Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Remembering Adrienne Rich

Most of our love took the form
of mute loyalty

we never spoke at your deathbed of your death

but from here on
I want more crazy mourning, more howl,
more keening

These few lines are inside the May issue of Poetry magazine, underneath the name and dates of Adrienne Rich (1929-2012). Her death in March at the age of 82 leaves a void where a powerful and courageous voice had spoken for 60 years.

I met Ms Rich in 1994 at the Dodge Poetry Festival, and she inscribed my first collection of her poems, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. The title of the collection comes from the first line of her poem, “Integrity.”

Emotionally open like the so-called “confessional” poets, Rich’s work is contemporary and expansive, searing and intelligent, passionate and brave. Defying easy classification (like confessional, feminist, historical, political), she juxtaposes styles engagingly. Here’s a verse from the middle of “Integrity.”

Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breath in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius
to spin and weave in the same action
from her own body, anywhere –
even from a broken web.

Her prose is equally engaging. One of my favorite books of essays by any writer is What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. Poetry lovers will recognize the title’s reference to William Carlos Williams.

It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day
for lack / of what is found there
(from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”). Her essays introduced me to great women poets such as Muriel Rukeyser, June Jordan and Audre Lorde. She read Shakespeare and Stevens and Rilke with equal discrimination. She confronted difficult issues from the Holocaust to race and gender. She worried that contemporary US culture “may have forgotten the ancient role of poetry in keeping memory and spiritual community alive.”

Her passion is inspiring. One of the shortest entries in What is Found There is “As if your life depended on it.” Referring to books, music, theatre and painting also apply.

You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it. That is not generally taught in school. At most, as if your livelihood depended on it: the next step, the next job…

Re-reading this now, I recall an ambitious young colleague who chose “the next job” over loyalty to a mentor, who thanked the conductor who gave him his first professional engagements “for the opportunity to advance his career.” It should be possible to enjoy success and maintain integrity. Sadly, philistinism is as present in the arts as it is in every other corner of a society poisoned by materialism.

To read as if your life depended on it would mean to let into your reading your beliefs, the swirl of your dreamlife, the physical sensations of your ordinary carnal life; and simultaneously, to allow what you’re reading to pierce the routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary carnal life is tracked, charted, channeled.

Her brief prescription concludes with a demonstration of her clarifying tonic.

You can take refuge in the idea of “irony.” Or you can demand that artists demonstrate loyalty to that or this moral or political or religious or sexual norm, on pain of having books burned, banned, on pain of censorship or prison, on pain of public funding.
Or, you can say: “I don’t understand poetry.”

Encouraging a friend to stand up and take a risk in the name of principal, I shared a blast of Nietzsche I think even Rich might have endorsed.

The secret of realizing the largest productivity and the greatest enjoyment
of existence is to live in danger! Build your cities on the slope of Vesuvius! Send your ships into unexplored seas! Live in war with your equals and yourselves!

(from The Gay Science)

She is “thinking of Simone Weil” in “A Vision” but could be describing herself:

You. There, with your gazing eyes / Your blazing eyes

you are free for a moment. Then it comes back: this
test of the capacity to keep in focus

you with your stubborn lids that have stayed open

Near the end of the excerpt in Poetry magazine quoted above, the poet wrote,
We stayed mute and disloyal / because we were afraid. Rich confronted her fears in her work, and her life is a witness of bravery and unflinching honesty. Her “stubborn lids” stayed open and her vision is central to the poetry of the fraught 20th century.

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