Remembering Adrienne Rich, Poet and Feminist Lodestar 

Slate's Culture Blog
March 29 2012 9:24 AM

Emailing Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich in 1980

K. Kendall/Wikipedia

In February last year an assignment drifted down to me that I could not believe. I was interning at The Paris Review, fresh out of college, and the Web editor asked me whether I would interview Adrienne Rich, over email, about her new book, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. The idea of emailing Adrienne Rich didn’t compute. That the mind behind “Twenty-One Love Poems” belonged to a human being was remarkable enough; I imagined the pixels withering before her poetic presence. But I nodded and took the galley copy, because one of the many things I loved about Rich’s lines was their sense of calm, otherworldly purpose. Her work called on you to do the unexpected.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Rich, who died yesterday at 82, once said of Tonight No Poetry Will Serve that “I believe almost everything I know, have come to understand, is somewhere in this book.” Upon opening it I realized that I would need at least a lifetime to tease out half the knowledge stored in its pages. I remember feeling both thrilled and utterly lost when I read the first poem’s first stanza:

Burn me some music   Send my roots rain    I’m swept
dry from inside   Hard winds rack my core

The verse went on to describe “the war / poetry wages against itself,” which seemed an apt way of getting at the urgent, conflicted voices Rich marshaled so well. Her fugue-like poems were passionate and strong, but they had a sense of stillness at their center—an eye within the hurricane. I recognized in that eye (or I) the brave adventuress from “Diving into the Wreck,” who searched in a trance for her true self on the ocean floor.

“I’m attaching some questions,” I wrote her, “but please feel free to discuss whatever you’d like.”

After a few days, I received a reply. In the most gracious way possible, Rich explained that she had no idea what I’d sent to her inbox. I needed to put both my email message and the interview queries into size 36 Cambria bold font, because her eyesight was fading. “I’m looking forward to an unusually interesting conversation,” she added. (No pressure.)

Oh well. I reformatted and resent, fingers crossed. This time, the document I got back was a breathtaking collection of mini-manifestos on social and poetic responsibility. The multiple personae in Tonight were seeking, above all, a “shared moral reality,” she told me. They tried “not to settle for shallow formulas or lazy nihilism or stifling self-reference.” Moreover, this woman who refused both a National Medal for the Arts (to protest the White House’s “cynical policies”) and a National Book Award (because she shunned its terms of “patriarchal competition”) truly lived her beliefs. When she spoke of the writer’s obligation “not to fake it, not to practice a false innocence, not pull the shades down on what’s happening next door or across town,” you could feel her earnestly worrying an ancient distinction between art and activism, song and life.

As for death, Rich once wrote:

I have always wondered about the left-over
energy, the way water goes rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped.

Water for her was the visionary element, a medium in which words and knowledge got loosened up and swam around. An unchecked stream seems like the perfect metaphor for the way Rich’s poetry will survive her. I hope a new generation of readers won’t hesitate to dive in.



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 3:33 PM Drinking Fancy Cocktails at Denny’s
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.