March 2, 2011 | by Kate Waldman
Adrienne Rich needs no introduction. One of the twentieth century’s most exhaustively celebrated poets and essayists, she counts among her many honors a National Book Award, a Book Critics Circle Award, and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. Robert Hass has ascribed to her work the qualities of salt and darkness, praising its “relentless need to confront difficulty.” But Rich’s latest collection, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, ranges from dismay to joy, the outraged to the erotic. Over e-mail, Rich shared her thoughts on poetry and power, the search for a more nuanced wartime aesthetic, and the meaning of the “woman citizen.”
Let’s start with the title, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve.
The book has an epigraph from Webster’s Dictionary: definitions of the verb “to serve.” It’s an interesting range of meanings, from the idea of obedient servitude to the authoritative (from law, the military, a prison sentence), to the meeting of another’s needs, to being of use. The title poem begins with an erotic moment registered in a world of torture and violence. It turns, midway, from the sensual and “poetic” to an official grammar, parsing violent policies as you might diagram a sentence in a classroom.
The poem was inflected, you could say, by interviews I was hearing on Amy Goodman’s program, Democracy Now!—about Guantánamo, waterboarding, official U.S. denials of torture, the “renditioning” of presumed terrorists to countries where they would inevitably be tortured. The line “Tonight I think no poetry will serve” suggests that no poetry can serve to mitigate such acts, they nullify language itself. One begins to write of the sensual body, but other bodies “elsewhere” are terribly present.
Do you see the poems in this book as being different from your earlier work? Where are the continuities, the ruptures?
I don’t see this book, really, in that way. My writing—and thinking—has been charting its way over many decades, formed in many ways. My third book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963) was, certainly, a break from previous work in its move from older prescriptive formats (as distinct, by the way, from actual form). That was in my early thirties.
As long as I can remember I have cared about the timbre, the phrasing of a poetic line. Ever since Snapshots, I’ve worked close to the pull and release of voices. Sometimes they’re conversational, sometimes they’re more like the dialogues or choruses of Greek tragedy, addressing conditions of urgency in a communal order or disorder. The voices may be individual, but they’re searching for a shared moral reality.
The music, the sound of words working together, has always mattered to me. But it’s not necessarily easy listening. It can be fractured, dissonant music, in the sense of Charles Mingus or Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” The poem “Reading the Iliad (As If) for the First Time” opens with the words, “Lurid, garish, gash.” I want the sense of physicality, flesh and blood, body language. I want the words to act physically on the reader or hearer.
Our ears, like it or not, take in so much in a day. Maybe some North American ears have trouble with poetry because of the noise from an aggressively voiced ruling ethos—its terminology of war, success, national security, winning and losing, ownership, merchandising, canned information, canned laughter. Poetry can be direct, it can be colloquial, it can be abrupt or angry, but it’s not that vacuous noise; it wants to unseat that kind of language, play other kinds of sound tracks. Click here to read the entire interview.