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Adrienne Rich




One Poem
By Adrienne Rich

Poet’s Choice

By Robert Hass
May 16, 1999


I was looking for a poem about spring, about the soft, almost-summer weather of mid-May, but it really wasn't what I was hungry for. The news has been so full of violence, and the violence – in Kosovo, in a high school in Colorado – has been so dismaying that I found my mind wandering as I looked through old and new books for a lyric that called up the season. I needed to read something with more salt in it and more darkness. And the book that I found was Adrienne Rich's new volume, "Midnight Salvage" (Norton). Rich is one of our most distinguished poets – this is, by my count, her 16th book of poems – and one of the things that distinguishes her art is a restless need to confront difficulty, a refusal to be easily appeased.

I don't completely understand the poem that follows. I get the outline of it. Someone is walking up a hillside. It's probably fall, there's ground mist and the sun's tongue is "licking leaf upon leaf into stricken fluid." And the speaker comes across what she describes as a "shattered head," a skull, perhaps, such as one finds in the woods, a deer or a racoon, but the description suggests a human head, imagined as the place that spring is going to come from: "tendrils soaked into matted compost." The lines that particularly moved me were the first three lines of the following stanza:


You can walk by such a place, the earth is
made of them
where the stretched tissue of a field or
woods is humid
with beloved matter.


The stanza continues in this way:


the soothseekers have withdrawn
you feel no ghost, only a sporic chorus
when that place utters its worn sigh
let us have peace


I can think of poets who would end there, but Rich is not a poet to reconcile us, or herself, with the idea of death and regeneration. That is the quality of her mind for which I felt, this week, particularly grateful. In the poem the unappeased skull answers back. Here is the whole poem:


Shattered Head


A life hauls itself uphill
through hoar-mist steaming
the sun's tongue licking
leaf upon leaf into stricken liquid
When? When? cry the soothseekers
but time is a bloodshot eye
seeing its last of beauty its own
a bloodshot mind
finding itself unspeakable
What is the last thought?
Now I will let you know?
or, Now I know?
(porridge of skull-splinters, brain tissue
mouth and throat membrane, cranial fluid)


Shattered head on the breast
of a wooded hill
Laid down there endlessly so
tendrils soaked into matted compose
became a root
torqued over the faint springhead
groin whence illegible
matter leaches: worm-borings, spurts of silt
volumes of sporic changes
hair long blown into far follicles
blasted into a chosen place


Revenge on the head (genitals, breast, untouched)
revenge on the mouth
packed with its inarticulate confessions
revenge on the eyes
green-gray and restless
revenge on the big and searching lips
the tender tongue
revenge on the sensual, on the nose the
carrier of history
revenge on the life devoured
in another incineration


You can walk by such a place, the earth is
made of them
where the stretched tissue of a field or woods
is humid
with beloved matter
the soothseekers have withdrawn
you feel no ghost, only a sporic chorus
when that place utters its worn sigh
let us have peace


And the shattered head answers back


And I believed I was loved, I believed I loved
Who did this to us?


(From "Midnight Salvage," by Adrienne Rich. Copyright by Adrienne Rich. Published by W.W. Norton and Co.)


Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."



Poet and pioneer

Her early verse was praised by Auden but she stopped writing when she married. After devastating personal tragedy she found her voice again. Now a lesbian feminist, she is one of America's most powerful - and political - writers. John O'Mahoney reports

Saturday June 15, 2002
The Guardian

In a cramped studio in Shepherd's Bush, Adrienne Rich is recording some of her work for the new Poetry Archive, a project that aims to make recordings of major poets available via the internet. Behind the sound-proof glass that separates the inner chamber from the banks of dials and diodes, she looks small and frail. Her voice couldn't be more of a contrast: still tinged with the southern drawl of her native Baltimore, the cadences are sharp and resonant as they project her imagery and symbolism. Unlike many poets, who are often not skilled orators, she reads dazzlingly, excavating the depths and finding intricate threads of meaning running through each image.

From "Power", her 1974 poem about Marie Curie, she gives a chilling edge to the concluding line: "Her wounds came from the same source as her power." However, most startling is her rendition of "Diving into the Wreck", a landmark poem which not only marked a leap forward in American poetry, but also mapped out a watershed in Rich's own transformation from a poet of distinction into a poet fully aware of her own creative destiny as a lesbian and feminist:


I put on
the body armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.


I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.


Over a distinguished 50-year career, Adrienne Rich has explored history, gender and ideology with tenacity and courage. As a precocious 21-year-old, she was famously patronised by WH Auden, who would claim that the tidy, metrical poems of her first volume, A Change of World (1951), were "neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them". In the early 1970s, with groundbreaking volumes such as The Will to Change (1971) and Diving into the Wreck (1973), Rich transformed herself into a poet whom Auden would barely have recognised, trumpeting her lesbian feminist ideals and charged with a left-wing conviction that still burns brightly. "Rich's transformation has been astonishing to watch," says critic Ruth Whitman. "In one woman the history of women in the 20th century, from careful traditional obedience to cosmic awareness, defying the mode of our time."

Through her essays, articles and lectures, Rich has also contributed to the feminist debate. Of Woman Born (1976), is still one of feminism's most sensitive appraisals of motherhood: "All human life on the planet is born of woman," she writes. "The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman's body. Yet there has been a strange lack of material to help us understand and use it." She was also one of the first to tackle the theme of lesbian existence, in her essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience", which concerned itself with "how and why women's choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, community, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding". Her latest book, Arts of the Possible , bringing together writings from the last three decades, has just been released in paperback.

Some - predominantly male - critics have considered Rich's politics over- bearing: "This book is absolute radical witchery," wrote Alexander Theroux about Of Woman Born , "less a feminist manifesto than the Confessions of St Adrienne. A hodgepodge of 10 aggrieved essays, its stridency makes me wonder why the author is living in New York rather than in one of the famous matriarchies." Harold Bloom attacked Rich for her espousal of minority voices in her 1986 anthology The Best of American Poetry: "What matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet." Her supporters counter that she is simply not afraid to tackle the most thorny political and social questions: "Rich is not a compromiser," says novelist Jeanette Winterson. "Since the 1960s, her poetry and her politics have come together to create involved, engaged, challenging writing. She believes in creativity. She is passionate about justice. Harold Bloom has called her 'strident', and much as I love him, he's wrong. Poets should not be cuddly."

