Early on, Adrienne Rich’s work indicated a burgeoning voice and powerful sense of craft:

Back in the typed line

was room for everything: the blue
grape hyacinth patch,
the voluntary touch

of cheek on breast, the ear
alert for a changed heartbeat
and for other sounds too

that live in a typed line:
the breath of animals, stopping
and starting up of buses,

trashfires in empty lots.
Attention once given
returned again as power.

Adrienne Rich, “For Example,” 1963

Rich died on March 27th, sending a ripple of mourning through the US literary community. But not withstanding Matthew Dickman’s moving narrative of attending one of her last readings, I fear that the generations of poets coming after mine will not understand what we had in Adrienne Rich.

My first encounter with Rich came with Diving Into the Wreck, first as the poem, then the collection.  I was living in St. Paul at the time in a vibrant community filled with the likes of Patricia Hampl, Jim Moore, Garrison Keillor, and now and then, Robert Bly.  And a host of other poets. Several of us had just founded a group we called Women Poets of the Twin Cities; a new era in American thinking and writing and the emergence of powerful female voices was upon us.

Diving Into the Wreck illuminated and articulated the powerlessness I inherited as a woman born in 1948 to a mother born in 1915.  Rich gave voice to my experience and that of scores of women I knew who felt enchained by history and expectation and unable to throw off the psychological burden of second class citizenship or to turn the notion that biology is destiny on its head.

For each of us was torn between the yearning and drive to nurture and care-take and the ability to be whole, full people with careers and a life beyond being married and raising children.  Where Sylvia Plath brilliantly delineated the prison of the female psyche trapped in stasis with “Daddy,” Rich broke down the doors with  her laser vision and a mastery of craft that turned the literary world upside down and impacted many woman thinkers and writers. She didn’t write “like a woman,” whatever that unfortunate back-handed compliment meant at that time; she deployed language and harnessed it to her vision of emancipation.

In her ensuing Dream of a Common Language, Rich  fully appropriated language itself writing in an erudite, brilliant, straightforward and intimate voice.  What I value most in Rich’s work is also what I admire in the brilliant poetry of Tess Gallagher. The message/theme of a given work does not force a compromise or sacrifice of craft– or thought and meaning themselves as fit subjects of  contemporary poetry with its residual conventions, objective correlatives and the Imagist dictum “Not in ideas but in things.” One could say that her aesthetics are in direct opposition to those of Rae Armandtrout and the language school,  far afield from the over-cerebration of Jorie Graham and Linda Gregg and only later even remotely as confessional as Sharon Olds; rather than blurring meaning to mirror the chaos of our time, as it were, Rich pushed to refine meaning.  She did indeed put forward the dream of a common language, a language that divests itself of its entrenchment in patriarchy.  Hence, she was a consummate advocate for the shift of the raison d’etre from lives lived through and for men to living for the fullest Self, and in solidarity with other women.

Within the trajectory of her vision Rich not only had command of the whole keyboard of the English language, but negotiated with the work of her predecessors, so to speak– she employed the innovations of those who preceded her  to ground her over-arching theme of empowerment and set it within the modern, post-modern and contemporary traditions. Thanks in large measure to her work, many of us became impassioned champions of powerful, intense language and the value of the figure, as opposed to negating it as in Mary Karr’s  essay Against Decoration in favor of “truth.” It is possible to have both things going on in poetry: to be a vehicle through which the truths of existence pass and re-form on the page, and to write splendidly.

It is when Rich took up the part of feminist/lesbian ideology so wholly in later work that I began to feel she had sacrificed the craft and beauty that defines poetry for polemic, and that I stopped reading her. But she was and insofar as she lives on in her body of work, a consummate poet, the real thing.  Her contribution to American literature is remarkable.

I just watched a round table on singing featuring Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavorotti, Marilyn Horne and Richard Bonynge. Bonynge was discussing Bel Canto singing. He said, “Everybody wants to sing bel canto, but hardly anyone really can, and hardly anyone can speak intelligently about it.” Whereupon his wife Dame Sutherland burst into a bel canto passage from Norma.

So it is, it seems to me, with poetry. We know what we love and how it affects us and moves us forward in our work, but what is it? When we consider this question we necessarily include Adrienne Rich.

Regarding the intellectual milieu and rise of a culture of women occuring in the 70’s, around this same time theologian Mary Daley published Beyond God the Father, a great work that challenged the entrenched patriarchal paradigm of the established church. Doris Lessing further articulated Virginia Woolf’s vision and soon the seachange of feminism was a fait accomplit.

On a personal level, I needed to know that Adrienne Rich lived on and wasn’t so blighted by neurosis, or drained and rendered manic with exhaustion, that she resorted to suicide like Plath and Sexton and Woolf. She was a principled and victorious lantern on the dark and winding path true poets don’t appear to choose: the vision I believe Virginia Woolf was attempting to infuse into her novels of women’s interiority at its most isolating. Now in part because of the permissions Rich gave us, we women poets, those of us one generation behind her and those behind me, may turn the light of our vision to the interior world, both speaking and celebrating the privacies and nuances of being and being whole.

From Diving Into the Wreck

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Adrienne Rich