An Evening with Adrienne Rich
I first encountered Rich's poetic voice in high school, when her poem "Living in Sin" was assigned as part of an AP English course. Over the years I read more of her poems, as well as her bold and groundbreaking essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (read a précis here if you can't access the full-text Project Muse version), her inspiring convocation speech "Claiming an Education", and several other writingsall of them eloquent, many of them angry, each of them gorgeously humane and passionately alive. She has by now assumed a sidebar career as one of our most principled artists as regards the complex matter of award recognition. In 1974, she won the National Book Award for her poetry collection Diving into the Wreck, but she only accepted the prize on the condition that fellow nominees Audre Lorde (for From a Land Where Other People Live) and Alice Walker (for Revolutionary Petunias, and indeed, what a trio!) receive it alongside her as a testament to the collective integrity of women's diversity over the exceptionalist privileging of solitary voices. More recently, in 1997, she flatly refused to accept the National Medal for the Arts, a federal badge of distinction for our greatest and most influential artists, conferred by the NEA in conjuction with the U.S. Presidency. The full text of her widely disseminated rationale for refusing can be found here (scroll down the page a little), but I'd like to reiterate one of the most famous passages in this letter, also invoked by my colleague Christine Froula last night in her stirring and generous introduction to the reading:
Anyone familiar with my work from the early sixties on knows that I believe in art's social presenceas breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.
There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I know that artin my own case the art of poetrymeans nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power that holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.
The flint and steel in those wordsprivileging the sharp moral authority well above the palpable bystander's dismay that are nonetheless blended in the act of "witnessing"was itself deeply felt in the auditorium where Rich read last night, to an excitingly and importantly diverse audience of students, academics, and local citizens of several generations and hues. Despite the ubiquitous alertness and occasional severity in the political consciousness of Rich's poetry, most overtly evinced last night in her recent, lyric responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War, her creative writing avoids partisanship or simple, self-exonerating didacticism, just as her essays and public proclamations have avoided these same seductive foes. Her voice is one of reason preserved amidst its own outrage, lucidity maintained against the skews and tints of contemporary rhetoric, of joy and community and erotic pleasure and intellectual thrill despite the taxes of social cruelty, the shade of loneliness, and the necessity of moral vigilance. She opened with a recitation of "Letters: March 1969", which you can listen to here along with several other audio recordings of Rich reading her poetry. The first two sections of this evocative, macabre, and expansive poem go like this:
Foreknown. The victor
sees the disaster through and through.
His soles grind rocksalt
from roads of the resistance.
He shoulders through rows
of armored faces
he might have loved and lived among.
The victory carried like a corpse
from town to town
begins to crawl in the casket.
The summer swindled on
from town to town, our train
stopping and broiling on the rails
long enough to let on who we were.
The disaster sat up with us all night
drinking bottled water, eating fruit,
talking of the conditions that prevailed.
Outside along the railroad cut
they were singing for our death.
Hopes sparkle like water in the clean carafe.
How little it takes
to restore composure.
White napkins, a tray
of napoleons and cherry tarts
compliments of the airline
which has flown us out of danger.
They are torturing the journalist we drank with
last night in the lounge
but we can't be sure of that
here overlooking the runway
three hours and twenty minutes into another life.
If this is done for us
(and this is done for us)
if we are well men wearing bandages
if we can choose our scene
stay out of earshot
break the roll and pour
from the clean carafe
if we can desert like soldiers
abjure like thieves
we may well purchase new virtues at the gate
of the other world.
As in Emily Dickinson, Rich's poetic imagination of war's outrage and victory's grisliness is conveyed crucially through figures of incongruous, unnourishing food (the "disaster" drinks and eats more nutritiously than the "we" do), and the imminence of judgment implied by the "gate" bears a complex, darkly ironic cast. That second stanza reads over-quickly as a maverick, righteous uprising against the might of the disaster, with "new virtues" imagined as the reward for refusing an indefensible duty. But what does it mean when "deserting" and "abjuring" offer our best chances of just defiance, or when our "hopes" are "pour[ed] from the clean carafe" as if dissipated in their very moment of realization? Or when new virtues themselves must be "purchased" rather than more beatifically assumed?
Rich gave a stirring, strong reading of this poem and all the others she selected, reaching from the late 1960s through her most recent compositions. In her eighth decade of life, she is bowed a bit by arthritis and was uncomfortably cognizant, as were we all, of the heat of a packed lecture hall. Still, her composure and charisma reigned, and she effortlessly directed our focus toward her words in each moment, never to any patina of celebrity or to the blanket fact of a well-appointed, well-attended, and gracefully organized ceremony. Drawn in, perhaps, by her fame and reputation, what we in the audience finally experienced was her truth, her empathy, and her perspicacity. As much as I admire her, I still wasn't prepared for how honored I would feel to join her before the reading at a small, honorary dinner (an invitation for which I hardly qualified, and which arose only at the very last minute), and then to hear her read, and finally, at the end of the evening, to speak briefly with her in personsharing with her that "The School Among the Ruins," the title poem from her most recent and prizewinning collection, was a last, great favorite of my late friend and colleague Fred Pfeil, at whose memorial service this poem about a devastated school in a war-ravaged countryalmost certainly Iraq, though sadly paradigmatic of many other placeswas read. Not just a personal hero then, but a hero of other heroes, Adrienne Rich earned and rewarded every one of those compliments and honorifics that seemed vaguely to embarrass her throughout the evening. She reminded us all, in both her words and her example, to claim even more than our educationsto claim, in fact, our seat at the table where a new world, full of homes as well as faraway places, could be righted, expanded, redeemed.