Poetry means nothing, Adrienne Rich wrote to a Clinton administration official in July 1997, if it merely “decorates the dinner table of power that holds it hostage.” Explaining why she felt compelled to decline the National Medal for the Arts, Rich declared that art was fundamentally “incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” Hers was a tough position to take at a time when the National Endowment for the Arts was under immediate threat from the Republican right (the House would vote to defund and eliminate it that same month). She did not intend an attack on Bill Clinton alone, although, as she noted in an interview with Democracy Now!, she considered him “cowardly and spineless.” But her letter, though it did not explicitly discuss the welfare reform Clinton had enacted the year before, stressed his party’s share of the responsibility for the brutal effects of racial injustice and the rapidly widening disparities of power and wealth in the United States. It smacked of hypocrisy, she felt, for a president to honor a few “token artists,” while “the people at large are so dishonored.” Rich’s letter crystallizes a set of commitments whose development can be traced through her poetry, now collected in a massive volume spanning the sixty-two years until her death in 2012. Her insistence on the responsibility of mainstream feminists and progressives like herself to hold power to account, no matter who occupies the White House, feels especially timely at a moment when the United States seems on the verge of electing its first woman president, and its second Clinton.
For most of Rich’s readers at the time, her response to the Clinton administration’s failures must have come as no surprise. An influential and much-decorated poet, Rich was above all a dissident, who had no interest in softening her feminist, antiracist, and antiwar sentiments to comfort the powerful. But nearly fifty years earlier, when Rich published the markedly genteel verses that won her inclusion in the Yale Younger Poets series, both the tone and the substance of this letter would have seemed entirely alien. Then twenty-one, Rich was producing poems that, in the words of W. H. Auden, “speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.”
That an accomplished traditionalist as restrained in ideas and imagery as in meter and rhyme would, by her late sixties, become one of the more radical voices in American letters may have been hard to foresee. But then Rich’s boldness and conviction were never the kind that spring from youthful overconfidence. The increasing formal experimentation of her poetry and her outspokenness as a feminist and progressive were both fed by a combination of lived experience and close observation. As she worked to express more precisely what she felt and perceived around her, she was able to see more clearly. In other words, her politics developed over many years because she came by them as an artist—which may be what allowed her to become, unusually, both more self-questioning and more combative as she aged. In her work and in her life, she had begun by upholding conventions with such aplomb that she knew them intimately—every connection, every contradiction—by the time she was eventually ready to reject them.
Rich had not exactly chosen poetry. Born into a Jewish family in Baltimore in 1929, she was trained from early childhood for a literary vocation by her father, Arnold Rich, a prominent doctor and professor at Johns Hopkins, bookish but determinedly old-fashioned in his tastes. Her mother, Helen, had sacrificed her own prospects as a pianist and composer to support Arnold’s career and to raise their children, whom she educated at home until fourth grade. But Arnold had decided that his daughter was to be a poet, so Adrienne studied the great men who filled his library: by her senior year at Radcliffe, she had attained the impressive mastery of conventional form on display in her first collection, A Change of World, full of the work that earned Auden’s approval as “neatly and modestly dressed.”
These reserved poems, though hemmed in by their detached mode of address and strict adherence to formal rules, do contain hints of something more rebellious. The protagonist of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” for instance, her hand burdened by its wedding ring, conjures in needlepoint wild creatures that enjoy the liberties she is barred from: “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.” The decorous rhythmic plod of these lines undercuts their invocation of freedom, just as the dutifully worked embroidery they describe belies its unruly subject matter—an irony that clearly appealed to Rich, even though she had not yet decided to tackle directly any similarity of feeling or situation between her and Aunt Jennifer.
Rich later portrayed herself during this period “like someone walking through a fogged-in city, compelled on an errand she cannot describe,” her mind strewn instead with the reflexive notions prescribed by her class and race, including an “encroaching privatism” and a “vague and hallucinatory anti-Communism.” In 1953 she married the Harvard economist Alfred Conrad, with whom she would have three sons before she was thirty, and in 1955 she published a second collection, The Diamond Cutters, which shared the formal discipline of the first but found fewer opportunities to transcend it.
Many of the poems gathered in her first two books read as if they could have been written decades or even centuries earlier (“The eyes I met / Accused as they implored me to forget, / As if my shape had risen to destroy / Salvation’s rampart with a hope of joy”). Rich was drawn to abstract nouns and ageless emotions, and tended to choose her figurative imagery for its classical perfections and resonances rather than for any quality that might mark it as being ripped from a specific moment or social context. The title poem from The Diamond Cutters seems to appear, chiseled and monumental, out of some fixed material shared and understood by all poets:
Be proud, when you have set
The final spoke of flame
In that prismatic wheel,
And nothing’s left this day
Except to see the sun
Shine on the false and the true,
And know that Africa
Will yield you more to do.