In person, Rich is bright, engaging and instantly likeable, with a strain of unassailable independence in her voice. She is now aged 73, and her tiny frame has been twisted by the arthritis she has endured since her early 20s; she moves only with great difficulty using a translucent cane. After a number of operations she battles constant discomfort.

At times she has suffered other difficult and tragic circumstances, not least the separation from her husband in 1970 and his subsequent suicide. Friends say she has always faced hardships with admirable resilience and strength: "She has huge energy," says the poet Jean Valentine. "She's had to go through an awful lot of stuff and she's kept her head up." Rich is also fiercely principled, and in 1997 turned down President Clinton's offer of the US national medal for the arts "because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration".

At the same time, Rich's formidable mettle does sometimes produce challenging results: "I feel there is something frankly sexist," she called to say, "about probing my sexual life rather than discussing my work and my ideas. I think that it would not be done to a male poet and thinker." The same adherence to feminist principles also led her, shortly after the suicide of her husband, to cut off most of her male acquaintances: "We are as close friends as you are likely to find," says longtime friend Hayden Carruth, who was among those cast out. "But Adrienne is very quick-tempered, very defensive and egomaniacal in many ways, and hard to get along with."

The same uncompromising rigour and resolution is evident when she focuses on her ideas: "We have to think internationally if we are going to talk about women," she says, claiming that the feminist revolution has only begun. "We can't just be talking about white women in America or in Britain, and we can't only be talking about exceptions. We haven't come such a long way in the larger sense. Any movement has to recognise its successes, but it also has to retain a kind of vibrant dissatisfaction." She also believes that the poetic and the political should not be segregated.

Rich lives with her partner, the Jamaican-born novelist Michelle Cliff, in the Californian town of Santa Cruz, on a stretch of Pacific coastline surrounded by palms and guava trees. Despite the tensions and frustrations she experienced as a young mother she is now extremely close to her three sons: David, who designs computer graphics, Paul, an elementary school music teacher, and Jacob, the youngest, a producer of political radio programmes in Los Angeles. She maintains a vigorous regime of writing, readings and teaching, and, friends say, has become more determined and buoyant as infirmity has encroached: "There have been times when I have been very confined to one place," she says. "I do wonder if I could have done the work I have done if I had been freer to roam the world. But you cannot imagine living a life different from the one you have lived."

Adrienne Cecile Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 16 1929, the first daughter of Helen (née Jones) and Arnold Rice Rich. Her mother, a promising concert pianist who gave up her career for marriage, was determined to instil the impeccable manners of a southern lady into Adrienne and her younger sister Cynthia, both educated at home until the fourth grade: "For years we battled over music lessons," Rich wrote half a century later, in the poem "Solfeggietto", "The mother and the daughter/ Their domed exhaustion their common mystery/ worked out in finger exercises."

Arnold Rich, a Jew of Austro-Hungarian stock who became a pathologist at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, had rather different ideas for his daughters, and encouraged them to spend as much time as possible exploring the library, which he stocked with Auden, MacNeice and Yeats. The object of the exercise was to transform Cynthia into a novelist and Adrienne into a poet: "I was supposed to write something every day and show it to him," Adrienne remembers. "At some points I hated that. But it was probably a good thing." This educational experiment, however, was only partially successful as Cynthia, after publishing just a few stories, was lost to marriage. And Arnold Rich's overbearing approach left an indelible mark of resentment on Adrienne: "His involvement was egotistical, tyrannical, and terribly wearing," she later claimed.

Entry to Harvard's Radcliffe College in 1947 came as a very welcome escape: "It was a great, expanding world," she recalls. "I thought that Cambridge, Massachusetts, was Athens." For the first time, she could talk about her Jewish background, and mix freely with young Jewish women, returning home "flaming with new insights, new information". However, she soon became disillusioned with the unspoken expectations: "It was an all-female college," she says, "but we were taught always knowing that we were second-class citizens. Basically, the message was that you got this very remarkable and privileged Harvard education in order to become the gifted and intelligent wife to a great man."

One thing, however, set Rich apart: her poetic talent. Encouraged by her Radcliffe tutors, she entered some of her verses into the 1951 Yale Younger Poets Competition, which was to be judged that year by Auden. He not only awarded Rich first prize, but also offered to write the preface to her first collection, A Change of World: "The typical danger for poets in our age is, perhaps, the desire to be 'original,'" he wrote. "Miss Rich, who is, I understand, 21 years old, displays a modesty not so common with that age, which disclaims any extraordinary vision, and a love for her medium, a determination to ensure that whatever she writes shall, at least, not be shoddily made."

The poems themselves were deeply conventional, but their precocity is clear. After graduation Rich was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to study in Oxford for a year. Following an Easter vacation in Florence, however, she decided not to return and spent the rest of her European sojourn sampling Italian culture and writing poetry. In 1953, she returned to Massachusetts to marry Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist she had met as an undergraduate: "I married in part because I knew no better way to disconnect from my first family," she says. "I wanted what I saw as a full woman's life, whatever was possible."

In most respects, Rich had fulfilled all Radcliffe expectations, and immediately found married life for a woman in the 1950s unbearably restrictive. Bowing to the pressures of family and society, she bore three sons in quick succession: David in 1955, Paul in 1957 and Jacob in 1959. Almost more unbearable than her feelings of helplessness was the enormous guilt she felt at not being, as the patriarchal mythology dictated, "satisfied or completed" by motherhood: "My children cause me the most exquisite suffering," she wrote in her journal in November 1960. "It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance."

Creatively, this period would prove calamitous. In 1955 her second collection, The Diamond Cutters , appeared. She now feels it "is probably a volume that should not have been published". Too much was taken up with perfunctory travel poetry, written during her European tour and amid depressing visions of advancing old age: "A lot of the poems are incredibly derivative," she says. "There is a pressure to produce again after one has published a work. Also, I was married and I had begun a family. There was sort of a pressure to make sure I was still a poet." For almost a decade, however, Rich did not publish another volume, and at one dark stage, stopped writing altogether. She wrote in her journal in 1956: "Of late I've felt towards poetry - both reading it and writing it - nothing but boredom and indifference... I have a strong sense of wanting to deny all responsibility for and interest in that person who writes - or who wrote."

An early turning point came in her third pregnancy, after which she resolved to exert more control over her life and body. She decided on sterilisation, a measure widely frowned upon: "When I awoke from the operation, a young nurse looked at my chart and remarked coldly: 'Had yourself spayed, did you?'" It was also around this time that Rich discovered the writing of Mary Wollstonecraft, James Baldwin, and, particularly, Simone De Beauvoir, whose The Second Sex "talked about things that I had been half thinking but feeling no confirmation for".

