Remembering American poet Adrienne Rich
As with many of the books that shaped my life, I encountered the work of Adrienne Rich outside of college classrooms. In fact it was a friend who first handed me Rich’s Diving into the Wreck in 1973 at Left Bank Books, the St. Louis bookstore she now owns, when it was still on Delmar Boulevard.
Adrienne Rich is one of the through-lines in my life. I have carried her books with me across continents, boxed and unboxed them, added each new published volume to the worn copies of her previous books, reached for them on bad nights when the world seemed no longer viable. Her work entered my mind at such a depth, with such consistency, that it became part of my own history.
Her poems gave me a context, a way of shaping the chaos in and around me when I was an undergraduate and then working in Europe in the mid to late 70s.
In a poem called “Incipience,” she wrote:
To live, to lie awake
under scarred plaster
while ice is forming over the earth
at an hour when nothing can be done
to further any decision
to know the composing of the thread
inside the spider’s body
first atoms of the web
to feel the fiery future
of every matchstick in the kitchen
imagining the existence
of something uncreated
In 1979, Rich published On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978, a book that helped me to frame my experiences as I struggled through graduate studies in American Literature. To pay tuition, room and board, I taught sections of the university’s first year writing course, becoming ever more aware of the politics of teaching language. We taught the writing process, a process of revision, a process that had far wider implications than polishing up a college essay.
“Re-vision” said Rich, “ – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”
Later, when I had moved to Maine to teach in a remedial writing program at the university, I turned again and again to Rich’s essay on teaching in an open admissions program with Mina Shaughnessy at City College of New York. Literacy has always been a political issue. It has been denied minorities and women, justified by all kinds of nonsense, for centuries. Laws forbidding anyone to teach a slave to write go back to the colonial period in the US, and they got stricter after every slave revolt. A people who could not write their own story were at the mercy of others who sought to distort it, or—worse—erase it altogether.
“Whatever is unnamed,” Rich wrote, “undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language - this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.”
A woman, a Southerner, a Jew and a lesbian, Rich knew a great deal about being marginalized. As the daughter of intellectuals and a graduate of Radcliffe College, she knew something about privilege as well.
One whole winter I lived with these lines from her poem “Origins and History of Consciousness” scrawled in yellow chalk on a wall in my apartment:
No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.
Poets name things. That’s their job. And in 1997 Adrienne Rich, by refusing to accept the National Medal of Arts, once again put a name to something many Americans were tying to ignore. She wrote, “I could not 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.”
Refusing to be mollified by the faux liberalism of her times, Rich continued to tell the hardest truths through physical and psychic circumstances that have silenced many others. Of the poems in her book, Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), she wrote, “I have been trying to speak from, and of, and to, my country. To speak a different claim from those staked by the patriots of the sword; to speak of the land itself, the cities, and of the imaginations that have dwelt here, at risk, unfree, assaulted, erased. …. I draw strength from the traditions of all those who, with every reason to despair, have refused to do so.”