Adrienne Rich (1929- ): Introducing the Selected
. . . the critics couldn’t get it
Adrienne Rich’s first Selected Poems was published by the Hogarth Press in 1967. Then her Poems: Selected and New 1950-1974 was published in 1975 when she was forty-six. In that same year she was exceptional to be included as a living writer in the Norton Critical Edition series, when Adrienne Rich’s Poetry: texts of the poems, the poet and her work, reviews and criticisms, was selected and edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi. However that was only the beginning of the story. The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984 (first edition) was published by W. W. Norton in 1984; to be revised and published as The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-2001 by W. W. Norton in 2002. Presumably this edition with minimum editorial apparatus was aimed at the general poetry reader market, and women readers who were/are participants in the women’s movement and partisans of cultural feminism. In the meantime, the Norton Critical Edition was revised and significantly expanded to become, Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose in 1993. The editors remarked in their Preface:
Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose is, then, virtually a different book from Adrienne Rich’s Poetry, and that is appropriate, given the changes it registers in Rich’s thought, life, poetic production, and critical reception (xii).
In this paper I review five different versions of the selected poems of Adrienne Rich and consider how they offer us insight into the changes and transformations in Rich’s thought, her social and political concerns, and her poetic production from 1951 till 2001.[i]
“The Fact of a Doorframe” (first published in the “Poems 1973-1974” section of Poems: Selected and New 1950-1974) is for Rich a fundamental poem about her relationship to poetry and the world. In recognition of this fact, the Gelpis add it to their 1993 edition. Rich places it opposite the Frontispiece in the volume of that name, and includes it in her 2001 selection as well:
Now again, poetry,
violent, arcane, common,
hewn of the commonest living substance
into archway, portal, frame
I grasp for you, your bloodstained splinters, your
ancient and stubborn poise
— as the earth trembles —
burning out from the grain
Here Rich sums up a number of preoccupations that stretch across the entirety of her poetic output: the sense of continuous renewal or of poetry written in process and in response to current events; the dream of a “common” — Dantescan, democratic, egalitarian and inclusive — language; the interest in recovering a submerged matriarchal cultural tradition as revealed in the work of Erich Neumann for example; the liminal experience of an American subject who is neither Jew nor Gentile, marginalized nor mainstreamed; the aspiration to follow Whitman in hewing poetry out of the “common living substance” of the material conditions of the US; and the balancing acknowledgement of the importance of Emily Dickinson as literary foremother who likened her female poetic nature to that of a dormant but not extinct volcano.
What do the various Forewords and Prefaces tell us about changing cultural contexts and changing critical discourses over the decades?
In her Foreword to Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974, Rich is clear that she is still a poet in process:
I think of this book, not as a summing-up or even a retrospective, but as the graph of a process still going on. From the poems of seven volumes and nearly twenty-five years, I have chosen the ones that seem to me to belong, obliquely or not, most truly to that process (1950-1974: xv).
In this brief Foreword, Rich positions herself overtly as a feminist and as middle-aged. Recognition of ethnicity and class are not included in her discourse. However, a distinctively American focus on the individual within a shared, self-constituting community is evident. Note the inclusive gesture as she switches from first person singular to first person plural pronoun use:
As I type these words we are confronted with the naked and unabashed failure of patriarchal politics and patriarchal civilization. To be a woman at this time is to know extraordinary forms of anger, joy, impatience, love, and hope. […] we need to touch the living who share our animal passion for existence, our determination that the sexual myths underlying the human condition can and shall be recognized and changed (1950-1974: xv-xvi).
I don’t think this is the authorial royal “we”; but rather the communitarian we of the women’s movement. The rhetoric here adopts a similar strategy to that of some of her most compelling poetry: namely, the inclusion of the reader, gendered female, in the poetical process and the political project. I am struck by the fact that many of her poems include implicit addressees, addressed with a sense of intimacy that seeks to include us in the conversation, but on the poet’s own terms.
The Foreword contains an illuminating comment on Rich’s commencing the practice of dating her poems around 1954:
I […] felt embarked on a process that was tentative and exploratory […] I needed to allow the poems to speak for their moment (1950-1974: xv).
