Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012

The poet and critic Adrienne Rich died a couple of days ago, one more casualty in my parents' generation. Her poetry, I confess, never mattered to me as much as it did to many other people, but I always read it anyway. I'm attached to a few of her poems, like "The Middle Aged," which describes the faults that underlie the seemingly stable marriage of an older couple from the viewpoint of a young married woman. The poems in Diving Into the Wreck (1973) and The Dream of a Common Language (1978) had their moments, especially the twenty-one love poems to another woman in the latter, though they weren't as unprecedented as some people now seem to want to remember: her younger contemporary Audre Lorde went there before, and had helped make Rich's effort possible. She wasn't even the first important white lesbian poet, or the first lesbian Yale Younger Poet -- I much prefer Muriel Rukeyser's poetry, who won that honor in 1935, to Rich's.

But this is all personal taste; I don't feel competent to make critical judgments of poetry. And I remember hearing Rich give a reading at IU in 1979, which I can date accurately because I brought with me a new copy of her first volume of essays, On Lies, Secrets and Silences (1979), for her to autograph. She did, saying in mild surprise, "Oh -- it's out already." A friend got me into a faculty and graduate student reception / party afterward, and I took the opportunity to tell her how much I liked hearing her longer poems read aloud, that I thought they worked better that way than when I read them from the page. That comment seemed to please her, and I was happy to be there to make it because most of the men present, mainly faculty, were hostile and misogynist, and hardly anybody else present seemed to know her work. All too typical, especially in those days.

Rich's prose affected me much more deeply than her poetry. Of Woman Born (1976) had some serious flaws, but it was still a powerful and moving work. I'd already read her "Woman and Lying: Notes on Honor" when it was published as a chapbook, and liked it a great deal. Her other essays in On Lies, Secrets and Silences, especially those on Charlotte Bronte and Emily Dickinson, influenced my reading and thinking forever after. I read all of Bronte, especially, as a result, and explored Dickinson's work more than I had before.

What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993) is a great book on poetry, up there with Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry (1949); it sent me back to poetry as a reader at a time when I wasn't reading much. The examples and commentaries she provided gave me direction and ideas for more reading. (When I reread it a decade later, I still liked it but a little less; maybe I'll write more about that sometime, this isn't the place for it.) And I was struck by her insistence on the importance of poetry, her pointing out that in other societies poetry is taken much more seriously: it's hard to imagine a poet being jailed or murdered simply as a poet in the United States, as has happened in other countries.

I also honor her refusal of a National Medal for the Arts from Bill Clinton in 1997. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she didn't mistake Clinton for a liberal.

A commenter on her obituary at the New York Times wrote, "This kind of politicized verse, beloved of every ism-loving poetaster, is condemned to a quick and dusty death on the shelves. No one will read this kind of thing a century hence; nor 30 years hence." Most poetry, whether it's politicized or not, goes unread a century or even thirty years after it was published. But "Diving into the Wreck" is still being read, and still has meaning, for many people after almost forty years. No one can foresee the future of literary reputation, but I'd say Rich has a shot at being remembered for a good long time.