Slowly she began to regain some creative momentum, and by the end of the 50s was working on a new long poem "jotted in fragments during children's naps, brief hours in a library or at three am after rising with a wakeful child". Published in 1963 under the title "Snapshots of a Daughter in Law", its free metre and unashamed personal tone marked a decisive break from Rich's earlier work, examining "what it is to be a thinking woman" within the social restrictions of family and marriage: "Nervy, glowering," she wrote, "your daughter wipes the teaspoons, grows another way." Despite this leap in her personal development, the critical reaction was harsh: "I was seen as 'bitter' and 'personal'; and to be personal was to be disqualified, and that was very shaking because I'd really gone out on a limb... I realised I'd gotten slapped over the wrist, and I didn't attempt that kind of thing again for a long time."

However, Rich would soon be overtaken by events in her own life and by the radical social ideas fermenting in the 60s. In 1962, she travelled to Amsterdam with her husband, who had received a Guggenheim fellowship to work at the Netherlands Economic Institute. When they came back to the US, Rich began spending summers with her family in Vermont, where near-neighbours included the poets Galway Kinnell and Hayden Carruth: "I began to feel connected," she says.

However, the decisive move came in 1966, when Rich and her husband moved to New York after he was offered a post at City College. Rich began teaching the graduate poetry course at Columbia University and immersed herself in the radical ideas flooding the campus, in particular the anti-Vietnam movement and women's liberation. In 1968, she also took up a teaching post at City College as part of the Seek programme which attempted to reach out to underprivileged students. In her work, radical ideas would begin to surface in the 1969 collection Leaflets , but more decisively in her prose, which had now begun appearing in feminist journals.

Initially, Rich's husband supported her growing activism, and joined her in hosting anti-Vietnam and Black Panther fundraising parties at their apartment. However, he quickly became exasperated: "She was becoming a very pronounced, very militant feminist," says Hayden Carruth. "I don't know what went on between them, except that Alf came to me and complained bitterly that Adrienne had lost her mind." By the summer of 1970, they had reached breaking point and with both parties indulging in affairs - at this stage, in Adrienne's case, still of a heterosexual nature - she left, moving into a small apartment nearby.

After months of upheaval, Alfred Conrad left in October 1970 for what he told his children would be a brief trip. When he failed to return, Adrienne became concerned: "She called and asked me to get hold of Alf," says Carruth, who still lived close to the Rich family summer house in Vermont. "She said he had taken off, possibly to Vermont. I drove to their place and couldn't find him, so I left a note on the door. The next day the cops called and asked me to come and help identify his body. Immediately after that I called and told her. She wasn't unprepared. Alf was going to a psychiatrist at the time and one reason he came up to Vermont was that he couldn't get hold of his psychiatrist in New York. It was very complicated. I think that temperamental differences had something to do with it. I think Alf was a disappointed person, who, as Adrienne became more celebrated, became more depressed."

Alfred had driven into the woods and shot himself. His death devastated Rich: "It was shattering for me and my children," she says. "It was a tremendous waste. He was a man of enormous talents and love of life." The first indication for many that her life had changed in other fundamental ways came shortly after Alfred's suicide. Rich abruptly cut off all contacts with most of her male friends, explaining to Carruth a decade later that after Alf's death so many men in New York came around pestering her and, as Carruth puts it, "she felt repressed and disgusted".

For many, the revelation that she was a lesbian came as a shock. Observant readers of Rich's work, however, would have noted that, as early as A Change of World , a poem called "Stepping Backward" had dealt with breaking off a close female relationship. For Rich herself, it was simply the fulfilment of a desire that had lain dormant through the decades of her frustrating marriage: "The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs," she wrote. In many ways, the re-emergence of her true sexuality was as much a political choice as it was a personal imperative: "There was so much being questioned, so much up for grabs," she says, "I don't think the phrase 'lifestyle' was even being used. There was a women's movement, in which arts were exploding along with politics. It wasn't as simple as falling in love - though falling in love always helps."

The impact of this personal, political and sexual revolution in Rich's life was immediately evident in her work, firstly in The Will To Change (1971). One of the most powerful poems in the collection, "Planetarium", celebrates Caroline Herschel, the 18th- and 19th-century astronomer whose life and work was overshadowed by her brother William. Equally impressive is "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children", a complex prose/verse poem which manages to tackle themes of pacifism, patriarchy and the artificiality of a life refracted through books: "I know it hurts to burn. The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor's language."

Diving into the Wreck , published in 1973, was even more forceful and assured, qualities that earned Rich the national book award, shared with Allen Ginsberg. Aside from the title poem, the volume also included "The Phenomenology of Anger", in which Rich argued that "anger can be visionary, a kind of cleansing clarity". Viewed as hectoring and hysterical by some male critics, the poem proclaimed: "the only real love I have ever felt/ was for children and other women/ everything else was lust, pity,/ self-hatred, pity, lust." However, it was in Twenty One Love Poems (1976), that all the strands of Rich's personal and political transformation came together: "The rules break like a thermometer,/ quicksilver spills across the charted systems/ we're out in a country that has no language/ ...whatever we do together is pure invention/ the maps they gave us were out of date/ by years..."

There is no dedication on Twenty One Love Poems , and all Rich has revealed of her early lesbian relations is that her first "full-fledged act was to fall in love with a Jewish woman". In 1976, however, she fell in love with the novelist Michelle Cliff, then a copy editor working at Rich's publisher WW Norton. Cliff shared many of Rich's preoccupations: race, ethnicity, lesbian identity. In 1981, they took over editorship of the lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom. Then in 1984, the couple uprooted and moved 3,000 miles to California. Rich is unwilling to give any further details of their relationship: "Michelle's a very private person," she says. "We keep our lives very separate, in terms of what our work is about, and deliberately so."

Rich's work would never again quite reach the exuberance of the poems of the late 60s and 70s. "A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far" (1981), is much more subdued: "There was a sense coming out of the 60s that revolution was not going to be accomplished overnight," she says. However, as her 1999 volume Midnight Salvage , published as she turned 70, demonstrates, she is still at the height of her powers and still diving into the wreck of history. "Diving into the Wreck" itself ends with the lines:


We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the ones who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.


Few poets have done more than Rich to ensure that writing female voices out of history will not prove easy: "We are everywhere and the record is so visible. So, I don't worry about that for women in general. Certainly, the record is always in need of replenishment. But I certainly don't worry about it for myself."


Adrienne Cecile Rich Life at a glance


Born: May 16 1929,Baltimore, Maryland.


