Diagram This: On Adrienne Rich
Yet if Rich’s impact on her fellow feminists was huge, her impact on poets of the last couple of generations has been weak. Consider Maureen McLane, a visible fortysomething practitioner and critic who makes no secret in her work of her LGBT affiliation. Her recent book on her poetic education, My Poets, contains essays on Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück, Fanny Howe and even a couple of men—but not Rich. There’s also Cathy Park Hong, whose book Dance Dance Revolution was chosen by Rich in 2006 for the prestigious Barnard Women Poets Prize. Hong has admitted that she “had a period when I reacted against her in college. This was when multicultural relativism was having its swan song in the late 90’s. I was taking a feminist lit theory course and the pronoun we was poison. Don’t include me in your we. It was a reaction against white bourgeois feminists who assumed their plight was universal.” Of the recent spate of poetry collections from younger white or Jewish poets whose emotional lives are inextricably bound up with new motherhood—among them Rachel Zucker, Arielle Greenberg, Brenda Shaughnessy and Joy Katz—one could conclude that the Adrienne Rich of Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution is at least partly responsible. That book of essays, published in 1976, was one of the first theoretical treatments of motherhood, and any young American mother who has looked into midwives and doulas probably has Rich to thank. But Rich did not put motherhood front and center in her poetry as women right now do; her most anthologized poems have to do with different experiences: the reclamation of women’s voices (“Diving Into the Wreck”); lesbian love (“Twenty-One Love Poems”); and global justice (“An Atlas of the Difficult World”).
In a blog post written after Rich died, Hong put her finger on another crucial difference between Rich’s generation and mine: “I thought about the word commitment. This is a word that rarely comes up in workshop. Instead, there is this word: play (‘the play of words in this line…’). In workshop, we have been raised on a diet of negative capability. Lines should quiver with equivocation.”
“Negative capability” was John Keats’s term for “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Hong was right: poets, generally, want to play—with roles, personae and language itself. Political poetry, generally, wants to persuade, and its chief mode is one of unplayful earnestness. (Enduring political poets—Blake, Shelley, Yeats—have had compensating visionary virtues.) Marjorie Perloff, a champion of “the poetics of indeterminacy,” a poetry of radical formal disjunction often associated with postmodernism and French critical theory, has claimed that Rich’s rhetoric is inherently conservative. This claim is an arresting reversal of the usual terms—“art for art’s sake” is supposed to be quietist; “feminist art” is supposed to be revolutionary—and it depends on an assumption about the relationship between poetic form and politics as questionable as Rich’s likening of traditional forms to asbestos gloves. Still, Perloff may have been thinking of this kind of conservatism, from the poem “Grandmothers”:
you were “Grandmother Jones” and you visited rarely.
I see you walking up and down the garden,
restless, southern-accented, reserved, you did not
my mother’s mother or anyone’s grandmother.
You were Mary, widow of William, and no matriarch,
yet smoldering to the end with frustrate life,
ideas nobody listened to, least of all my father.
Charles Bernstein parodied the genre: ”I see my yiddishe mama on Hester street/ next to the pushcarts I can no longer peddle.” And “I see my grandmother on the hill/ next to all the mothers whose lives can never be recaptured.” His ridicule is faintly mean-spirited, but it’s a necessary check on the notion that any sincere, truthful poem is an effective poem. In fact, that sincere poem probably undermines its own effectiveness by failing to persuade anyone of anything, and ends up speaking only to virtuous people persuaded of their own virtue. Though they can make for good rhetorical occasions, there are few surprises in grandmother poems or poems against torture or war. A little “play” never hurt a good rhetorician.
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