I have always been a huge admirer of Ange Mlinko’s poetry and her shrewd criticism. But I must part ways with her opinions in her review of Adrienne Rich’s Later Poems, “Diagram This” [Feb. 18]. Mlinko uses swaths of my essay to buttress her point that Rich is no longer relevant to a younger generation of poets because that generation favors indeterminacy as opposed to Rich’s poetry of conviction. I’m afraid that Mlinko greatly misread my essay, which is in fact a celebration of Rich. Mlinko quotes me as follows: I “had a period when I reacted against her in college…. It was a reaction against white bourgeois feminists who assumed their plight was universal.” Mlinko does not include my rebuttal to my younger, knee-jerk self in the essay: “I misread her of course. It wasn’t until after college that I read ‘Diving Into the Wreck’ and I realized that her poetry was so breathtaking and so powerful because of her commitment to the collective.”
I did imply that perhaps a younger generation does favor play over conviction, but this was actually an implied criticism of present trends in poetry. It was also an inward critical look at my own cynicism about poetry’s social function. “At such cynical moments,” I wrote in my essay, ”I turn to Rich for her courage.” But I would also caution against making such polarizing generational distinctions. There is so much negative capability in Rich’s poetry. Re-examine her “Twenty-One Love Poems,” which struggles to remake the sonnet so that it makes room for lesbian love. Read her open-ended ghazals and her “Phenomenology of Anger.” Her lines “quiver with equivocation,” but they also quiver with a rage that was not permitted in poetry.
There is no irony in Rich’s writing, which is the largest distinction between her work and poetry like my own and some of my peers. But at the same time, she has inspired and continues to inspire legions of young poets. True, you will rarely see her being taught next to John Ashbery and Charles Olson in a graduate poetry seminar. But when I teach her in grad and undergrad workshops, students are awed by her poems and not just by her legacy. Rich had an omnivorously diverse aesthetic appetite—unlike some of the other “old guard” poets, she didn’t care about camps. What mattered was that the poem took risks conceptually and formally. She inspired an aesthetically diverse field of poets: Elizabeth Willis, Anne Waldman, Ed Pavlic, Peter Gizzi, Suzanne Gardinier and, yes, even Charles Bernstein. When I was in Cape Town, young South African poets all cited Rich as the American poet who inspired them the most. Her influence travels widely and divergently.
I’m glad that Mlinko wrote the review. Debates should be generated from Rich’s poetry. Rich, in her poetry and as a poet, was divisive. She was not uniformly venerated; she did not play it safe or quietly wait her turn until she won her big awards. She pissed people off with her poetry, with her stances, with her contrarian opinions, with her strong conviction for justice. This is why she’s so important and why she’s been so transformative. It’s only appropriate, then, that Rich’s work continues to generate heated debate today.