Education: Roland Park Country School, Baltimore,1938-47; Radcliffe College, '47-51.


Relationships: Married Alfred Conrad, June 26, 1953 (three sons, David '55,Paul '57, Jacob '59); Michelle Cliff '76-.


Poetry: A Change of World 1951, The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems '55, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law '63, Necessities of Life '66 , Leaflets '69, The Will to Change '71, Diving into the Wreck '73, Selected and New '74, Twenty-One Love Poems '77, The Dream of a Common Language '78, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far '81, Sources '83, The Fact of a Doorframe '84 , Your Native Land, Your Life '86, Time's Power '88, An Atlas of the Difficult World '91, Dark Fields of the Republic '95, Midnight Salvage '99, Fox 2001.


Prose: Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution 1976, On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose '79, Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, '86, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics '93, Arts of the Possible 2002.

· Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations is published by WW Norton, £9.95.







Feb. 7, 2005

What the future holds



The school among the ruins
By Adrienne Rich
W.W. Norton
114pp., $22.95


Adrienne Rich is one of a few living American poets widely read and celebrated outside the United States - and for good reason; she is one of the few living American poets whose work, book after book, has spoken of political realities beyond the US with the same urgency as those within it.

In her latest collection, the school among the ruins, she looks for the connections - and disconnections - between these disparate realities. The title poem, one of the best in the book, evokes a war-torn school in "Beirut.Baghdad.Sarajevo.Bethlehem.Kabul. Not of course here."

With the keen sense of pacing that comes with 40 years of writing, Rich lets the narrative unfold over several pages, deftly capturing the singular character of a classroom as well as larger issues facing any school in which "pitiless pilotless thing go shrieking/ above us to somewhere."

In a later series of poems, "Dislocation: Seven Scenarios," Rich again uses lyrical description to evoke the sense of an individual in a particular political context while also speaking of commonalties which transcend culture and country. As in the war-torn school in the title poem, the figures in these scenarios go unnamed, identified solely by their roles and what defines them:


the nurse's long knowledge of wounds
the rabbi's scroll of ethics
the young worker's defiance

only the solipsist seems intact
in her prewar building


EVEN WITH the rabbi, this scenario could be extracted from any number of countries. However, one gets the sense that the unnamed location is most likely Israel. Oblique and direct references to Israel crop up throughout the collection - several times, interestingly, in connection with glass.

In the striking poem, "Transparencies," Rich recaps an interview with an Israeli soldier expressing regret about some of the orders he carried out. The poem then gradually moves into an extended meditation on words and glass, why "the sound of crunching glass comes at the height of the wedding."

A later series of poems, "Collaborations," opens with a reference to August and America, but shifts to Haifa, the month of Elul, and "a bottle of old Roman glass." Rich is a master at making leaps like this, from one country to another, from the present to the ancient, connecting them, in one line, with a single telling object.

The poems, often abstract and fragmentary, hinge on the inclusion of these objects - the old glass bottle, or goblet - to ground the ideas. These various objects have an accumulative effect as well, hinting at what is perhaps the central question in this complex collection: what are we taking with us into the twenty-first century?

The buses, Rich writes in "Ritual Acts," are packed and the baggage heavy, containing everything from "Sacks of laundry, of books" to "Pet iguanas, oxygen tanks/ The tablets of Moses."

Yet more than the objects we've taken into the new century, Rich questions how we will speak of them - with what poetry? "Who knows where song goes," she asks in "After Apollinaire & Brassens."

Wherever it goes, let's hope Rich's principled voice and vision will continue to play a part in it.


The writer, a poet and translator living in New York, teaches writing at Columbia University.





In a world of violence, inequality and moral chaos, Adrienne Rich's voice will be neither silent nor content

 Heidi Benson, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The terror attacks were still unimaginable when Adrienne Rich wrote a prescient poem called "The School Among the Ruins."

During that now seemingly innocent summer of 2001, Rich had been reading accounts of "civilian agonies" in Sarajevo, Baghdad, Bethlehem, Kabul -- including Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish on the Beirut bombing of 1982. With every page, her unease grew.

"We here could not expect to feel invulnerable forever," she remembers thinking. That thought became a catalyst for the poem crowning her new collection, "The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004."

The volume has won this year's National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.

Rich cited another catalyst for "The School Among the Ruins" in an e-mail interview from her Santa Cruz home -- the school, in Brooklyn, where her son teaches.

"I knew his love for the school, for those children," she said.

Set during a nonspecific wartime in which children and their teachers are hostages to horror, the poem includes these lines:

A morning breaks without bread or fresh-poured milk

parents or lesson plans

diarrhea first question of the day

children shivering it's September

Second question: where is my mother?

One: I don't know where your mother

is Two: I don't know

why they are trying to hurt us

Three: or the latitude and longitude

of their hatred Four: I don't know if we

hate them as much I think there's more toilet paper

in the supply closet I'm going to break it open

In choosing this as the title poem of her newest collection, Rich meant it "in a larger metaphoric sense -- art as a school of the imagination in a world of violence and moral chaos."

In making the poem, much work went into avoiding sentimentality, above all, and selecting "just enough" concrete detail; it went through many revisions.

Rich, 76, is known for her politically engaged work -- passionate on the subjects of justice, civil rights and feminism. Over 40 years, she has published more than 20 books of poetry and essays. Her many awards include a MacArthur award, the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and a Bollingen Prize in American Poetry.

Accepting the National Book Critics Circle award March 18 in New York, Rich thanked "the movements and activists which have educated and fired me throughout my life."

Thursday night in San Francisco, Rich will draw from "The School Among the Ruins" when she joins poet W.S. Merwin for a reading at the First Unitarian Universalist Center.

The event celebrates Merwin's new collection, "Migrations: New & Selected Poems." It also honors Rich and Merwin's "old and continuing friendship in poetry," she said.

Rich and Merwin met in Boston in the late '50s, "probably through Robert Lowell," she said.

Merwin's first book had been published in the Yale Younger Poets series in 1954. The previous year, W.H. Auden had selected Rich's first book for the same honor.

"I was living in Cambridge, married, with three small children. I'd go over on an afternoon and we'd talk about poems," she said. "Both of us were going through changes in our work."

They corresponded, sharing poems even while Merwin lived abroad. "Though we'd both taken part in various poetry readings against the Vietnam War," she recalled, "I was increasingly involved with the political movements of the '60s."

