Thoughts on Adrienne Rich

12 April 2012

It was rubbish news, to hear that Adrienne Rich had died on March 27. Her influence on my poetics, as well as my person, has been significant. On first reading her poems – those within A Fact of A Doorframe, nabbed from the shelf of a friend a few years back – I was struck by the power of Rich as a fierce poet without adornment, whose poetry could be read without obfuscation, without aesthetic glitching, without feeling stonewalled by theoretical moonscapes.

In the days since I’ve been revisiting her work, and keeping tabs on the obits as they come in – The New Yorker, Lambda Literary, Slate. They all talk about her legacy; her feminism, her activism. They begin to create a nest out of her life and influence. The New Yorker’s Katha Pollitt, describing Adrienne Rich’s death as ‘the end of a kind of poetry that mattered in the world beyond poetry’, observes that Adrienne Rich’s obituary made front page news at The New York Times – and wonders whether ‘an American poet will ever be honoured that way again’.

From ‘Axel, darkly seen, in a glass house’.

“The dead” we say as if speaking
of “the people” who 
gave up on making history
simply to get through
Something dense and null 	   groan
without echo 	        underground
And owl-voiced I cry Who 
are these dead these people these
lovers who ever did 
listen no longer answer

**

I discovered Adrienne Rich through her poems, but if I’m honest, I enjoy her strong, articulate prose even more. One collection of essays in particular, What is found there: notebooks on poetry and politics sits permanently on my desk. It’s got pen marks and dogged ears and many of the pages are stained purple from a red wine incident. It’s my first port of call whenever I hesitate about the political function of art and the relevance of poetry in this world, where everything is so … fucked.

‘This impulse to enter, with other humans, through language, into the order and disorder of the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root’ says Rich. With this sentiment she reminds me of another great female artist, Nina Simone, whose music reverbs with the same balance of the sensual, the personal and the political as Rich’s poetry.

Rich does not distinguish between page and performed poetics, between poetry read rather than listened to. In this book, her examples and anecdotes are generous to each; she is desirous of honest voices however they capture her, attentive to poetry as a bodily-experienced phenomena and casting upon it no further distinctions regarding form or format.

Recalling memories of her father and her grandmother reciting poetry from memory, Rich made the realisation that poetry ‘was not just literature but embodied in voices’. This is a notion she turns to repeatedly. The voices she shares in this book range in one breath from the canonical to the never-before-heard; from Wallace Stevens to women in prison.

**

From her essay on revolutionary poetry, entitled ‘What if?’:

‘A revolutionary poem will not tell you who or when to kill, what and when to burn, or even how to theorize. It reminds you (for you have known, somehow, all along, maybe lost track) where and when and how you are living and might live – it is a wick of desire’.

And from this same essay, a poem by Joy Harjo about a young female member of the American Indian Movement who was murdered in the 70s (quoted here in part):

You are the shimmering young woman 
	                              who found her voice, 
when you were warned to be silent, or have your body cut away
from you like an elegant weed. 
	                              You are the one whose spirit is present in the dappled stars. 
(They prance and lope like colored horses who stay with us 
		nuzzling the frozen bodies of tattered drunks 
				              on the corner.)

**

Rich’s attitude to voices and revolutionary art strike a chord in light of the Queensland government’s decision to axe the Premiers Literary Awards (which included awards for poetry). The negative effects of this on the diversity of creative voices given public kudos and support, are much more profound than the couple of hundred K they’re professing to save.

That the local arts community has come together so quickly to create their own awards in place of the Premier’s Prize is heartening, and a testament to the scale and verve of Queensland’s writing scene despite common stereotype, and now, political estimation. But the larger problem this axing exposes still remains.

Re-reading Rich it’s occurred to me that there is no real question about whether poetry is significant within our private lives; alone or in the orbit of family and friends. It is. The battle is with how poetry’s claim to a public space and a ratified involvement within the wider cultural imaginary becomes eroded or mortgaged off: as she points out again and again in these essays, suppression can take many forms.

**

And if I’m trying to get my own handle on what Rich’s legacy is, perhaps it’s this: ‘A poem can’t free us from the struggle for existence, but it can uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulated emergencies of our lives,’ she says. ‘After that re-arousal of desire, the task of acting on that truth, or making love, or meeting other needs, is ours’.

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