Diagram This: On Adrienne Rich

Diagram This: On Adrienne Rich

A new collection of Adrienne Rich’s poems does not show her at her best.


When Adrienne Rich died last March in Santa Cruz, California, of complications from rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 82, the world lost a polarizing poet from a countercultural generation that included Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka, Betty Friedan and William Burroughs. A public intellectual and an icon for the “triply marginalized—as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew” (according to her New York Times obituary), Rich allowed her poetry to serve her ideas on feminism and social justice. As a result, her poems and essays—more than thirty books over six decades—reached a broad and passionate audience, far beyond what most poets enjoy, and she was a hero to generations of feminists. She won almost every award available to poets in this country, though her principled stance against neoliberalism led her to refuse the National Medal of Honor in 1997: “The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.” The president in question, of course, was Bill Clinton.

The broad outlines of Rich’s life story are well known. Born in 1929 in Baltimore to a pianist mother and a doctor father (who was also a Johns Hopkins professor), Rich was groomed for middle-class success and, by her own account, complied with expectations. She graduated from Radcliffe; she won the Yale Younger Poets prize for her first book, A Change of World, chosen by W.H. Auden; she married a prominent economist and gave birth to three sons by 1959. Her earliest poems were formal and elegant, like this stanza from “The Diamond Cutters”:

Be hard of heart, because
The stone must leave your hand.
Although you liberate
Pure and expensive fires
Fit to enamour Shebas,
Keep your desire apart.
Love only what you do,
And not what you have done.

And then, as with many poets of her generation, the Vietnam War precipitated a crisis that shifted the foundations of her style as well as her life. She grew increasingly radicalized throughout the 1960s, during which she published the free-verse Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963). As she was writing the poems that would become The Will to Change: Poems 1968–1970, her family life fell apart, and in 1970 her husband committed suicide. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Rich came out as a lesbian. Her essays on the eros between women and the ambivalence of motherhood were among the first of their kind. She became a hero to some for her courage, and a scourge to former admirers repelled by her newfound stridency, as in “The Phenomenology of Anger,” from her groundbreaking collection Diving Into the Wreck (1973):

I suddenly see the world
as no longer viable:
you are out there burning the crops
with some new sublimate
This morning you left the bed
we still share
and went out to spread impotence
upon the world

Again, Rich was not alone in this trajectory. Robert Lowell’s enormously influential Life Studies, published in 1959, was thought by many critics and poets at the time to have broken with the formalist, impersonal modernism of T.S. Eliot, an interpretation that paved the way for writers like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and others to abandon their efforts at producing well-wrought urns in favor of a confessional mode of truth-telling that purportedly rejected poetic artifice. As new movements of liberation and multicultural pride surged in the 1970s, their designated poetries followed—and they generally adopted the rhetorical, free-verse mandate set by Rich when she forsook artifice as a legacy of the patriarchy. Formalism, Rich averred, was a kind of “asbestos gloves”—and for decades after, women poets would speak of form as “distancing.”

All this might seem like overkill; surely not every daughter of Auden and Yeats had to reject her inheritance so categorically and dramatically? And yet Auden’s description of Rich’s work begs for riposte: her poems “are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.” Ouch. Better to follow Blake, who might have included women in his maxim “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.”

* * *

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.

* * *

What to make of the publication of Rich’s Later Poems: Selected and New? Composed of everything from Diving Into the Wreck (winner of the National Book Award) to new and unpublished poems, this posthumous volume invites us to take stock of a prolific output, created over forty tumultuous, exploratory years.

