A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.
In answer to the question “Does poetry play a role in social change?,” Adrienne Rich once answered:
Yes, where poetry is liberative language, connecting the fragments within us, connecting us to others like and unlike ourselves, replenishing our desire. . . . In poetry words can say more than they mean and mean more than they say. In a time of frontal assaults both on language and on human solidarity, poetry can remind us of all we are in danger of losing—disturb us, embolden us out of resignation.
The New Yorker, Claudia Rankine, May 12, 2016
I met Adrienne Rich only briefly at a community college poetry reading, and what I saw in her eyes was pure intelligence, she didn’t miss a thing. As a writer, she also didn't miss a thing.
As I read through Rich’s newly published collected works, I recognize that Rich was not only an iconic poet, she was an iconic truth-teller. Her writing didn’t stop at the edge and fade into nothingness, she often began at the edge and purposely jumped off the poetic cliff. She said what others only thought, and possibly long before they thought it.
A friend once suggested that our poetry is basically who we are. Our prejudices, our depth or lack thereof, our worldview, all operate like a lettered fingerprint. I agreed then, and have used her insight many times while attempting to discern more about a poem or a problem or a political candidate.
To sit alone in a quiet room reading someone’s poems is to enter their worldview. To sit alone in a quiet room writing poems is to enter our own worldview.
PROSPECTIVE IMMIGRANTS PLEASE NOTE by Adrienne Rich
Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.
Adrienne Rich isn’t here to see the explosion of Twitter, Snapchat or Facebook, and if she were, would she participate? I very much doubt she would. But that is my idealization of a poet, wanting to keep the work separate, the poet separate from the blurriness of too easy communication.
How we use Facebook or Twitter or even the more work-oriented LinkedIn, is how we see ourselves through the lens of our worldview. No two people will see things the same. Individuals and mainstream media point out their biases by shining a light on the other side’s problems and failures. We see this especially in election cycles. Is poetry the bridge between opposite viewpoints?
IN THOSE YEARS by Adrienne Rich
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I
When someone develops into an artist or dancer or poet, he or she has stepped outside of the box and declared themselves different. Different because they are giving credence to something the West sometimes considers useless, our beautiful innate creativity. If a poet writes without depth, without personal hard-earned meaning, then the box is still there keeping the poet safe from censor. I believe this is one reason for the proliferation of so much uninspiring writing, the fear of being truthful and the judgement that inevitably follows truth-telling.
I have wondered how Rich handled that judgment, how she lived out loud saying and doing what she believed. Most of us do not have the ability to withstand the backlash. That she handled it her entire adult life is a profound testament to Rich’s strength of character. She didn't blame anyone else or whine about indignities. Her poems were often political, often opinionated, but written with a sensitivity that included the reader, both believer and doubter.
Reading Rich's poems now, I may not always agree with her, but I never feel diminished by her certainty. I am included in her worldview, and I am left to make up my own mind about the issues that concerned her, and continue to concern me.