It's fitting, then, that Rich called her favorites of Merwin's poems those from that era. She admires "a certain voice in them perhaps." His poem, "Ash," is "one of the most devastating, haunting poems I know, a wonderful example of what a political poem can be."

The Thursday reading will benefit Merwin's publisher, Copper Canyon Press -- "one of the treasures of our culture of resistance," said Rich.

So much of America's great literature, especially poetry, has been published by small, independent presses, Rich marveled. "And we have two distinguished ones on the West Coast -- Copper Canyon and City Lights."

Back in 1997, Rich made headlines when she refused the National Medal for the Arts on moral grounds.

She told a Chronicle reporter at the time, "Where growing numbers of people are being marginalized, impoverished, scapegoated and beleaguered, I don't feel I can accept an award from the government that is pursuing these policies."

Among the artists who had previously refused the honor were author Wallace Stegner and composer Stephen Sondheim.

In letters to both then-President Bill Clinton and NEA Chairwoman Jane Alexander, Rich wrote: "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."

In her e-mail interview last week, she called herself a socialist. "For me, socialism represents moral value -- the dignity and human rights of all citizens," she said. That is, the resources of a society should be shared and the wealth redistributed as widely as possible.

Her convictions have not changed.

Last week she also said she believes that the Sept. 11 disaster has been used "to crack down on dissent, on immigrants and foreigners and activists, on libraries and school textbooks -- to diffuse a climate of anxiety, ignorance and fear. To make war, not social good, the national goal."

And how has the culture changed since 9/11?

"Horribly for the worse," she said. " 'Market' values have become the sole measure of anything and everything.

"Oppositional voices have less and less space. Poverty -- which I think of as an index to the culture, an indefensible phenomenon in any developed nation, certainly the wealthiest in the world -- is much worse, and will go on worsening."

What advice -- and what warnings -- does she offer younger poets?

"If you are troubled by the cruelty and violence and lovelessness you see around you," Rich said, "if you want to live in your time and not in some Hollywood or videogame fantasy, if you've seen people around you pushed around or crushed ...

"If you love language and see it being betrayed, if you feel a huge gap between what you're told is going on and what you actually see and feel on your nerves -- then this is the material of your art, there's no escaping it.

"The question then is, how do you make enduring beauty and form out of such materials?

"And that will be the question of a lifetime."


December 02, 2006


The political is personal

Just don’t mention the White House when the poet Adrienne Rich is around. John Freeman gets the message


The School Amobng The Ruins: Poems 2000-2004
by Adrienne Rich
Norton, £8.99


THE PAST FOUR YEARS HAVE been good ones for poetry in America. A poet, Dana Gioia, was appointed head of the National Endowment of the Arts. Spoken-word events are packed. Even corporate largesse has come calling.

In 2002 the pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lily announced that she would be giving nearly $150 million (£75 million) to the magazine Poetry. Overnight, a tiny journal became one of the richest publications in the US.

Good as this sounds, Adrienne Rich hasn’t been rushing to celebrate. “Poetry, the art, doesn’t need billions infused into one institution,” the 77-year-old poet said, her face souring. “I think artists would do better in a society that was more economically just.”

Looking a gifthorse in the mouth is one of her specialities. She has won nearly every prize available to an American poet and has turned down several. In 1978, she rejected the National Book Award as an individual to accept it on behalf of silenced voices everywhere. Bill Clinton wanted to give her the National Medal of Arts, but she refused.“I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art is incompatible with the cynical politics of this Administration.”

Sitting at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, Rich doesn’t look like a troublemaker. She is small and tidy, her eyes beatific in moments of pleasure — for example when she talks about jazz or film or young people. But shift the conversation to governments and her voice grows hard and clear. “I, for many, many years have felt not just that the personal becomes political,” she says, “but that the political becomes personal.”

It is a remarkable statement from a poet who worked so hard to get the message across the other way around — that women’s bodies were battlegrounds, that their voices had been silenced. But a lot has changed since the driving, declarative poems in Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963) and Diving into the Wreck (1973) made Rich a feminist icon. Personal narrative — once a vehicle for feminism — has ushered in the Glamour magazine confessional. Women have obtained higher pay — but at what cost, Rich wonders.

“Women in political power can give us a Margaret Thatcher,” she says. “It’s given us Condoleezza Rice. The question is: what does one do with the power one gets?” Rich has similar concerns about poetry now that it has millions and is emblazoned on subway cards. Accepting a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, recently, she defended it from commercialisation. “Poetry is not a billboard,” she said. “It is not linguistic aromatherapy. It is not a massage.”

Rich is particularly concerned with the state of political poetry, because in the US “there are always arguments against poetry in the public discourse, arguments particularly against an engaged poetry”.

Rich, born in Baltimore in 1929, came of age in the heyday of new criticism, when writers such as F. R. Leavis and William Empson all but crushed the notion that a poem could have a reference point outside itself. In a sense, she has had to fight this twice — first diving into the wreck of her identity as a woman, then backing out into the wider world.

“My (past five books) are interrogating the mood and what it’s like to be in the US at this time, from a variety of perspectives,” she says. “Whether powerless or powerful, whether privileged or not, and how the conditions of the public world impinged on our own private lives, as I believe they do.”

One does not have to look far to find examples of what Rich is talking about. “Questions of who can you love, what do we as individuals see and what do we not see, to paraphrase Muriel Rukeyser,” she says, rattling off the latest flashpoints in American life. “Also — what do we think of as the world? Americans have been prone to think of ourselves as the world.”

One collection at a time, Rich is trying to smash that parochialism. Lately, her most receptive audience has been students. This is a change. Ten years ago, when she travelled the country, she would hear questions such as: “How do I get published?” and “Do I need an agent as a poet?” “That doesn’t come up now,” Rich says, a smile breaking. “The last place I had been was Northwestern University, and there were students there from all walks and many different fields. And they all really wanted to talk about art and politics.”

As Rich points out, this mixture of intellectual rigour and passion cannot be bought or created. It rises up out of the verse itself. “Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility,/ restore numbed tones of feeling, recharge desire,” she once wrote about passion. It applies to politics, too, she has discovered, and is reminding us all over again.




Emerging from the wreck

Adrienne Rich's new collection reinforces her place in the pantheon.



Midnight Salvage:
Poems 1995-1998

by Adrienne Rich
W.W. Norton, $22


At 70, Adrienne Rich has just written her 22nd book. To scan the list of publications prefacing her 17th collection of poems is to feel small jolts of recognition--one title recalling the moment when your sense of what it meant to be a daughter, wife, mother, self, or mind abruptly veered into dangerous new territory, and another evoking a whole decade of the American century. How bracing her tenacity has been, and how courageous her changes.