There is a still prettiness here, and metaphorical usefulness is prized over particularity. The poem’s tone and its approach to time and geography identifies it as a piece Rich probably could not have produced a few years later. She understood by the mid-1950s that something new was needed. As she would write when looking back on this work in the 1970s, she had “come to the end” of the kind of composition her father had encouraged and had “embarked on a process that was tentative and exploratory.”
By the early 1960s, Rich’s understanding of what a poem was and what purpose it should serve had undergone a decisive change. Aware of the limits of New Criticism as an approach to reading, and of the dangers of affecting a false timelessness and universality in what she wrote, she had begun in 1954 to date her poems in order to situate them more precisely in the context of her own life and the world around her. Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, her freer, stranger 1963 collection of poems, betrayed a nervous energy that made itself felt in style as well as tone. Beautifully wrought, reflective pieces no longer seemed sufficient: poetry had to be precise about feelings and experiences that might have had no equivalents in earlier decades, and to grapple with current, urgent questions. Calm seemed the enemy of clarity. In some of the poems, lines jumped and unraveled as they hadn’t before. Rich’s command of classical forms and references continued to make itself felt, but there was now a new rawness, a sense of risk. These poems appeared to address their readers unmediated—no more hiding behind the likes of Aunt Jennifer.
Rich’s imagery often felt abrasive, sudden, full of surprising flashes, sometimes threatening in its simplicity: a woman’s mind “mouldering like wedding-cake”; a hand held deliberately “above the kettle’s snout / right in the woolly steam”; a shaved leg gleaming “like petrified mammoth-tusk”; the new woman arriving like a helicopter (the image comes from Beauvoir’s The Second Sex), “her fine blades making the air wince”—all these are in the fragmentary title sequence, dated 1958–60, which, like the collection as a whole, seems eager to take apart traditional forms and systems of imagery rather than emulate them.
This desire to force words and thoughts against their grain was there even in the slighter pieces, such as “Ghost of a Chance” from 1962, which reads:
You see a man
trying to think.
You want to say
Keep off! Give him room!
But you only watch,
the old consolations
will get him at last
like a fish
half-dead from flopping
and almost crawling
across the shingle,
the raw, agonizing
till a wave
pulls it back blind into the triumphant
There’s a sardonic edge to Rich’s treatment of this man, wrestling with his own complacent habits of mind and losing out to his familiar comforts. But there’s also an apparent self-portrait embedded in the poem, an image of the painful attempt to think against one’s own limitations, to rearrange language to express a different pattern of thought. One finds in this poem—and many of the others in Snapshots—a struggle, as if Rich were trying to breathe a new element. She had not yet fully grasped and articulated the different form that would replace what she was tearing down, which may be partly why the new collection, despite its boldness, was poorly received.
It was a growing political radicalism that, in the late 1960s, helped complete her transformation as a poet. Having moved with her family to New York, Rich became increasingly interested in civil rights and anti-Vietnam activism. In 1968, she began to teach in the SEEK program at City College, which aimed to increase college admissions for poor high-school students of color. There she taught the work of black writers and her colleagues included Audre Lorde and June Jordan. Her political awakening was in part an intimate one—her discovery and embrace of radical feminism coincided with the breakdown of her marriage, and after leaving Conrad in 1970 (his suicide soon after always remained difficult for her to discuss), she began to come out as a lesbian. Her experience of motherhood and domesticity—whose institutional and political dimensions she would later analyze in Of Woman Born—had been crucial to the shift in her perspective. And in the 1974 foreword to a selection of her poems, she credited the change in her poetry over the previous two decades to her friendships with other women who “have given me the heat and friction of their lives,” as well as a shared knowledge and understanding and “the daring of their examples.”
Rich’s new consciousness can be heard most clearly in Diving into the Wreck (1971–1972), a volume whose immediacy and anti-mythic, iconoclastic anger marked a departure for her. Critics took note. Diving into the Wreck made Rich a name and a kind of figurehead for a movement then in ascendance. Rich turned even this broader reception into an opportunity for political action. When she won the National Book Award in 1974, she accepted the prize with a speech co-written by her fellow nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde. The three of them had agreed to claim it jointly and on behalf of other women who had no such platform, or who like themselves had, they argued, been “tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain.”
Such commitments to give voice and complexity to those who had been denied it lent a propulsive force to Rich’s poetry in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, in terms of its subject matter and its experimental form. They also helped protect Rich from the blindness to questions of race and class that hampered some strains of feminism. Initially suspicious of Marxism, Rich would later read and embrace Marx’s writings, finding in place of the masculinist dogma she had feared “a great geographer of the human condition,” with a subtle and shifting sense of the ways in which capitalism infiltrates the “zones of thought and feeling.” She noted, too, that both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., were killed “just as each was unscrolling a map on which race and class intersected in a shared landscape.” Like the work of feminist and Marxist thinkers with whom she discovered an affinity, poetry offered a way to explore and expose hidden connections, unexpected differences and similarities between groups of people and their experiences. Yet Rich’s sense of the political role and purpose of the arts often led her into conflict with her peers.
