Adrienne Rich addresses dinner guests after receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2006 National Book Awards sponsored by The National Book Foundation in New York, Nov. 15, 2006. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson, file)
Adrienne Rich was an exquisitely politically poet—and a politically exquisite poet.
Radical in word and deed, Rich did not play games with politics or poetry. She treated each seriously, displaying a genius first recognized by W.H. Auden in the early days of the McCarthy Era that so horrified them both—and that new generations of readers would recognize across the decades during which she became as definitional as the elder poet who had selected the 22-year-old Rich for the 1951 “Yale Series of Younger Poets Award.”
Dead now, at age 82, Rich will speak on—well and wisely—through her poetry and through the myriad interviews she gave about writing and radicalism. Intensely committed to the causes of civil rights, socialism, feminism, lesbian and gay rights, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, she wrote poems about being an observer, but she was an eternal participant. And that participation was transformational.
“We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed,” she would write, “yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.”
Committed to trade unionism, she served on the board of the National Writers Union, as arguably the most honored of its author members. Yet there were some honors she would note accept. In 1997, she famously refused a National Medal of Arts as a protest not merely against right-wing attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts but against the economic, social and political compromises of the Clinton administration. “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration,” Rich explained. “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage”
A huge fan of “Democracy Now,” and a frequent contributor to The Nation and other journals of the left, she made political media more lyrical. But she also made literary journals more political. Asked in a very fine interview a year ago with Paris Review Daily about the “overtly political” character of her 2011, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve—with its anguished reflections on “Guantánamo, waterboarding, official U.S. denials of torture, the ‘renditioning’ of presumed terrorists to countries where they would inevitably be tortured”—Rich replied:
I’m not quite sure why you see Tonight No Poetry Will Serve as more overtly political than my other books. The split in our language between “political” and “personal” has, I think, been a trap. When I was younger I was undoubtedly caught in that trap—like many women, many poets—as a mode of conceiving experience.
In 1969 I wrote, “The moment when a feeling enters the body/ is political. This touch is political” (“The Blue Ghazals,” in The Will to Change ). Writing that line was a moment of discovering what I’d already begun doing. Much of my earlier poetry had been moving in that direction, though I couldn’t see it or say it so directly.
“The Blue Ghazals,” published as an homage to Mizra Ghalib—the 19th-century master of Urdu ghazals who penned a poetry that was free and beautiful in a time of oppressive and cruel British colonialism—spoke of the common ground between love and solidarity as well as any poetry of our time.
What Rich explained in “The Blue Ghazals” she practiced across more than sixty years as as poet who maintained an exceptional level of engagement with the good fights of her times.
Rich was passionate about that engagement. And her poetry challenged others to share the passion.
Rich’s poem read:
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 rages of fog
where we stood, saying I
John Nichols’s new book on protests and politics is Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, just out from Nation Books. Follow John Nichols on Twitter @NicholsUprising.