Adrienne Rich: a modulated cantata.

Adrienne Rich has passed away.   Encountering Adrienne Rich’s poems was a revelation.   Here was a feminist of a different sort, one who spoke to a young man like me in a voice wise and knowing.  I was then forming my own opinions of women and found in her something solid and palpable.

But it was Adrienne Rich who spoke most clearly to me of the mind of women.   I gave her poems to my daughters, who loved them too.

In those days, the world was ablaze with wars and change of all kinds.  The poets I loved were mostly men:  Auden, Yeats, Frost, Eliot.   I love them still.   Sylvia Plath I’d read and recognised her brittle brilliance, Emily Dickinson’s poems were fine but unconnected to a world I knew.  Adrienne Rich was a creature of her time, as was Yeats, but oh so much more.

Of her politics I will say little.   She was against the Vietnam War and for the Black Panthers.  Auden, writing of the death of Yeats said “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”   The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights era hurt Adrienne Rich beyond measure.  The people who knew her at the time don’t think she was sane during some of those years.   She left her husband Alfred Conrad and he committed suicide the following year.  Poets and politics make for a highly combustible mixture.  She seems to have found happiness with Michelle Cliff, her companion since 1976.

Two stanzas from the poem of hers I love best:  21 Love Poems.

Your small hands, precisely equal to my own—
only the thumb is larger, longer—in these hands
I could trust the world, or in many hands like these,
handling power-tools or steering-wheel
or touching a human face… Such hands could turn
the unborn child rightways in the birth canal
or pilot the exploratory rescue-ship
through icebergs, or piece together
the fine, needle-like sherds of a great krater-cup
bearing on its sides
figures of ecstatic women striding
to the sibyl’s den or the Eleusinian cave—
such hands might carry out an unavoidable violence
with such restraint, with such a grasp
of the range and limits of violence
that violence ever after would be obsolete.

What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What atonement is this all about?
–and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.
Is all this close to the wolverines’ howled signals,
that modulated cantata of the wild?
or, when away from you I try to create you in words,
am I simply using you, like a river or a war?
And how have I used rivers, how have I used wars
to escape writing of the worst thing of all—
not the crimes of others, not even our own death,
but the failure to want our freedom passionately enough
so that blighted elms, sick rivers, massacres would seem
mere emblems of that desecration of ourselves?

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6 thoughts on “Adrienne Rich: a modulated cantata.

  1. I agree that she was a powerful voice, and I learned much about a different way of thinking from her poems.

    I always enjoyed this part from Diving into the wreck:

    “I crawl like an insect down the ladder
    and there is no one
    to tell me when the ocean
    will begin.”

    and, of course, this:

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

    There is much wisdom in her work. I did not know that she had died. Thanks for remembering her, BlaiseP.

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  2. In light of a pretty provocative comment Murali made the other day on poetry and art, an extract from a Rich essay I heard on NPR yesterday jumped out at me,

    We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation. Poetry, as Audre Lorde wrote long ago, is no luxury. But for our poetry – the poetries of all of us – to become equal to a time when so much has to be witnessed, recuperated, revalued, we as poets, we as readers, we as social beings, have large questions to ask ourselves and one another.

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    • When did poetry lose its power?   When every angry moron started to write it.  Talk is cheap and so are pen and paper.  Still, words retain their powers.  Though the lawyers and philosophers and political science types know the power of language, they really aren’t masters of language.   They are bemused by words, argue their meanings, attempt to corral words and tame them.  Weaklings and pedants are mastered by language and are never its masters.

      Thought, to such as these, seems supreme.   Thought is only the silly child of language, jumped up and arrogant.   Language laughs and runs away like an unbroken horse, will not be confined to dictionaries.   Poetry is not written from dictionaries, but from those great lumps of language, the lexicons that lack all definitions.   The poet is a great listener, hearing the movement of language in everyday speech, like the movements of whales in the sea.

      Truth is, the good poet is a whiskey distiller.   The poet’s art produces the water of life and puts it away in charred wooden casks.  Best to let it age a while, though some of it is good, neat and new.   Hip-hop knows the power of words.   And like poetry, thought to be the province of the effete, hip hop goes on merrily undermining society, producing a new one.   Poetry is hated because society has always hated the poet.   Society has always hated what it cannot understand and cannot control.

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