In 1951, at the age of 22, Rich received the coveted Yale Younger Poets Award for poems W. H. Auden patted on the back because they "are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, [and] respect their elders." Twelve years later her Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law shocked readers with its broken prosodies and epiphanies of women's experience in a sexist society. Diving Into the Wreck (1973), The Dream of a Common Language (1978), A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), Your Native Land, Your Life (1993), and The Dark Fields of the Republic (1995) have established Rich as an activist writer of impressive reach and power. Despite crippling rheumatoid arthritis and looming despair at the degradations of language and the sociopolitical scene at the millennium, she's still here. Still talking.

And still making waves: Two years ago Rich refused the president's prestigious National Medal for the Arts because of what she called, in a speech at the University of Massachusetts, the fracturing of our social contract by "the omnivorously acquisitive few" who preside over "a dwindling middle class and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers." While many readers honor Rich's public stance against injustice, some deplore the entrance of such themes into her poetry, arguing that art must transcend the political to be universal and enduring.

In Rich's case, what transcends politics is the voice at the center of her work: an ethical consciousness in the act of resolutely finding a way through terrible difficulties. Refusing to be distracted, she thinks and feels along the labyrinth, fully aware that what waits around the bend--barricade, abyss, torturer's knife, knowledge--can kill the spirit. It can't be foreseen or forestalled, either, without compromising the whole endeavor. Yet "Look: with all my fear I'm here with you, trying what it/means, to stand fast; what it means to move" ("Letters to a Young Poet").

Midnight Salvage is muted and elliptical because the experiences of individuals and the forces impinging on them have become harder to pinpoint. They're like water to a fish trying to identify the medium pressing evenly on all sides and supplying all sustenance. The home we live and breathe in is inchoately oppressive--a supersaturated marketplace where events, ideas, rights, governments, peoples, selves, health, oceans, the air, and the words that might tell them true are traded like consumables. Can we know the water we swim in? Rich writes less to galvanize or muster than to awaken.

So the poems read like bulletins from an elusive front, most of them linked in loose, bluesy sequences, and punctuated by gaps or paired colons reminiscent of empty boxes--for the disappeared, perhaps, for all the solid assurances that have melted into air. Brilliant glimpses remind us why we want to be awake and alive, like the osprey rising over foggy Tomales Bay and its young "in the windy nest/creaking there in their hunger" ("For an Anniversary"), and the older woman's amazed, half-protective, half-exultant memory of her adolescent self ("Seven Skins"):



What a girl I was then what a body

ready for breaking open like a lobster

what a little provincial village . . .

what a book I made myself

what a quicksilver study . . .


What a girl pelican-skimming over fear what a mica lump splitting

into tiny sharp-edged mirrors through which

the sun's eclipse could seem normal . . .

eager to sink to be found . . .

what a mass of swimmy legs


And though "You cannot eat an egg You don't know where it's been," still


Unstupefied not unhappy

we braise wild greens and garlic feed the feral cats

and when the fog's irregular documents break open

scan its fissures for young stars


("Midnight Salvage")


One or two catalogs seem facile, a few formal repetitions verge on sentimentality ("I'll find you . . . I find you"; "I would look long . . . long I'd look"), but these are cavils. An original, urgent voice and a scrupulously precise, penetrating mind are still on the urgent prowl--the poet (as in "Plaza Street and Flatbush") "seizing the light/of creation/giving it back to its creatures//headed under the earth."


Judy Lightfoot teaches at Lakeside School. Her poetry chapbook, 'Calling the Crow,' was published by Brooding Heron Press in March 1998



San Francisco Chronicle


In 'Telephone Ringing,' Adrienne Rich makes music of words

John Freeman

Sunday, December 30, 2007



Ringing in the Labyrinth

Poems 2004-2006

By Adrienne Rich

NORTON; 108 PAGES; $23.95


No other poet in America is as impatient with her own facility as Adrienne Rich. Once a decade, she torches her style and uses it as mulch for new work. The oracular line Rich used in the 1960s grew out of the vestiges of her early formalism, which in turn gave birth to her powerful feminist poems from the 1970s, especially her National Book Award winner, "Diving Into the Wreck."

Rich could have continued writing such poems the rest of her life - Lord knows colleges would have taught them. But in the 1980s and 1990s, she stretched her line to the breaking point, and turned outward, as Susan Sontag did in her essays, addressing the way the media and the news push at the boundaries of the self, making us culpable - at least as Americans - for everything that happens from Beirut to Boston.

Since 2000, however, Rich's poems have entered yet another stage. Language has been reduced, sometimes pulverized, to its finest mica. One doesn't read her poems so much now as skitter across their clusters of images. Rich's still prodigious ability to make language beautiful keeps these linguistic mobiles from becoming too much gesture, too little form. Still, those looking for powerful declaratives ought to stick with her early work.

Or keep reading, as "Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth," her latest volume, seems to suggest she is bringing us full circle. Here, Rich returns to the musical influences that encouraged her to start writing poetry at a very young age: music, blues refrains, improvisations and the sound of birdsong. Rich pays tribute to the word's mysterious power in their terms:


If the word gets out if the word

escapes if the word

flies if it dies

it has its way of coming back

The handwritings on the walls

are vast and coded

the music blizzards past


It's very difficult to describe this kind of work. What makes it so good is the way Rich has refracted language to the point of elemental gesture. Just when the poem lures you into thinking it has a meaning, or a narrative - aha, an earnest reader thinks, it's a poem about escape! - Rich switches tacks and dives back into language's occult music.

Readers of Rich's recent work will recognize some other familiar elements in "Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth." Like Gary Snyder, Rich has become impatient with articles, in love with the texture of the natural world, and occasionally too certain a reader will follow her. A montage of fragments from prisoners' letters - real and imagined - is marred by clusters of cliches ("Something beyond a cry that could sound like a groan -"), or gnomic wisdom "History = bodies in time -." It's an odd misstep in a book so sure-footed, so full of lines that can turn your head:


Spring nights you pillow your head on a sack

of rich compost Charcoal, your hair

sheds sparks through your muttered dreams

deep is your sleep in the starless dark


Here is Rich in total control, stutter-stepping her way through all those "p's" in "Spring" and "pillow" to the ground of "rich compost," then taking flight again with "sheds and sparks" and "starless dark." In her best poems, she can string a half dozen or more such stanzas together, giving the reader tiny bursts of pleasure along the way, until the final line firmly, resonantly, concludes that cascade of sound.

