A rich life
Adrienne Rich on poetry, politics, and personal revelation
by Michael Klein
Adrienne Rich is one of the major American poets of the last half of
this century. Now 70, she's published more than 16 volumes of poetry and four
books of nonfiction, and has been the recipient of nearly every major literary
award, including the National Book Award, the Fellowship of the Academy of
American Poets, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Dorothea Tanning Prize for
mastery in the art of poetry given by the Academy of American Poets, and the
MacArthur "genius" grant. In 1997, she made headlines when she refused the
National Medal for the Arts -- which is awarded by the White House and the
president. In a letter published by the New York Times, Rich wrote to
Jane Alexander, then-head of the National Endowment for the Arts: "I cannot
accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the
very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical
politics of this administration."
Rich's career took flight in 1951, when W.H. Auden selected the 21-year-old's
first collection of poetry for inclusion in the Yale Younger Poets series. Her
early work echoed the voices of the major poets of the first half of this
century, including Auden, but by the 1960s (particularly with the publication
of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law) it reflected more-personal
explorations. By the late 1960s, her focus on the personal had broadened.
Concentrating on the societal status of women in general and lesbians in
particular, her poetry had evolved into the passionately political force for
moral good that it is today. Her latest volume of poems, Midnight Salvage:
Poems 1995-1998, continues in that tradition.
One in Ten recently spoke with Rich.
Q: With The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, your
poems became more political and more far-reaching. Coming out felt less about
disclosure and more about pure revolution. There was an incredible sense of how
that choice affected other people apart from yourself. How can lesbian poets
today, who for the most part are already out with their first book, become part
of American intellectual life the way that you have?
A: The dilemma for a 21-year-old lesbian poet who is already out may
well be that so much is already acknowledged and written about and published.
How do you enter those conversations that are already taking place, and the
even wider conversations about justice, power, or what it means to be a
citizen? There has to be a kind of resistance to the already offered
clichés, and I think that that's something every good poet has to make
up for herself or himself -- how to do that.
I came out first as a political poet, even before The Dream of a Common
Language, under the taboo against so-called political poetry in the US,
which was comparable to the taboo against homosexuality. In other words, it
wasn't done. And this is, of course, the only country in the world where that
has been true. Go to Latin America, to the Middle East, to Asia, to Africa, to
Europe, and you find the political poet and a poetry that addresses public
affairs and public discourse, conflict, oppression, and resistance. That poetry
is seen as normal. And it is honored.
Q: A keen political awareness enabled you to come out sexually. Do
poets, gay or not, have to come out in a certain way?
So what does a feminist-lesbian icon read during her down time? Check out
Adrienne Rich's summer reading list below:
* Contents Dream: Essays 1975-1984, by Charles Bernstein
* Panoramas, by Victor Hernandez Cruz
* Wherever You Lay Your Head,
by Jane Miller (poems)
* The Origin of Capitalism, by Ellen Meiksins Wood
A: You do, in terms of how do you connect with the world, and what are
you defining as the world that you want to be connected to. The connections I
was making with the world by coming out -- as having any kind of sexuality --
had to do with the fact that early on, I was critiquing the conventional
male-female identities on which so much of Western poetry has been based, and
the ideas about public and private spaces, [and the fact] that never the twain
shall meet -- woman defined as the private sphere, man as the public sphere.
Q: One realization I had after reading your essay "Compulsory
Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" was that there are gay men who are also
part of the patriarchy. In fact, they could be patriarchy's best agents.
A: I think AIDS transformed a lot of gay men, and many lesbians came to
the bedsides of their friends with AIDS. I think about the possibilities for
empathy, for mutual solidarity among gay men and lesbians, not simply as people
who suffer under homophobia, but as people who are also extremely creative,
active, and have a particular understanding of the human condition.
Q: Identity derived from a fierce kind of knowing has always
informed your work. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 may
be a book about knowing's dilemma: not wanting to know. You say about the
shooting of two lesbians on the Appalachian trail: "I don't want to know how he
tracked them/along the Appalachian Trial, hid close/by their tent," -- which,
of course, is also a disclosure. You don't want to know what you, yourself, are
about to tell us. You don't want to know what you already know.
A: I keep on not wanting to know what I know -- Matthew Shepard, James
Byrd Jr., the schoolyard massacres. There keep being things I absolutely don't
want to know, and must know -- and we as a society must know. I explore the
whole idea in a poem in Midnight Salvage called "Camino Real," while
driving this road to Los Angeles, thinking about [accounts of] abuses that I
had been reading by people who actually went back to where they had their human
rights violated. And how that coexists in the poem with what is for me a
journey of happiness.
Q: Midnight Salvage's epigraph quotes from George Oppen: "I don't
know how to measure happiness."
A: And what he's talking about there is really what Hannah Arendt
talks about in one of her essays -- public happiness. A happiness of true
participation in society, which would be possible for everyone.
Q: One of your societies for many years has been California, after
many years of living and writing on the East Coast. There is a strong sense
that those vastly different landscapes have greatly influenced you internally
as well -- what Muriel Rukeyser may have meant when she said: "There are roads
to take, when you think of your country."
A: Well, you know, California is the most bizarre place to be, in a
certain sense. It's so laden with contradictions. It is, in some ways, almost
flaunting of them. I think it flaunts more than any other part of the country,
in the visual sense: the extraordinary visual degradation, the extraordinary
beauty. There are still these vast tracts of wilderness. There is this amazing
ocean. You're constantly living in a kind of cognitive dissonance here.
Q: Cognitive dissonance might be a good way to talk about your book
Dark Fields of the Republic, which deals, in part, with
government and art. In "Six: Edgelit," a section from the long poem
"Inscriptions," you say, "In my sixty-fifth year I know something about
language/it can eat or be eaten by experience/Medbh, poetry means refusing/the
choice to kill or die//but this life of continuing is for the sane mad/and the
bravest monsters." What has being one of the sane mad or one of the bravest
monsters taught you about language?
A: In the poem, I was answering Medbh McGuckian, who is a poet I
tremendously admire, and she's writing from Belfast and the war, and I'm
responding on the level of what it means to be working in language in a time or
a situation when it feels that language can do so little. And hence, this life
of continuing, because you keep going with it. But you have to be sane mad.
Q: If you're an artist.
A: Exactly. It's very illogical being a writer.
Q: And yet everyone wants to be one, to be a star.
A: Poetry has gotten to be very "in," in a way, and I've seen
something I would never have imagined, which is that poetry is being
commoditized. And I thought it was un-commodifiable, because so few people
really believed that it worked. But I think some people believe now that, at
least, you can market it.
There's a lot of what I would call comfortable poetry around. And I would have
to say that some of that comfortable poetry is being written by gay and lesbian
poets. I think you can probably find poets from any group who would come under
the rubric of "diversity" who are writing comfortable poetry nowadays. But then
there is all this other stuff going on -- which is wilder, which is bristling;
it's juicier, it's everything that you would want. And it's not comfortable.
That's the kind of poetry that interests me -- a field of energy. It's
intellectual and moral and political and sexual and sensual -- all of that
fermenting together. It can speak to people who have themselves felt like
monsters and say: you are not alone, this is not monstrous. It can disturb and
Poetry can add its grain to an accumulation of consciousness against the idea
that there is no alternative -- that we're now just in the great flow of
capitalism and it can never be any different -- [that] this is human destiny,
this is human nature. A poem can add its grain to all the other grains and that
is, I think, a rather important thing to do.
Q: But also, there's a poetry being written that feels like it's
corroborating, rather than resisting, the idea that there is no
A: Exactly -- it's reflecting the "what is" rather than asking what
Q: Which is what Midnight Salvage is constantly doing in
those long poems. How do you keep a poem alive for that long?
A: Well, maybe in the same way that a novelist keeps a novel alive. You
have to be in there for the long haul. But if I have a long poem in the works,
it's a context that can include diverse and unexpected things. When I was
writing An Atlas of the Difficult World, the Gulf War became part of
that poem, but only because the poem was already there, and open to it.
Q: In "Letters to a Young Poet," you say: I wanted to go
somewhere/the brain had not yet gone/I wanted not to be/there so alone." This
incredible, restless intelligence and a loneliness from being in that position
is really how your poems seem to come to us. Am I being accurate here?
A: I think my work comes out of both an intense desire for connection
and what it means to feel isolated. There's always going to be a kind of tidal
movement back and forth between the two. Art and literature have given so many
people the relief of feeling connected -- pulled us out of isolation. It has
let us know that somebody else breathed and dreamed and had sex and loved and
raged and knew loneliness the way we do.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Poems. And sometimes making notes for essays. I'm not really up for
writing them yet. I feel this mistrust of there being an audience for the kind
of essay I'd like to write, which is, again, not short and not comfortable. And
maybe somewhat demanding.
A: Critical, political, or cultural. One of the things I have to say
about this demon of the personal -- and I have to take responsibility for my
part in helping create this demon, as part of a women's movement in which we
celebrated personal experience and personal feelings -- is that it has become a
horribly commoditized version of humanity. It's almost as though the personal
life has been taken hostage in some way, and I'm shying away more and more from
anything that would contribute to that.
Q: Midnight Salvage, I think, is a contribution about happiness,
which of course means unhappiness as well.
A: I have a poem from the '60s that begins: "Difficult, ordinary
happiness, no one nowadays believes in you." And, yes -- it always goes with
unhappiness. It's that thing that is glinting at the bottom of the stream that
you're reaching for all the time -- your hand often not being able to grasp it,
even though your eye can see it. n
Michael Klein, author of 1990 (Provincetown Poets Series) and
Track Conditions: A Memoir (Ballantine Books), teaches in the MFA
Program at Goddard College in Vermont and is on the faculty at the Fine Arts
Work Center in Provincetown. He is working on a new nonfiction work called
The End of Being Known.