ON THE VIRTUE OF IMPURITY: Adrienne Rich
Students in college creative-writing programs are issued numerous 'rules' for how to be good writers. Among many other nuggets, they include 'write what you know,' 'readers are stupid,' and 'don't mix poetry and politics.' Politics, students learn, can ruin poetry—as if poetry is naïve, easily manipulated by that crass and tasteless deviant, politics.
Poetry is a pure thing, unsullied by the world.
Yet at its finest, poetry is supposed to touch universal truth, to connect us to and expand our understanding of the world. But who decides what is universal? Who says your truth is truer than my truth? Do we vote? (Sometimes, in creative-writing workshops, there is a vote.)
But there is college, and then there is the world, where the questions What is art? and What is art for? are not anchored to the whims of the academy or to the publishing industry's celebration of trend-and commerce-driven art. In the real world, art emerges from all points on the spectrum, including academia, the inner city, the much-maligned Middle America—where too many assume no creativity exists—and grass-roots political movements happening all over the world.
When I first ran across Adrienne Rich's The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984, I was a creative-writing student at the College of Santa Fe. In 1996, the program was small and inarguably male-dominated. That semester I was the only woman in my poetry workshop, and I fell in love with 'Trying to Talk With a Man,' which first appeared in Rich's seventh book, Diving Into the Wreck (published in 1974).
I was aware that some considered Rich 'too political,' though I had no idea what her politics were. She identifies as a radical lesbian feminist, but I was utterly ignorant of her activism and her widely read essays on feminism, politics, and social justice. I read her poems in secret, lacking confidence in my ability to articulate why they spoke to me. In workshops, I struggled to make myself relevant, always striving for that elusive 'universal truth.' The irony of my situation wouldn't have been lost on Rich, who has written more than two dozen books of poetry and essays, including 1971's When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision. This essay contains ideas so fundamental to contemporary feminism that they are parroted daily by millions, most of whom likely have no idea that they are quoting a poet.
'No male writer has written primarily or even largely for women, or with the sense of women's criticism as a consideration when he chooses his materials, his theme, his language,' Rich writes. 'But to a lesser or greater extent, every woman writer has written for men. ... I read the older women poets with their peculiar keenness and ambivalence. ... But even in reading these women I was looking in them for the same things I had found in the poetry of men, because I wanted women poets to be equals of men, and to be equal was still confused with sounding the same.'
Rich studied poetry at Radcliffe College and began her career as a strict formalist, but her aesthetics are fluid, changing and evolving, driven by the demands of the content as well as the poet's sense of experimentation. Her earlier work is denser in language and considered more declarative; in later work she pushes the boundaries of line, voice, and speaker. In her most recent book, 2007's Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, her language is so compressed that it seems to bounce inward and off itself, sudden light illuminating a dark core.
Though some critics insist that Rich's poetry suffers under the weight of her politics, neither the reading public nor the many people who have given her awards have taken note. Among other honors, Rich is the recipient of the Yale Younger Poets prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Book Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Lannan Foundation. And in 1997, Rich refused the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts on the grounds that the award was 'incompatible with the cynical politics' of the Clinton administration.
'In the end,' Rich wrote in her letter of refusal, 'I don't think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist.'
It requires a clear mind and steely will to live by the strength of your convictions, decade after decade. In a Los Angeles Times essay further explaining her refusal, Rich was as prescient about politics and world events as she was about feminism at the start of the movement's second wave. Though she wrote this in 1997, she knew exactly where we would find ourselves.
'Both major parties have displayed a crude affinity for the interests of corporate power while deserting the majority of the people, especially the most vulnerable. Like so many others, I've watched the dismantling of our public education, the steep rise in our incarceration rates, the demonization of our young black men, the accusations against our teenage mothers, the selling of health care—public and private—to the highest bidders ... the scapegoating of immigrants, the denial of dignity and minimal security to our working and poor people.'
Trying to Talk With a Man
Out in this desert we are testing bombs,
that's why we came here.
Sometimes I feel an underground river
forcing its way between deformed cliffs
an acute angle of understanding
moving itself like a locus of the sun
into this condemned scenery.
What we've had to give up to get here—
whole LP collections, films we starred in
playing in the neighborhoods, bakery windows
full of dry, chocolate-filled Jewish cookies,
the language of love-letters, of suicide notes,
afternoons on the riverbank
pretending to be children
Coming out to this desert
we meant to change the face of
driving among dull green succulents
walking at noon in the ghost town
surrounded by a silence
that sounds like the silence of the place
except that it came with us
and is familiar
and everything we were saying until now
was an effort to blot it out—
coming out here we are up against it
Out here I feel more helpless
with you than without you
You mention the danger
and list the equipment
we talk of people caring for each other
in emergencies—laceration, thirst—
but you look at me like an emergency
Your dry heat feels like power
your eyes are stars of a different magnitude
they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT
when you get up and pace the floor
talking of the danger
as if it were not ourselves
as if we were testing anything else.
—Adrienne Rich, 1971This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo in June 2010, as a preview of a reading she was supposed to do for the Lannan Foundation. Rich cancelled her appearance due to illness.