Rich is so good at this one almost wishes she would do it a bit more flamboyantly. That's never been her style, though, nor will it ever be; she's too conscious of the way loss finally claims us all. It's why some of her love poems have their incredible daggerlike urgency. Even when writing a 12-line blues refrain, "Rhyme," the loss in the poem nearly overwhelms the (implied) redemptive power of its testimony:


Walking by the fence but the house

not there

going to the river but the

river looking spare

bones of the river spread out


O tell me this is home


If there's anything unifying "Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth," it's this desire for a port of call, for communication, for testimony and telling. Rich's lyrics are powerful and mournful, drenched in memory, told in the voice of an "I" searching for (not always writing to) a "you."


You, the person, you

the particle fierce and furthering.


Mixed in with poems about prison life, about torture, about Wallace Stevens, it forms a potent volume. But don't give it a label. Rich bristles, still, at definitions, as they are the things that make it harder for society (and artists) to change, to evolve. "If we/ (who?) ever were conned/ into mere definitions," she wonders, "if we/ accept." Rich leaves us hanging there as to the result - she has proved, in her own work, what a life lived without such strictures can produce.


John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.





March 28, 2012


Adrienne Rich, Influential Feminist Poet, Dies at 82



Adrienne Rich, a poet of towering reputation and towering rage, whose work — distinguished by an unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, empathic ferocity — brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century, died on Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82.

The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis, with which she had lived for most of her adult life, her family said.

Widely read, widely anthologized, widely interviewed and widely taught, Ms. Rich was for decades among the most influential writers of the feminist movement and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. She wrote two dozen volumes of poetry and more than a half-dozen of prose; the poetry alone has sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to W. W. Norton & Company, her publisher since the mid-1960s.

Triply marginalized — as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew — Ms. Rich was concerned in her poetry, and in her many essays, with identity politics long before the term was coined.

She accomplished in verse what Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” did in prose. In describing the stifling minutiae that had defined women’s lives for generations, both argued persuasively that women’s disenfranchisement at the hands of men must end.

For Ms. Rich, the personal, the political and the poetical were indissolubly linked; her body of work can be read as a series of urgent dispatches from the front. While some critics called her poetry polemical, she remained celebrated for the unflagging intensity of her vision, and for the constant formal reinvention that kept her verse — often jagged and colloquial, sometimes purposefully shocking, always controlled in tone, diction and pacing — sounding like that of few other poets.

All this helped ensure Ms. Rich’s continued relevance long after she burst genteelly onto the scene as a Radcliffe senior in the early 1950s.

Her constellation of honors includes a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994 and a National Book Award for poetry in 1974 for “Diving Into the Wreck.” That volume, published in 1973, is considered her masterwork.

In the title poem, Ms. Rich uses the metaphor of a dive into dark, unfathomable waters to plumb the depths of women’s experience:

I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently about the wreck
we dive into the hold. ...
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Ms. Rich was far too seasoned a campaigner to think that verse alone could change entrenched social institutions. “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy,” she said in an acceptance speech to the National Book Foundation in 2006, on receiving its medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. “Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard.”

But at the same time, as she made resoundingly clear in interviews, in public lectures and in her work, Ms. Rich saw poetry as a keen-edged beacon by which women’s lives — and women’s consciousness — could be illuminated.

She was never supposed to have turned out as she did.

Adrienne Cecile Rich was born in Baltimore on May 16, 1929. Her father, Arnold Rice Rich, a doctor and assimilated Jew, was an authority on tuberculosis who taught at Johns Hopkins University. Her mother, Helen Gravely Jones Rich, a Christian, was a pianist and composer who, cleaving to social norms of the day, forsook her career to marry and have children. Adrienne was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church.

Theirs was a bookish household, and Adrienne, as she said afterward, was groomed by her father to be a literary prodigy. He encouraged her to write poetry when she was still a child, and she steeped herself in the poets in his library — all men, she later ruefully observed. But those men gave her the formalist grounding that let her make her mark when she was still very young.

When Ms. Rich was in her last year at Radcliffe (she received a bachelor’s degree in English there in 1951), W. H. Auden chose her first collection, “A Change of World,” for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series, a signal honor. Released in 1951, the book, with its sober mien, dutiful meter and scrupulous rhymes, was praised by reviewers for its impeccable command of form.

She had learned the lessons of her father’s library well, or so it seemed. For even in this volume Ms. Rich had begun, with subtle subversion, to push against a time-honored thematic constraint — the proscription on making poetry out of the soul-numbing dailiness of women’s lives.

A poem in the collection, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” depicting a woman at her needlework and reprinted here in full, is concerned with precisely this:

Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

Once mastered, poetry’s formalist rigors gave Ms. Rich something to rebel against, and by her third collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” published by Harper & Row, she had pretty well exploded them. That volume appeared in 1963, a watershed moment in women’s letters: “The Feminine Mystique” was also published that year.

In the collection’s title poem, Ms. Rich chronicles the pulverizing onus of traditional married life. It opens this way:

You, once a belle in Shreveport,
with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud,
still have your dresses copied from that time. ...
Your mind now, mouldering like wedding-cake,
heavy with useless experience, rich
with suspicion, rumor, fantasy,
crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge
of mere fact.

Though the book horrified some critics, it sealed Ms. Rich’s national reputation.

She knew the strain of domestic duty firsthand. In 1953 Ms. Rich had married a Harvard economist, Alfred Haskell Conrad, and by the time she was 30 she was the mother of three small boys. When Professor Conrad took a job at the City College of New York, the family moved to New York City, where Ms. Rich became active in the civil rights and antiwar movements.

By 1970, partly because she had begun, inwardly, to acknowledge her erotic love of women, Ms. Rich and her husband had grown estranged. That autumn, he died of a gunshot wound to the head; the death was ruled a suicide. To the end of her life, Ms. Rich rarely spoke of it.

Ms. Rich effectively came out as a lesbian in 1976, with the publication of “Twenty-One Love Poems,” whose subject matter — sexual love between women — was still considered disarming and dangerous. In the years that followed her poetry and prose ranged over her increasing self-identification as a Jewish woman, the Holocaust and the struggles of black women.

Ms. Rich’s other volumes of poetry include “The Dream of a Common Language” (1978), “A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far” (1981), “The Fact of a Doorframe” (1984), “An Atlas of the Difficult World” (1991) and, most recently, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” published last year.