Published in the same year, Barbara and Albert Gelpi also mention this, commenting that the practice arose:
out of a deepening sense that poems arise from a particular point in the flow of time, and that poetry is inseparable from the process of living, changing, and developing (1975: ix).
Poetry of the moment: a poetry that charts significant moments of the individual poet’s life, but also responds to the ongoing historical moments; a poetry that bears witness to the moment as seen up close and as watched through omnipresent media — this is a key characteristic of Rich’s work. The Gelpis’ first Preface adopts a different position in relation to the poet as subject. She is presented as an iconic figure, and her “personality,” her “presence” and her “voice” are foregrounded in their description of her:
The magnetism of her presence and of her work comes partly from the sense of a personality which has centered and freed itself in a way that very few of us have, and, more than that, of a personality which in the very process of self-discovery finds the language to describe the process, reaches us with a voice, and so helps us to reach ourselves (1975: ix).
So, to the poet’s emphasis on process, her admiring editors can add a sense of her charismatic personality, whether this is approached by audiences at her readings or through reading the poetry. Poet, audience and readership are engaged in a counter-cultural project of transformative, consciousness-raising, in which we reach out to others and reach into ourselves.[ii] Their Introduction constructs the figure of the American poet, harnessing a vocabulary that would be equally appropriate for a description of Walt Whitman as pictured in the frontispiece engraving in the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass:[iii]
But it is becoming increasingly clear that within the circle she stands with special presence as pioneer, witness, prophet: at once realist and dreamer (1975: xi).
They also define her specifically as a feminist poet, working within a tradition of 19th- and 20th- century American women poets:
From the beginning Rich’s theme, personal and collective, has been woman in the patriarchy: her own identity, the identity of woman on man’s established terms; and, more and more urgently, the possibility of identity on her own on woman’s terms. […] In Rich’s development the private poet becomes a pubic poet without sacrificing the complexity of subjective experience or the intensity of personal emotion (1975: xi, xii-xiii).
Having quoted from a review by Rich that sketches out the evolution of women’s poetry in the 19th and 20th centuries, their final paragraph places her in the dual tradition of Emily Dickinson and Whitman, and it specifically terms her a feminist poet. Like Rich, they do not mention ethnicity or class.
The Gelpis’ revised and enlarged edition of 1993 thoroughly revises the discursive strategies of their first Preface. Gone is the excitable figuration of poet as counter-cultural charismatic icon, gone is the emphasis on personality and biography in both the poet and the critical responses to her work. Instead, the editors can be confident in appraising her oeuvre as belonging to the American literary canon:
In the place of the criticism with a strong biographical cast that for good reason characterized early studies of her work, we have looked to essays that emphasize the qualities of her writing and of her situation as a twentieth-century American woman poet (1993: xii).
The heady sense of collaboration in a transformational process has given way to sober critical evaluation. The editors’ earlier transcribed interviews with the poet are now redundant:
“Three Conversations,” our dialogue with Rich […] was made redundant by the wealth and significance of the prose Rich has published since 1975 […] Rich’s own self-analytical prose […] transformed the critical section of this book (1993: xii).
In 1975 it seems that both poet and her critical editors where caught up in a cultural process that felt exceptional. By 1993 this can be analyzed more objectively:
Rich was one of the first to investigate in depth the meaning of the slogan at the heart of the feminist movement, “The personal is political” (1993: xi-xii).
Then she was heralded as a “pioneer”; now she is assessed as having been at the vanguard of radical insights that produced cultural feminism. The link between Rich’s poetry and her “contribution to the methodology at the core of all feminist theorizing” is now elucidated, with the help of Diane Middlebrook’s insight (xii).[iv] A wider vocabulary can now be employed to describe and evaluate her contribution. The concepts of “source and resource,” trauma, “living memory,” and “re-vision” — all derived from Rich’s poetry and prose — expand and transform the critical discourse:
For her the fact that consciousness bears the marks and scars of oppressive institutions does not invalidate, much less destroy, the actuality of personal experience as a source and resource. Seeing the scars rather than denying them and using memory to grasp their causes and consequences together constitute the awesome “re-vision” undertaken in everything she writes (1993: xii).
