Bernstein, Charles. "Reznikoff's Nearness." In The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1999, pp. 210-239. Hindus, Milton, ed. Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Orono,
Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1984. Zukofsky, Louis. "Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff." Poetry 37.5 (February 1931): 272-284.
RICH, ADRIENNE (1929- ) Adrienne Rich has said that, as a young poet, she used poetry "to write [her] self out of [her] own divisions" (What Is
196), and the same could be said for her entire career. over the years those "divisions" have come in many forms, and while poetry has resolved some of them for Rich, it has also reinforced others. one of the enduring divisions—and one which has served as a renewable source for her work—involves her ambivalent attitude toward poetic language. Early in her career, for instance, Rich felt both empowered and divided from herself as a woman, as she attempted to write in the ostensibly genderless, supposedly universal voice of the male poets she had studied in high school and college (see female voice, female language). The title of her 1978 collection The Dream of a Common Language indicates Rich's desire to find or create a women's lexicon; though in time she found a language that seemed more faithful to her experience, she has never discovered a common language that could reflect and unite the experiences of all women. Rich has also remained divided between feeling that poetry is a powerful tool for creating community and promoting justice, on the one hand, and knowing, on the other, that language alone cannot create social change. Somewhat paradoxically, her poetic production has been, in part, motivated by her doubt about her art. And yet, over a 50-year span, she has published 20 volumes of poetry, in addition to five collections of nonfiction prose. Moreover she has found lasting inspiration in the work of poets as disparate as Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Wallace stevens, h. d., W H. auden, Pablo Neruda, Muriel rukeyser, Anna Akhmatova, and Audre lorde.
Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, and that same year she won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for her book A Change of World. She married Alfred Conrad in 1953, and by 1959 they had three sons. In the 1960s she became increasingly involved in political causes, including the Civil Rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, women's rights actions, and the push for gay rights. In 1970, as she was just beginning to identify herself privately as a lesbian, she ended her marriage. For Diving into the Wreck (1973), one of her most celebrated collections, Rich won the 1974 National Book Award, which she accepted in the name of all women and on behalf of herself and two other
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nominees, Lorde and Alice Walker. After living almost her entire life in the Northeastern United States, Rich moved to California in 1984.
She has received many awards and honors, including the National Medal for the Arts (1997)—which she refused to accept, citing the U.S. government's insufficient support for the arts—and a MacArthur Fellowship (1994). Over the years she has taught at several colleges and universities, including Swarthmore, City College of New York, San José State, and Stanford.
Rich's poetry has evolved through several stages, and the style of her best-known writing is quite unlike that of her earliest verse. In her work of the 1950s, the influences of 17th-century John Donne, William Butler Yeats, Stevens, and Auden are apparent, and the poetry largely uses iambic pentameter, rhyme, and regular stanzaic breaks (see prosody and free verse). Rich's subjects in these poems tend toward the abstract, and her voice is rather detached, emanating from a third-person perspective that is rarely identified as specifically female. She would later chide herself for valuing verse that aims to be "'universal,' which meant, of course, nonfemale" ("When We" 44). However, even then—as in "Aunt Jennifers Tigers" (1951)—there were signs of the strong feminist voice that would emerge later and define her poetics: As Rich explains it, "poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know" ("When We" 40).
In the 1960s, for the first time, Rich became familiar with the work of women poets—both predecessors and contemporaries—and her poems, such as "SNAPshots of a daughter-in-law" (1963), reflect her burgeoning feminist concerns. They also exhibit her growing belief in the value of using themes drawn from ordinary life and are consistently written in the first person. As the decade progressed, Rich became more attentive to the ways in which language is gendered and politicized, and she laments in "The Burning of Paper instead of Children" (1971) that "this is the oppressors language // yet I need it to talk to you."
With the poem "diving into the wreck" and the collection of the same name, Rich established herself as a poet of the first rank and continued to explore forces that influence the woman artist. A few years later, in her poems of the skillful collection The Dream of a
Common Language, Rich displays a more steadily sophisticated and varied hand: These poems, such as "Power," "To a Poet," "Transcendental Etude," and "Cartographies of Silence," demonstrate the accomplishment and range of a poet who can continually renew the "old theme" that "Language cannot do everything," as she puts it in the latter poem. The volume also contains "Twenty-One Love Poems," a remarkable sonnet sequence of unconventional prosody that celebrates lesbian love and reinvents a traditional poetic form to suit a decidedly nontradi-tional theme.
The subject of lesbian love in itself is an important one for Rich, but it is also significant as one example of the kinds of connection that are possible on what she calls the "lesbian continuum" ("Compulsory" 51). As she explains in her essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," the lesbian continuum marks a spiritual link between and among all women, regardless of their sexual or affective orientation. This essay marks a refinement of her earlier ideas about a "common language" and presages a change in her concerns: In the 1980s Rich shows less interest in the differences between male and female and in the problems that language poses for women in particular, and she becomes more interested in the differences in "verbal privilege" among women of varying classes and ethnicities ("North American Time" ).
In "Frame" (1981), for instance, the speaker watches from a point of safety as a young black woman is harassed and arrested without cause by police on the campus of a Boston university. Rich recognizes the ways in which race, class, and nationality affect one's voice and one's power, ideas which she considers in her essay, "Blood, Bread, and Poetry: The Location of the Poet" (1986). There Rich acknowledges her advantaged position, as someone who "can write at all" and whose "words are read and taken seriously" (187). She also recognizes that with those privileges comes a responsibility not to presume to speak for others and to "examine the ego that speaks in [her] poems—not for political 'correctness,' but for ignorance, solipsism, laziness, dishonesty, automatic writing" (187).
After Rich's move to California, her sense of the importance of location was heightened. In such poems
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as "North American Time" (1986), "Dreamwood" (1989), and "An Atlas of the Difficult World" (1991), she engages the metaphor of the map to examine her position, especially as it exists relative to that of her readers. In the final section of "Atlas," she is quite conscious of the ways in which one's place—social, geographical, emotional—affects one's relationships to others. There Rich presents a catalogue of imagined readers who encounter her poetry "late, before leaving the office," "standing up in a bookstore," "in a room where too much has happened for you to bear," or with "a crying child on your shoulder." She repeats the phrase, "I know you are reading this poem," perhaps wishing as much as declaring that it is possible for people in many different situations to find a connection through poetry.
For Rich, it is essential to believe that poetry can create such connections and that it can have some tangible effect on the world. In a recent poem, "Letters to a Young Poet" (1999), Rich names several examples of violence, both large scale (the World War II concentration camp Terezin) and small (the recent suicide of a woman artist). Then, echoing Auden's "In Memory of W B. Yeats" (1940), she asks the novice whom she addresses, "would it relieve you to decide Poetry / doesn't make this happen?" Rich refuses to "decide" that poetry's effect on the world is negligible, even if that belief would ensure that her art cannot be responsible for such atrocities. Whatever limitations poetry has, Rich still believes it has some power to improve our lives, and she turns to it to help her as both a witness to history and a participant in it.
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