Her prose includes the essay collections “On Lies, Secrets, and Silence” (1979); “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” (1986); an influential essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” published as a slender volume in 1981; and the nonfiction book “Of Woman Born” (1976), which examines the institution of motherhood as a socio-historic construct.

For Ms. Rich, the getting of literary awards was itself a political act to be reckoned with. On sharing the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 (the other recipient that year was Allen Ginsberg), she declined to accept it on her own behalf. Instead, she appeared onstage with two of that year’s finalists, the poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker; the three of them accepted the award on behalf of all women.

In 1997, in a widely reported act, Ms. Rich declined the National Medal of Arts, the United States government’s highest award bestowed upon artists. In a letter to Jane Alexander, then chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which administers the award, she expressed her dismay, amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” that the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Art, Ms. Rich added, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

Ms. Rich’s other laurels — and these she did accept — include the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

She taught widely, including at Columbia, Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell and Stanford Universities.

Ms. Rich’s survivors include her partner of more than 30 years, the writer Michelle Cliff; three sons, David, Pablo and Jacob, from her marriage to Professor Conrad; a sister, Cynthia Rich; and two grandchildren.

For all her verbal prowess, for all her prolific output, Ms. Rich retained a dexterous command of the plain, pithy utterance. In a 1984 speech she summed up her reason for writing — and, by loud unspoken implication, her reason for being — in just seven words.

What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”


Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” reprinted from “Collected Early Poems” by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1993 by Adrienne Rich. With the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company Inc.




San Francisco Chronicle 


November 18, 2012



'Later Poems,' by Adrienne Rich


Stephen Burt


Later Poems Selected and New 1971-2012

By Adrienne Rich

Norton; 530 pages


Adrienne Rich wrote in 1983 that when she looked down from an airplane, "I felt like some messenger ... called to engage/ this field of light and darkness." Her readers have often imagined her that way too. Before she published "Diving Into the Wreck" (1973), Rich was eminent as poets go, admired for her carefully rhymed early work, or for her anguished, politically radical free verse of the 1960s. After "Diving" - and with the help of her prose essays - Rich quickly became a national figure, a leader for American feminism. Young people who do not read many poets still read her as the champion of a cause: not only women's rights but lesbian, gay and queer empowerment, organized labor, the dignity of immigrants and the integrity of our soil and air.

"Later Poems" is a big book, drawn from "Diving" and from the 11 volumes that followed, with 10 new late-life poems at the end. It shows how thoroughly Rich, who died in March in Santa Cruz at age 82, continued to see herself as a messenger, how much she wanted not just to say something but to do something about a country (in her view) gone wrong. This poet tuned herself, like a musical instrument, to the pleas and the battle cries of movements and crowds.

At the same time, though, her poems could make other music: to read through "Later Poems" is to see how careful, how unpredictable and how introspective this most outspoken of poets could become.

The title poem from "Diving" presented Rich as a brave underwater explorer, but the rest of the book explored frustration and fear: a collapsing marriage, American cities on fire, "Self-hatred, a monotone in the mind." Only afterward could Rich explain how to move forward. Marie Curie, Rich wrote in a great fractured sonnet, "died ... denying ... her wounds came from the same source as her power." The poet would not make the same mistake.

"The Dream of a Common Language" (1978) inaugurates a series of self-portraits where Rich shows herself as brave, but also wounded, resolute in search of solidarity, yet alert to her individual past. It also spoke to the exuberance of lesbian and gay liberation: "No one has imagined us," Rich declared in "Twenty-One Love Poems," meaning both that these lovers were real (not imaginary) and that such love had not been portrayed adequately before: "We want to live like trees,/ sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air."

Rich advised her readers to stick together: "Until we find each other, we are alone." Yet poetry seemed to her a lonely endeavor, an "awful bridge rising over naked air." Rich saw herself over and over in stargazers and astronomers ("Hubble Photographs: After Sappho"), mountain climbers, voyagers in rowboats, pirogues, canoes. These symbols for solitary exploration, for individual integrity, collide with the unity that her other poems, and slogans, recommend: Rich needed radical politics (she could imply) because without them we would be too much on our own.

Devotees celebrated those politics so often that her descriptive powers got ignored. But Rich was a poet of landscape and seasons, too, of California (where she settled in 1984) and of New England, "knowing through the poem/ through ice-feathered panes/ the winter/ flexing its talons," or seeing "collapsed shed-boards gleam like pewter in the dew." Landscape served as a respite, and a counter, to the ethical demands and the violence in human life: "The clouds and the stars didn't wage this war," she wrote in "For the Record," "if the mountain spewed stones of fire into the river/ it was not taking sides."

To read through "Later Poems" is to see great variety, in kinds of lines and also in kinds of poems: brief symbols, apologies, elegies, calls to arms, historical anecdotes and especially sequences (such as "An Atlas of the Difficult World") in which each part depicts a new place.

During the 1990s Rich began to compose in fragments, to let her works sound incomplete: The same poems include blocks of prose, parts of journals, extended quotations, as if to show that her struggles had grand allies. The latest poems also record old age and illness, along with still-sharp impressions of a volatile outside world: "the silver mirror-frame's/ quick laugh the caught light-lattice on the wall/ as a truck drives off before dawn."

No poet so copious sounds good all the time. Rich committed some howlers, and propagated some cliches: "your mind burns wanes waxes with hope"; "it is the body's world/ they are trying to destroy forever." Yet for every page where Rich sounds like an overwrought orator, there are two where she shows herself vulnerable and alert, "Showering after 'flu; stripping the bed/ running the shrouds of sickness through the wash." Rich also warned herself, winningly, against her own Manichaean, righteous tendencies: "O you who love clear edges/ more than anything watch the edges that blur."

Few poets have been so celebrated, nor so much attacked, for their confident doctrine. Yet few have remained so alert to their own failings, to how details escape ideas. Among the new poems, one addresses the "Young Anarchists" of the Occupy movement: "only fury knowing its ground/ has staying power." Another imagines poems as letters to the future in invisible ink, "a sheet of paper held steady ... above a deciphering flame." To see and hear Rich correctly, we may need to see that fire, that outrage against injustice, underneath her work, but we will need precision and patience, too.

"I want more crazy mourning, more howl, more keening," Rich wrote in an elegy, but such extremes are not what her own poems afford. Instead, they shine with defiance, fierce commitment, introspection and self-reproach, "hunger for clarity" and "sour plum jam," majestic coastlines and domestic detail. Here is a poet who knew her own contradictions, determined to depict them accurately, and equally determined that she would not write for herself alone.


Stephen Burt, a professor of English at Harvard University, is the author of "Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry."