Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich (1929 - 2012)

To a significant extent, all poets are concerned with transformation. The very making of a poem involves a transformation from perceived reality or experience into a verbal utterance shaped by the poet’s imagination and craft. For Adrienne Rich, however, transformation goes beyond the act of writing; it extends to the culture at large through the poem’s ability to challenge given assumptions and offer new visions. Rich delineated her poetics relatively early in her career in a 1971 essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”:

For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive… Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience, it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment.

Transformation is thus private as well as public, and Rich’s poetry and essays have explored the space where these realms intersect, incorporating feminist, lesbian, historical, non-capitalist, humanitarian, multi-racial, and multi-cultural points of view. The form of her poems has evolved with her content, moving from tight formalist lyrics to more experimental poems using a combination of techniques: long lines, gaps in the line, interjections of prose, juxtaposition of voices and motifs, didacticism, and informal expression. Indeed, no poet’s career reflects the cultural and poetic transformations undergone in the United States during the 2Oth century better than that of Adrienne Rich.

Rich demonstrated talent carly in life, writing poems under her father’s tutelage as a child. By the time she graduated from Radcliffe College her first book, A Change of World (1951), had been selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. This and her second book, The Diamond Cutters (1955), capture alienation and loss through the distancing devices of Modernist for malism, but hoth books contain poems that hint at her future thematic concerns. “Storm Warnings,” from A Change of World, speaks of people “Who live in troubled regions” and foreshadows unspecified but disturbing change:

Weather abroad
And weather in the heart alike come on
Regardless of prediction.

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” offers an image of power revealed and restrained by domestic arts. Three poems in The Diamond Cutters – “Picture by Vuillard,” “Love in the Museum” and “Ideal Landscape” – question the version of reality offered by art, while “Living in Sin” depicts a woman’s growing dissatisfaction with her lover and living situation.

Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), which reflects the tensions she experienced as a wife and mother in the 1950s, marks a substantial change in Rich’s style and subject matter. “The experience of motherhood,” Rich wrote in “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity” (1982), “was eventually to radicalize me.” Part of that radicalizing process involved Rich’s relationship to both poetry and history. In 1956 she began dating her poems by year:

I did this because I was finished with the idea of a poem as a single, encapsulated event, a work of art complete in itself; I knew my life was changing, my work was changing, and I needed to indicate to readers my sense of being engaged in a long, continuous process.

The act of dating her poems amounted to a rejection of New Critical valucs that placed the poem outside of its cultural and historical contexts. Informed by a feminist sensibility, many of the poems in Snapshots use free verse and a more personal voice to express anger, to acknowledge a need for change, and to address or recover other women writers. The book’s title piece, a ten-poem sequence written in free verse, creates an album of women’s lives under male domination. The sequence moves back and forth in time and content, generalizing about the domestic repression of contemporary women and referring to female historical figures.

To many critics “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” presented a radical and problematic departure from Rich’s earlier formalism, but in “When We Dead Awaken” Rich rejected the poem as “too literary, too dependent on allusion” and male literary authorities. Nevertheless, Rich’s later poetry would rely heavily on allusions to literary, historical and contemporary events and persons.

Rich’s next three books – Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971) – reflect the social upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like other poets of her generation, such as Denise Levertov, Robert Bly and W. S. Merwin, she wrote poems protesting the Vietnam War, particularly in Leaflets. Images of death pervade Necessities of Life as the poet struggled to create a life no longer shaped by the predetermined rituals and social roles. Emily Dickinson became a recurring figure in her poems, foreshadowing her influential essay, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” (1975). Rich’s poems also became increasingly experimental, employing longer, contrapuntal lines. She adapted the ghazal, a Persian form traditionally used for expressions of love, to convey social and political comment. At the same time, Rich began to distrust her medium because of its close ties to patriarchical culture. “This is the oppressor’s language // yet I need it to talk to you,” she writes in “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” a five-poem sequence with prose segments in The Will to Change.

Informed more distinctly by a feminist analysis of history and culture, Diving into the Wreck (1973) marks another turning point in Rich’s career. In it she expresses her anger regarding women’s position in Western culture more directly and alludes to problematic dualities or images of Otherness. Language, too, remains on trial for its duplicitous nature. The book’s title poem, one of the 20th century’s most significant poems, uses an androgynous diver to examine a culture wrecked by its limited view of history and myth. As with Leaflets and The Will to Change, this book’s tone ranges from critical to accusatory. When Diving into the Wreck was awarded the National Book Award in 1974, Rich rejected the prize as an individual but accepted it, with a statement coauthored by Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, on behalf of all unknown women writers.

Rich’s essays and poetry from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s have been considered her most radical, in part because in them she rejects her earlier use of androgyny and seems to make a case for feminist separatism. “There are words I cannot choose again: / humanism androgyny,” she writes in “Natural Resources,” in which a female miner replaces the androgynous diver of “Diving into the Wreck.” Rich defines and addresses her villain more clearly: a patriarchical culture that inherently devalues anything female or feminine. The impulse behind the search, however, remains the same: finding a way to “reconstitute the world” (The Dream of a Common Language, 1978). Rich advocates a woman-centered vision of creative energies that she aligns with lesbianism in her essays “‘It Is the Lesbain in Us'” (On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, 1979) and “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience” (Blood, Bread, and Poetry, 1986). She also critcizes the impact of patriarchical culture on motherhood in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976). Other essays as well as poems in The Dream of a Common Language and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981) offer important new readings of female literary and historical figures. Rich’s lesbian love sequence, “Twenty-One Love Poems,” also dates from this time and is as striking for its sensuousness as it is for its philosophical probing.