But most significant to my mind is that the editors in glossing what is involved in the practice of “re-vision” specifically write of “the constant reassessment of the ways in which one has participated, whatever one’s race, gender, or class, in one’s own oppression” (xii). From A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978-1981 (1981), “For Ethel Rosenberg” includes the stanza:
Escaping from home I found
the Jewish question, Communism
And then a few lines down, the poem even more explicitly names “My Jewish father” (1993: 95). As if a flood gate has been opened, Rich then explores extensively the subject of her Jewishness and of American Jewry in “Sources” (See 1993: 101-114) and in “Yom Kippur 1984” (1993: 124-7) from Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems (1986). In addition, both “An Atlas of the Difficult World” 1993: 142-58) and “Tattered Kaddish” (1993: 159-60) from An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991) (1993: 142-58) are suffused with a revisionist stance towards Jewish religious and mythological traditions and current Middle Eastern politics. Her troubled relationship to Jewish identity is also foregrounded by the inclusion of “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity (1982)” (1993: 224-39); “The Genesis of ‘Yom Kippur, 1985’ (1987)” (1993: 252-8); and “Adrienne Rich: An Interview with David Montenegro (1991)” (1993: 258-74), where she again discusses her family’s coping mechanisms for dealing with anti-Semitism in Baltimore in the thirties and forties, and reveals how much it influenced her lifelong preoccupation with finding a language in which to talk about those things for which “there was a great deal of pressure not to talk about” (1993: 262).
Rich’s Foreword to The Fact of a Doorframe (1984) also inscribes her ethnicity, and concurrently mitigates the angry rhetoric of cultural feminism.
The poems in this book were written by a woman growing up and living in the fatherland of the United States of North America. One task for the nineteen- or twenty-year-old poet who wrote the earliest poems here was to learn that she was neither unique nor universal, but a person in history, a woman and not a man, a white and also Jewish inheritor of a particular Western consciousness, from the making of which most women have been excluded (1984: xv).
Still she writes of experience, transformation and process; but whereas before in 1975 the scenario seemed situated close to the countercultural barricades, the tone now is more that of calm reflection within a living room or even a synagogue:
In writing poetry I have known both keen happiness and the worst fear — that the walls cannot be broken down, that these words will fail to enter another soul. […] the desire to be heard, to resound in another’s soul — that is the impulse behind writing poems, for me (1984: xv).
She is reflecting upon passion and desire, and is admitting an anxiety to be heard that retrospectively elucidates many poems, for example in The Will to Change (1971):
My swirling wants. Your frozen lips.
The grammar turned and attacked me.
Themes, written under duress.
Emptiness of the notations.
(“A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” 1984: 136-7)
Or from “Shooting Scripts 1”:
We were bound on the wheel of an endless conversation.
Inside this shell, a tide waiting for someone to enter.
A monologue waiting for you to interrupt it.
Yet this Foreword is less driven by trauma, desire and fear, than it is the mellow result of an ongoing process of recollection, reflection and meditative revision. And happily, the feminist gesture of calling her male editor “unusual” (1950-1974: xvi) for being a man and “caring” has been dropped.
Moreover, the focus is altered from that of sexual politics and identity politics to that of nationhood and international politics as well. With the more moderate lexical register other perspectives than that of lesbian radical feminist are allowed into the connotations of her language. The phrase, “fatherland of the United States of North America” can be read as existing in a continuum of Rich’s critique of patriarchy, but it can also be read as an acknowledgement of a global situation and of the necessity for paternity. The same is true of her description of herself as “Jewish inheritor of a particular Western consciousness”. Written in January 1984, this Foreword reflects the changing concerns of her poetry and anticipates the publication of the explorations of Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems (e.g. “North American Time,” “Contradictions: Tracking Poems 18 & 26”),[v] Time’s Power (e.g. “The Desert as Garden of Paradise”), and An Atlas of the Difficult World (e.g. the title poem). Always writing with a sense of the political in the personal, Rich in the mid 1980s writes resonantly about the personal responsibility as poet to write about more than issues associated with individual identity. Thus, in “North American Time”:
Try sitting at a typewriter
one calm summer evening
at a table by a window
in the country, try pretending
your time does not exist
that you are simply you
that the imagination simply strays
like a great moth, unintentional
try telling yourself
you are not accountable
to the life of your tribe
the breath of your planet
Poet, sister: words —
whether we like it or not —
stand in a time of their own.