Many of Rich’s poems found their form in the serial or the sequence, such as “Meditations for a Savage Child.” They are hard to excerpt, because their force builds momentum section by section:

In their own way, by their own lights
they tried to care for you
tried to teach you to care
for objects of their caring:

     glossed oak planks, glass
     whirled in a fire
     to impossible thinness

to teach you names
for things
you did not need

     muslin shirred against the sun
     linen on a sack of feathers
     locks, keys
     boxes with coins inside

they tried to make you feel
the importance of

     a piece of cowhide
     sewn around a bundle
     of leaves impressed with signs
to teach you language:
the thread their lives
were strung on

The poem is an address to Victor of Aveyron, the mute “wild boy” who emerged from the French woods in 1800 as a suspected feral child; it transforms into a wide-ranging meditation on language, the Enlightenment and empathy in five brief sections. Victor’s story is powerful, but what Rich’s poem accomplishes is partial. She suggests that his male doctors, who failed to teach him to speak, are obtuse: Why would a wild boy learn the words for tables and stemware and books, those accouterments of civilization? What if nature provided him with his own internal, impersonal (and more interesting) language that the scientists knew nothing of? And more disturbingly: What if women are natural allies of this feral primordiality?

These are provocative questions, but we expect something more from a poem: a moment-by-moment dramatic contest between content and form, theme and prosody. “Meditations for a Savage Child” has no such internal tensions, and no self-delighting qualities. It employs, as all of Rich’s poems do, a fragmented, staccato rhythm, but there are no startling tropes or sharp wit; no humor and no real warmth. A reader would come to such a poem for ideas—and she might uneasily recall Paul Valéry’s words to Edgar Degas: “A poem is not made of ideas, it is made of words.” Likewise, the famous sequence “Twenty-One Love Songs” feels misnamed; these aren’t songs, with a song’s qualities (brevity, musicality), but further meditations, addresses, in a rhetorical mode. They clearly felt necessary to a generation that lacked love poems between women. But if the very syllables can’t generate heat now, we wonder—as with some marriages—if they ever did.

Rich’s signature style—fragmentary (even halting), earnest, direct—did not alter much in the four decades covered by Later Poems. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Robert Frost warned; I thought of this maxim more than once while reading this thick volume. I also thought of Wallace Stevens’s distinction between the poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination; I thought of Keats writing “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us” and his insistence that the poetic character “has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.” I thought of Sir Philip Sidney, who died of a gangrenous battle injury in his early 30s, writing of the poet: “he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit.” These were poets who made a strong distinction between art and the world, imagination and reality. Rich belonged to a tradition that collapsed that distinction. The fact that such poetry attracts large, committed audiences is not lost on either its proponents or its detractors. Even so, most poets are not willing to give up their prerogative to be uncommitted: ambiguous, ambivalent, negatively capable and, yes, playful.

Perhaps Later Poems is just too big and unwieldy. In the future, someone will have to edit it down to a core of work that shows Rich at her epigrammatic best. Essential to include in that selection would be two late poems that offer a sharp pleasure. One, “Quarto,” begins:

Call me Sebastian, arrows sticking all over
The map of my battlefields.   Marathon.
Wounded Knee.   Vicksburg.   Jericho.

I’ve never seen the metaphor of Sebastian’s arrows applied to a war map. Do these lines “quiver with equivocation,” as Hong suggests lines in a poem should? Not really, but the originality of the trope had its intended effect: it pierced me.

The other poem, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” is concise and memorable for its poetic conceit. It begins: “Saw you walking barefoot/ taking a long look/ at the new moon’s eyelid.” It ends with unusual bite:

Syntax of rendition:

verb pilots the plane
adverb modifies action

verb force-feeds noun
submerges the subject
noun is choking
verb   disgraced   goes on doing

now diagram the sentence

The conflation of torture with syntax (the executive order to diagram involves disarticulating the parts of speech) recalls the Language Poets’ insistence that the tyranny of syntax mirrors the tyranny of imperialism—and that if we could smash the former, we would free ourselves from the latter (the pun on sentence reinforces this). But the deferred or indeterminate meanings of Language poems don’t have the dramatic power that Rich’s poem does. Here, at last, is the vitality that I’d been missing, and it comes, as I thought it would, with a twist: diagram this, she says—and suddenly I remember that “grammar” and “glamour” share an etymology in the Scots word for “magic.” Try to diagram that.

Our March , 2012, issue, featured five poems by Adrienne Rich.

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