The Powerful Poetry and Politics of Adrienne Rich

Bringing out the dead.
March 29 2012 6:52 PM

The Will To Change

Adrienne Rich’s death leaves a hole in the culture that can’t easily be filled.

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

Photograph by Lilian Kemp/California State University at Los Angeles.

Not exactly by coincidence, I’d just been rereading two of Adrienne Rich’s books when the news came that she had died on Tuesday, at the age of 82. It was Rich’s voice—analytic, passionate, radical, ferocious, yet never merely fervent—that I wanted to hear in the midst of today’s tedious and all too familiar debates about women’s rights. Rich’s death leaves a hole in the culture that can’t be easily filled. The generation of feminist intellectuals who helped usher in the changed world we live in will soon be gone; there’s something lonely about that, I think. To be reminded of just how much the world has changed since Rich’s youth, you might reread Robert Lowell’s (very nice) review of her fourth book in the New York Times, which aptly but rather awfully describes reading her work as “watching the terrible and only abstractly imaginable struggle of a beetle to get out of its beetle shell while remaining a beetle.” In those days, she was what they called a “woman poet.”

To read Rich at her best is to be gut-punched and brain-teased at the same time—a teaching both cerebral and visceral. What sets Rich apart from her generation of feminists is not just her highly trained formidable intelligence—matched by only a few of her peers—but the way her career dramatizes the awakening of a radically individual voice. Rich was both a poet and an essayist, and her cross-genre forays allowed her to capture women’s growing consciousness of their oppression more significantly (and persistently) than any other writer I know. She was always searching for a new and better language, a fresher, less derivative art.

Rich began her career as a precocious formalist. Her first books, A Change of World and The Diamond Cutters, demonstrated an ornamental mastery of traditional forms; she then made the radical choice to reject them and find her own path. Easily said, not so easily done. One of the strangest and most enduring gifts of her work, really, is the way its trajectory embodies just how hard the journey was. Because she was a prodigy who published her first book when she was 22, her readers are granted an unusually full view of the complicated evolution of her work.

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Born in Baltimore in 1929, the daughter of a Southern Protestant piano-playing mother and an assimilated Jewish doctor father, Rich was, as she put it, “groomed” to be a literary prodigy—home-schooled for years before being sent to private school and then to Radcliffe. A Change of World was selected by W.H. Auden as the winner of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize when she was still a senior at Radcliffe. The poems in it are marvelous formal contraptions, extraordinarily fluent and lucid for a writer so young, and very much the dutiful works of a brilliant student eager to attain mastery; there’s something culturally female, if you will, about the way they say, at once showily and quietly, “Look, I can do this too.” And yet they’re suffused with subversion; one poem, set in genteel Beacon Hill, opens “Curtis and I sit drinking auburn sherry/ In the receptive twilight of the vines” but arrives at the strange and telling line “I, between yew and lily, in resignation/ Watch lime-green shade across his left cheek spatter.” The fact that “resignation” might not be the mode of this prodigious young writer for long was evident in poems like “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” in which Rich considered an aunt’s embroidery—a typically “feminine” task. A panel of sewn tigers becomes the site of personal heroism, the one place where the aunt was not “mastered by” the ordeals of being a woman, though, as Rich observes, even here, “the massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band / Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.”*

No American poet has so fully created a body of work constellated around the notion that change is essential to being free. If A Change of World is mostly juvenilia, nonetheless Rich’s concerns are vibrantly alive in the shadows. Over and over one encounters in her early books the words that became the mature Rich’s touchstones: “will,” “change,” and “choice.” “The moment of change is the only poem,” she later wrote. Rich’s own radicalism didn’t come easily, or instantly, and it’s worth remembering how much of a risk it may have been to set out on the journey of pulling away from her more conventional habits, both artistic and personal. As she put it, speaking of her second book, “many of the poems in The Diamond Cutters seem to me now a last-ditch effort to block, with assimilation and technique, the undervoice of my own poetry.” Like many, I find her career to be a fascinating demonstration of the importance of never silencing “the undervoice” of your own impulses.

It wasn’t until her third book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), that Rich began fully to inhabit her own voice. Published the same year as The Feminine Mystique, it helped make Rich’s name and fully established her preoccupation with women’s lives. In the title poem she wrote, unforgettably:

You, once a belle in Shreveport, with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud,
still have your dresses copied from that time,
and play a Chopin prelude
called by Cortot: “Delicious recollections
float like perfume through the memory.”

Your mind now, mouldering like wedding-cake,
heavy with useless experience, rich
with suspicion, rumor, fantasy,
crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge
of mere fact.

It was only over the next 10 years that she allowed herself to become an anti-war protester, a host to Black Panther events, and—after her husband committed suicide, tragically, in 1970—a woman who openly loved women. And she began the work that ranked among her most iconic, including The Will To Change, Diving Into the Wreck, and Twenty-One Love Poems.

Like Sylvia Plath (who saw Rich as one of her primary competitors, perhaps the other great poet of her generation), Rich dared early on to make poetry out of the prosaic, humdrum, and sometimes secret events of women’s lives—darning, being bored at a drink with a man, having erotic longings for another woman. Long before it became acceptable to write about the ambivalence of motherhood, she explored the subject of being a mother (and a daughter) in extraordinarily moving detail in Of Woman Born, writing about her envy of women who didn’t have children, speaking about her jealousy of her own children, and, of course, her profound love for them. To read her words even in 2012 is to feel a jolt of recognition, an encounter with a rigorous voice that is nonetheless describing a familiar world:

To be ‘like other women’ had been a problem for me. From the age of thirteen or fourteen, I had felt I was only acting the part of a feminine creature. At the age of sixteen my fingers were almost constantly ink-stained. The lipstick and high heels of the era were difficult-to-manage disguises. In 1945 I was writing poetry seriously, and had a fantasy of going to postwar Europe as a journalist, sleeping among the ruins in bombed cities, recording the rebirth of civilization after the fall of the Nazis. But also, like every other girl I knew, I spent hours trying to apply lipstick more adroitly, straightening the wandering seams of stockings, talking about ‘boys.’ There were two different compartments, already, to my life. But writing poetry, and my fantasies of travel and self-sufficiency, seemed more real to me; I felt that as an incipient ‘real woman’ I was a fake.

The risk of being a polemicist and a revolutionary is that one’s art suffers, and Rich’s lesser poems can bring to mind the Yeats truism “Out of the quarrel with others, we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry.” But it’s easy to focus on the lesser work as a way of turning away from what is most bracing (and difficult) about her. While some of her later poems feel less urgent to me, others, like “What Kind of Times Are These,” from Dark Fields of the Republic, haunt my thinking as a poet about how to locate the outlines of an aesthetically satisfying and uniquely American political verse. And as her most recent book, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, reminds us, Rich always remained a beautiful writer of quietly intimate, charged lyric poems, though they get less attention than her political pieces.  

Rich wrote, “You must read, and write, as if your life depended on it.” It’s a hard thing to say in this day and age. Yet her work reminds us that it is in fact possible for literature to express and movingly embody what she called “the will to change.” “Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live,” Rich wrote in Twenty-One Love Poems, her first poems about lesbian eros. Her work made that pond of silence a smaller one, in so many ways. Women’s lives, it’s safe to say, are still unduly influenced by the host of conflicted ideas noisily voiced about what it means to be a woman (and how much right a woman has to determine that meaning for herself). Rich once wrote, perhaps partly in response to all that noise, “I choose not to suffer uselessly.” Today, we can say that her suffering, public and private, was nothing if not useful.

Correction, April 30, 2012: The article originally misquoted Rich’s poem: The wedding band “sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand,” not “on Aunt Jennifer’s hand.” (Return.)

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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