No use protesting I wrote that
before Kollontai was exiled
Rosa Luxemburg, Malcolm,
Anna Mae Aquash, murdered,
before Treblinka, Birkenau,
Hiroshima, before Sharpeville,
Biafra, Bangla Desh, Boston,
Atlanta, Soweto, Beirut, Assam
— those faces, names of places
sheared from the almanac
of North American time
(1984: 325-6; 2002: 198-9)
Collected in 1986, this poem is dated 1983, and is significantly the final poem in the 1984 Fact of a Doorframe.
The 2001 Foreword focuses on the image of “doorframe”, but more than that succinctly states and expounds a lucid thesis,[vi] which emphasises the fact of “language as material force” (2002: xv) that exists in time and within a social context. Five decades since her first published collection, Rich can consciously discuss the medium of poesis, rather than the intentional ideas that it is a vehicle for. Upon mature reflection she can acknowledge the heterogeneity of influences informing her language, and she can define her position in relation to it:
To work in a medium which can be, has been, used as an instrument of trivialization and deceit, not to mention colonization and humiliation, is somewhat different from working in a medium like stone, clay, paint, charcoal, even iron or steel. A poet cannot refuse language, choose another medium. But the poet can re-fuse the language given to him or her, bend and torque it into an instrument for connection instead of dominance and apartheid: toward what Edouard Glissant has wonderfully called “the poetics of relation” (2002: xvi).
The poetics of relation describes accurately her poetic practice, but is a more inclusive term than the Gelpis’ 1975 sense of her voice reaching us. This grounds that sense of dialogue, conversation, and correspondence, which suffuses her work, in prosodic practices and textual strategies. It allows us to analyses why she has had such a powerful, persuasive influence on a generation of women readers, among whom I readily count myself.
Rich continues, by referring to the anarchist poet Paul Goodman’s description of a “gaunt and fumbling style” of poetry, and comments:
Poetry has need for [“the gaunt and fumbling style of acting out of desperation”], as well as for the luminosity of the lyrical phrase, the Whitmanic or Biblical measure of the ocean, impetuosity and wit, the dialogic phrasing of jazz, moments of delicacy on the edges of silence — and much else (2002: xvi).
Let us consider some of Rich’s work, using the range of analytic tools these critical discourses give us, starting with “the gaunt and fumbling style of acting out of desperation.”
In writing a poetry of the moment, Rich often captures a sense of emotional and/or historical desperation: and she works actively to use her own arthritic pain to empathise with the pain of the world. She writes in “Contradictions: Tracking Poems”: “the problem is / to connect, without hysteria, the pain / of anyone’s body, with the pain of the body’s world” (1993: 129). She also borrows the language of one of her students as testimony to types of immediate suffering that she has escaped as a middle-class poet:
3. People suffer highly in poverty and it takes dignity and intelligence to overcome this suffering. Some of the suffering are: a child did not had dinner last night: a child steal because he did not have money to buy it: to hear a mother say she do not have money to buy food for her children and to see a child without cloth it will make tears in your eyes.