Debating Susan Sontag in 1975 in the pages of the New York Review of Books, which had published Sontag’s essay on Leni Riefenstahl, Rich found herself on the receiving end of the other woman’s sneers about a “simple-minded” and anti-intellectual, ahistorical feminism, with its totalizing focus on patriarchy as the ur-oppression. Sontag had the best of this exchange. She derided Rich’s artificial separation and privileging of feeling and experience over rigorous argument, and scoffed at her defense of the women’s movement as inherently “anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian”—a notion that struck Sontag (no enemy of hierarchy or authority) as an embarrassing relic of “the infantile leftism of the 1960s.”
But over the longer haul, Rich’s egalitarian instincts and faith in the value of personal experience allowed her to steer an admirable course. Rather than appearing self-aggrandizing or exculpatory, her repeated defenses through the years of the social and political usefulness of poetry were rooted in a conviction that not only was a poet a citizen but a citizen could always also—when not cut off from access to the basic tools of expression—be a potential poet. Rich was keenly aware of what progressives stand to lose by any rejection of so-called identity politics: that to prevent or smother the expression of certain voices and experiences is to amputate from the culture a whole realm of specific, irreplaceable knowledge, insight, and beauty.
That conviction could be found at the center of much of her social criticism. Mass incarceration in the United States, in Rich’s view, constitutes, among other things, a crime against culture. Criticizing the “self-righteous false innocence” affected by many Americans about their government’s policies at home and abroad, she noted (with a simplicity that was far from simple-minded): “We often hear that—by contrast with, say, Nigeria or Egypt, China or the former Soviet Union—the West doesn’t imprison dissident writers. But when a nation’s criminal justice system imprisons so many . . . to be tortured in maximum security units or on death row, overwhelmingly because of color and class, it is in effect—and intention—silencing potential and actual writers, intellectuals, artists, journalists: a whole intelligentsia.”
It was fruitful for her to place the personal alongside the political in the same space. Rich was not merely emphasizing the structural nature of private suffering, especially that of women. She was also pointing to the intimate and personal quality of the harms inflicted by the state on so many of its citizens. Larger structures were capable of transforming the individual—they could limit her capacity to live and think.
In poems like “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” (1968) Rich drew out the connections between private and public life and the similar exclusions and violence underlying each: “A language is a map of our failures. Frederick Douglass wrote an English purer than Milton’s. People suffer highly in poverty. There are methods but we do not use them. . . . There are flames of napalm in Catonsville, Maryland. 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.”
Yet Rich did not allow the heat of her anger to conceal crucial differences between different kinds of oppression. She was sensitive to the limits of her personal experience. Motherhood had helped to radicalize her, but she remained conscious of the gulf between what she went through and the more substantial suffering of those who did not share her racial and class privileges.
The experiences of marginalized people often had more to teach her about the structural conditions that prevailed in the United States and elsewhere than her own. There are certain gaps in knowledge you can feel your way out of—by listening to the speech and observing the anguish of others—more easily than by reasoning your way through, especially if the techniques you tend to reason by are narrow ones: the master’s tools, as Lorde characterized them. Rich, after all, had declared her intention to look directly at what was there, rather than seeing what she expected to see, seeking out “the wreck and not the story of the wreck.” By fighting to keep the edges of her own frame always within view, she was eventually able to see beyond it.
Take, for example, a poem from 1980. “Frame” describes the experience of a woman of color at the hands of police. But instead of being told from the perspective of the woman, the cops, or an omniscient narrator, the events are observed from just outside the frame by a white woman, whose view is partly obscured, and who sees the action silenced, like a film without a soundtrack. “I say I am there,” says this woman, though even that insistence that she is present to witness what’s happening reinforces the sense of how distant she is from it. Solidarity, Rich suggests, is an essential but extremely tricky instrument. It can be destructive, especially when it presumes to know too much.
Rich later made clear how the personal testimony of individual women, which in the 1970s she had hoped would “accumulate toward collective understanding and practice,” was in fact all too frequently coopted into an ethos of “self-involvement and self-improvement.” That brand of liberal feminism, of course, is also well-suited to become a marketing ploy—as in the case of the “feminist” uplift of Sheryl Sandberg and of campaign taglines like “I’m With Her.” By the end of Rich’s life, her awareness had sharpened of “how one period’s necessary strategies can mutate into the monsters of a later time,” as she observed in her introduction to the prose collection Arts of the Possible in 2000. As an essayist, it had taken years for her to appreciate this danger, but of course, as a poet, it was one she had been conscious of all along. “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters,” she wrote in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” “The beak that grips her, she becomes.” No monsters so potent, nor so frightening, perhaps, as those she herself has created in the effort to survive. In her 1997 letter to the Clinton official, Rich wrote: “In my lifetime, I have seen the space for the arts opened by social justice movements, the power of art to break despair.” Her belief in poetry and politics as inextricable and interdependent made her personal and intellectual struggles longer and more painful than they might have been, but it also gave her a rare ability to understand and coexist with monsters—the kind that plague us from outside as well as from within.
Lidija Haas is a writer living in New York.