the Columbia campus when the police rioted and beat bystanders bloody.

Adrienne and her family lived in a large apartment on Central Park West, and after a while our workshop met in her living room. She was only eleven years my senior—I was somewhat older than the others, having already been to grad school in math and theoretical physics—but she had by that time been a celebrated poet for almost two decades since winning the Yale prize at twenty-one. “Alf,” her husband, was unobtrusive. He appeared from time to time with a word for her or to offer a cigar or a drink. He seemed to like to play the host—to make people feel at ease. A few years later he was dead by his own hand.

And here I must confess that at first I was skeptical. In 1967 I had not yet read Adrienne’s work, and I pictured her as a safe academic poet. (What other sort would Columbia have hired?) Also, as an undergraduate, I had been taught by the Objectivist master Louis Zukofsky, and I felt that I had little to learn from someone like Adrienne. In reality, of course, Adrienne was about as far from my fantasy as one could be, and of course she was going through her own turmoils amid the stirrings of her own transformations: “In Central Park we talked of our own cowardice. / How many times a day, in this city, are those words spoken?”

And all of us in that small class of would-be poets became her friends, became close to her. And her generosity and kindness were often apparent. (For example, when my first book came out, she hosted a wonderful publication party in its honor at her apartment.) And so it was a shock to me, some years after I graduated from Columbia (1969), that when she eventually cut herself off from most men, I too was one of the men with whom she severed relations.

Will, Change, and Power

In 1979, as part of a visiting-poet job at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, I gave four talks on four contemporary American poets, one of whom was Adrienne. This is part of what I said (somewhat revised):

By the end of Poems: Selected and New, 1950–1974, Adrienne Rich confirms her growing distance from men, both personally and poetically. By the time The Dream of a Common Language (Norton, 1978) is published, she has made a complete break. She is no longer the darling of the male poetry establishment; she is no longer a participant in male-centered politics; she has come into her own and embraced her destiny as a committed lesbian (read: universal) writer.

The mature, womanly, short-haired poet looking straight at us on the back of Dream has superseded the almost girlish, long-haired poet who faintly smiles, who looks away from us on the back of the selected Poems. (In both cases the photographer, a gay man, is the same.) In Dream, punctuation is often dropped. Phrases travel across the page with several spaces between lines in a kind of invocation, perhaps, of Charles Olson’s “projective verse.” An allusion to a male master (Pound—“botched civilization”) is not reverent but mocking: “as one of them called it.”

Her themes are the ones that have long obsessed her, but now men are gone from the landscape and exist only as the “others” against whom women of conscience struggle. This is in sharp contrast to the remark she made to me, when we were still speaking, that the only important subject for poetry was to define the relationship between men and women.

The first section of Dream begins with a poem called “Power” that speaks of Madam Curie, who “died     a famous woman     denying / her wounds / denying / her wounds     came     from the same source as her power.” She also once told me that her friend the poet Robin Morgan was very interested in the subject of witches because they were women who could exercise power.

Thus it is that one might look practically anywhere in Adrienne’s poetry and not have far to go before encountering these central passions: will, change, and power—that is, the exercise of will in the quest for change that leads to empowerment. Here is a passage from “Tear Gas” (1969):

The will to change begins in the body not in the mind
My politics is in my body, accruing and expanding with every
      act of resistance and each of my failures
Locked in that closet at 4 years old I beat the wall with my body
that act is in me still

But for what infraction would a small child have been so locked? The poem does not say, but the response is clear—futile and splendid at once. And so poignant to imagine her in this childhood rebellion in light of the woman that she will become. And so it is that we might contrast this little girl in the closet with the woman who might throw herself from the window in the previously quoted passage from “Letters to a Young Poet.” And if we were speaking non-metaphorically and totally realistically of that little girl, might we not say that “poetry made this happen”?


Strangely, for whatever reason, in late winter of 2002, three audio books arrive one day from Random House: Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, and Adrienne. I have not heard her voice for almost thirty years (except once, long ago, at a big 92nd Street Y reading). How good to hear it. And soon after that, by a fortuitous set of coincidences, we start e-mailing. And so, the silence is broken and we are back in touch. And also mourning together, with some others from Columbia days, during months as one of our former classmates, Bob Nero, passes away with cancer.

Rereading The Dead Lecturer

In a recent e-mail Adrienne said:

Have been immersed in LeRoi Jones’s The Dead Lecturer for a couple of days. It seems to me even more remarkable now than when it came out in the sixties. The combination of modernist craft & real struggle. I remember you and I talking about it, you reading aloud from it. So I send you the attached.

The poem that she sent, “Rereading The Dead Lecturer,” is among those showcased in this issue.

On the one hand I am struck by these lines:

An idea.     And we felt it.
A meaning.     And we caught it

—the feeling of an idea.     An idea of feeling.

At the age of seventy-seven Adrienne is still pondering, still probing, still “feeling” ideas, still testing the limits of the poem as energy conduit, vector, and force. From the very first her genius has lain in her uncanny ability to resonate with our deepest concerns and desires via charged, yet straightforward language. And, remarkably, the considerable moral pressure exerted by her work has never been compromised by a sacrifice of the “beautiful”—the lovely vowels, consonants, images, and metaphors of her emotional intelligence, and the whole structure buttressed by her wide and passionate scholarship.

And on the other hand, I am fascinated by the following:

And the past?     Overthrow of systems, forms
could not overthrow the past

For do not these two lines reflect what might be the most important “political” question at any time, for anyone—that is, what is it that will carry us past the old behaviors after the revolution is over? A question beyond poetry, perhaps?

When I was her student, almost forty years ago, she handed us one afternoon—via one of those “purple mimeos” that writing students were always cranking out and/or receiving in the ancient days before computers and “post-avant” (-garde) poetry—these words by the then LeRoi Jones:

But let there be no misunderstanding. I do believe, desperately, in a “poetry of ideas.” Poems have got, literally, to be about something. And the weight of love, murder, history, economics, etc. have got to drag whoever’s writing in a personally sanctified direction or there will be no poems at all. But it’s not the direction that’s interesting, or makes literature or art, but the replaying of it by the poet. . . . We are stung by some things in our lives that must tell us who we are, almost as specifically as on our driver’s license. They comprise an effortless power (my italics) readily at our use, if we can find an effective method.

Thus, in the spirit of this quotation, Adrienne’s poetry—her energized, pointed, ongoing, imaginative discourse of examination, probing its intentions even as it writes out its intentions—is an astonishing chronicle of how it has been for her to be alive right now, moment to moment, which is perhaps one of the few definitions of “radical” that I might be willing to accept.


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