The poems and essays fron this period contributed greatly to contemporary understanding of the social construction of gender; they also generated controversy. Critics objected to the didacticism in her poetry and considered her feminist/lesbian vision too narrow. Rich’s strategies are more usefully seen as a counterpoint to the pervasiveness of patriarchical culture, which harms men as well as women. While Rich may claim, for example, that women together create “a whole new poetry” in poems such as “Transcendental Etude,” her ultimate vision is broader. The “lost brother” Rich describes in “Natural Resources” “was never the rapist,” but rather “a fellow creature / with natural resources equal to our own” (The Dream of a Common Language).

Rich’s books published in the mid- to late 1980s, Your Native Land, Your Life (1986) and Time’s Power (1989), examine her relationship to her Jewish origins and to the men in her life, as well as what it means to be a feminist in the Reagan era. Her landscapes include include not only Southern California, to which she moved in 1984, but laso South Africa, Lebanon, Poland and Nicaragua. She addresses a public “you” held accountable for her quality of life: her parents, her former husband, her current lover, and a self wracked with arthritic and psychic pain. What remains consistent is Rich’s insistence that poetry remain linked to a political and social context. “Poetry never stood a chance / of standing outside history,” she writes in the second poem of her sequence “North American Time” (1986). “Living Memory” in Time’s Power is a trasitional piece, recalling the poet’s past explorations in “Diving into the Wreck” and looking ahead to her future work. The poem instructs:

Open the book of tales you knew by heart,
begin driving the old roads again,
repeating the old sentences, which have changed
minutely from the wordings you remembered.

Rich follows her instructions in An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), one of her most accomplished books of poetry. The title piece, a 13-poem sequence, invites comparison with other long poems of the American experience by Walt Whitman, Muriel Rukeyser, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Pinsky. Its general theme of knowing one’s country, however painful and disappointing, continues in Dark Fields of the Republic (1995), in which the poet’s examination of America’s problems uses the phrase “not somewhere else, but here” from The Dream of a Common Language. In 1995 she increases the load this phrase must bear, claiming in “What Kind of Times Are These” that “the edge of dread” along which she walks is

not somewhere else, but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

Rich sees undercurrents of violence in the materialism of the 1980s and 1990s that neither poets nor individuals can afford to ignore. These themes, as well as the role of poetry in political and social life, are also explored in her book of essays What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993).

In her latest book of poems, Midnight Salvage (1999), Rich continues this discussion from the perspective of an aging activist poet looking back on her life. She alludes to several of her previous poems and books, and poses several questions: Has anything useful been salvaged from the wreck of culture Rich has been exploring for more than 30 years? Have art and language served society and the poet well? Do material comforts blind Americans to the lessons of the past? Her questions are not casually answered, and the book’s tone borders on despair. “I wanted to go somewhere / the brain bad not yet gone,” she writes in “Letters to a Young Poet,” “I wanted not to be / there so alone.” The “wild patience” that helped Rich to survive into the late 1970s and early 1980s has become the “horrible patience” the poet needs to find language she can use effectively. Images of windows appear throughout the book as if the poet, enclosed and cut off from the world, were struggling to see it clearly. In the book’s closing sequence, “A Long Conversation,” Rich wonders if it is the “charred, crumpled, ever-changing human language” that “sways and presses against the pane,” blocking her view.

Rich is best known as a key figure in feminist poetry. Her dream of a better language and a better world, however, aligns her with the visionary poetess of Shelley and Whitman, and with American transcendentalists such as Emerson. The documentary nature of her work – her poetry of witness and protest – is in keeping with the work of poets such as Carl Sandburg, Robert Hayden, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carolyn Forché, and the lesser-known 19th-century worsen poets in England and the United States who wrote about social and domestic injustice. Rich’s exploration of the points where private lives and public acts intersect, as well as the confessional mode her poems sometimes employ suggests the work of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Her frank discussion and celebration of lesbian sexuality have contributed to a more open discussion of homosexuality today, not only within the walls of the academy but in the culture at large: it is difficult to imagine the work of Marilyn Hacker or Minnie Bruce Pratt without Rich as a precursor. Finally, her insistence in the 1980s that feminism move beyond the white midlle class and be more sensitive to the needs of women of color and of varying economic classes aligns her with a number of poets: Audre Lord, June Jordan, Joy Harjo, Judy Grahn, and Irish poet Evan Boland. This is a short list of links and influences, suggesting the complex and generative quality a poetics of transformation can possess. Her uses of anger, domestic imagery, and the poetic sequence or long poem suggest other possibilities.

Adrienne Rich passed away on March 27, 2012, at her home in Santa Cruz. Cause of death was reportedly long-term rheumatoid arthritis. She became 82 years old.