(the fracture of order
the repair of speech
to overcome this suffering)
(“The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” 1993:41; 2002: 76)
She has always pushed language to the limits of articulacy in order to convey heightened states of emotion, whether that is the result of personal distress or political anger. Her ability to convey the inarticulacy of psychological and social trauma is one of her strengths as a poet. Because of the messiness of poetic language that this involves, we might expect such poems to be the first to be edited out. Fortunately both the Gelpis and Rich recognize their importance, and poems from the 1971 and the 1973 collections survive consistently in all the selections. The Gelpis use their indexes to point the reader to critical discussions of specific poems. This allows us to resolve perplexity immediately, and doubtless has made life easier for essay writing students over the decades. In 1975 three critics referred to “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”; namely Albert Gelpi, Wendy Martin, and Nancy Milford — the latter two being specially commissioned “personal readings of Rich’s work, each discussing from her own perspective how deeply the poems have registered, individually and collectively, on her sensibility” (1975: x). Milford tackles this stanza, despite admitting that she does “not know much about her life” (1975: 200):
What could have prepared her for the violence and the poverty and the oppression she has been witness to and that has inescapably marred her own life? Yet confronting it she has made a grammar to hold what she has found (1975: 200).
Neither of these commissioned essays makes it to the 1993 edition. Instead of the second guesses of feminist sensibility, we have an informative interview with the poet:
DM: In one poem written at that time […] you use prose, including a passage in so-called “poor grammar,” Black English. Was this written during your years as a teacher at City College in
AR: Yes (1993: 268).
Albert Gelpi’s essay, “Adrienne Rich: The Poetics of Change” does remain, and in it he argues that:
The poems compel us precisely because they record how excruciating it is to live in this time and place; the politics is not abstracted and depersonalized but tested on the nerve-ends. The psychological and political revolutions are interdependent, because personal and public tragedy is linked, as “the Burning of Paper Instead of ‘Children” […] declare[s] (1975: 142; 1993: 293).
“Acting out of desperation,” “tested on nerve ends”: such phrases emphasize a sense of political injustices that is heightened by the national discourses of egalitarianism. Thus Rich uses linguistic anarchy to register and provoke a radical political sensibility. It is this dimension that distinguishes her from the confessional poets who are her contemporaries.
Rich balances the poetic necessity of transcribing desperation in a gaunt and fumbling style with the equal necessity for the luminosity of the lyrical phrase. Albert Gelpi comments in “The Poetics of Change” that:
Adrienne Rich’s earlier poems were praised for their subtlety of rhythm and tone, and these [latter] unmetered lines lose none of their subtlety for being more strongly stressed and more freely paced. But in becoming more concrete, her poetry was becoming primarily visual rather than aural, and she has been increasingly successful at imprinting images so indelibly that they convey the meaning without comment or conclusion (1993: 286).
What does Rich mean by “the lyrical phrase”? Does this mean poems that are songs or song-like; e.g. “Song” (2002: 104) or “Final Notations” (2002: 250) or section 2 of “Seven Skins” (2002: 290-1)? Or does this mean musical cadence, which is more difficult to pin down and more dependent upon subject response of the reader? Does this allude to a validation of the “personal” experience as more intense, more “poetic” than the “public” and advocative role of the poet as representative? Would “(THE FLOATING POEM, UNNUMBERED)” (2002: 150) from “Twenty One Love Poems” count? And luminosity? Given the contingent realities of late 20th-century / early 21st-century existence, Rich’s poetry notes the despoliation and the problematization of the luminous, as much as describe an ideal lumen. See for example: “Sunset, December, 1993” (2002: 262-3) or “Noctilucent Clouds” (2002: 305-6).[vii] And yet luminous lyricism still remains an essential presence in poetry. “Sunset, December, 1993” describes the poet both literally and metaphorically all at sea. Danger lurks everywhere, as it did for Dickinson.[viii] The opening proposition: “Dangerous of course to draw / parallels” is counterbalanced by the urgent sense that it is “Dangerous not to think” in a time and place when the earth’s very existence can no longer be taken for granted. In mid-poem the image of luminosity bears the poet’s / (poetic) feet, contains a sense of individualism within the communal ship, and conveys the precariousness of late 20th-century social and political existence:
I walked out on the deck and every board
was luminous with cold dew It could freeze tonight
Each board is different of course but each does gleam
wet under a complicated sky: mounds of swollen ink
This ship bears a trace of Erich Neumann’s analysis of ship as archetypal feminine vessel, and within the surrounding textual context of considering a history of world and local wars it also suggests the “ship of state” we find ourselves sailing on. Moments of luminosity are not moments of transcendence; rather they highlight manifold danger, oppression and fragility. “FLOATING POEM, UNNUMBERED” is a case in point. Olga Broumas’s “Review of The Dream of a Common Language” describes the “FLOATING POEM, UNNUMBERED” as “meaning everywhere, meaning despite” (1993: 325) — despite everything one might say. In this poem lesbian lovemaking is described through images of a natural world that evoke matriarchal mythology and fragile ecosystems: “my rose-wet cave” is haunted by “the half-curled frond / of the fiddlehead fern in forests / just washed by sun”. So much is held in tension even in this statement of the tenacity of love and desire. The lyrical alliteration “despite” everything is bracketed by the repeated phrase “whatever happens,” registering perdurable terrestrial beauty, yet presciently acknowledging the transience of love and the ephemerality of the beloved even in this “timeless” triumph of love.[ix]
It is perhaps easier to pinpoint two more counterbalancing qualities: namely “the Whitmanic or Biblical measure of the ocean” and “impetuosity and wit.” This is due to the presence of two major 19th-century poetic influences identifiable throughout her oeuvre. Rich acknowledges their importance in her 1975 essay “Vesuvius at Home”:
For years I have been not so much envisioning Emily Dickinson as trying to visit, to enter her mind, through her poems and letters, and through my own intimations of what it could have meant to be one of the two mid-nineteenth-century American geniuses, and a woman, living in Amherst,
In this essay she asks: “What was it like to be writing poetry you knew […] was of a class by itself — to be fueled by the energy it took first to confront, then to condense that image of psychic experience into language?” (1993: 188) And she comments that: “She had to possess the courage to enter, through language, states which most people deny or veil with silence” (1993: 192). She discovers, condensation, courage, irony and paradox in Dickinson’s oeuvre, and resonantly adopts her as a model she will follow:
Poetic language […] is a concretization of the poetry of the world at large, the self, and the forces within the self; and those forces are rescued from formlessness, lucidified, and integrated in the act of writing poems (1993: 194 — my emphasis).
For Rich, this seems to be the Dickinson poetic legacy; and note that she associates lucidity with the Amherst poet. However, in Rich’s thinking, even in the early 1970s, the “poet’s relationship to her poetry has […] a twofold nature,” and the second part of this relationship is the fact that “she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or [...] those who […] are less conscious of what they are living through” (1993: 194). This is to say that Rich claims for herself and explores through her poetry the “more ancient concept of the poet” as vatic prophet. Her poetry is self-consciously a poetry of interaction between the self, the other and the world, in a variety of different combinations.
In “The Genesis of ‘Yom Kippur (1984)’”, Rich informs us that in the Summer and Fall of 1984 she was reading a lot in the Hebrew Bible and reading Whitman, “with whom there turns out to be considerable dialogue” (1993: 255). Indeed there is, as this poem explicitly searches for, then recapitulates Whitman in the lines:
Three thousand miles from what I once called home
I open a book searching for some lines I remember
about flowers, something to bind me to this coast as lilacs in the dooryard once
bound me back there —
(1993: 125 — my emphasis)
Rich comments on her adoption of Whitmanesque techniques in her essay on the poem’s genesis:
This isn’t the America that Whitman understood, that he conjures up in his poetry. That series in my poem — “faggot kicked into the icy river, woman dragged from her stalled car,” and so on — is a kind of Whitmanesque catalogue, naming and evoking the different kinds of people that make up the American landscape, the American city. But these are kinds of situations that our society has to reckon with as Whitman himself did not (1993: 256).
So in “Yom Kippur (1984)” — a poem that Rich chooses not to select although the Gelpis do in 1993 — the poet dramatises the need to seek out Whitman’s lines, both to assist a sense of personal dislocation and isolation, and to illuminate the inhumanity of contemporary American society in a style that replicates that of the 19th-century poet, even if the incidents described are more barbaric than anything he could have depicted. This is not an isolated coupling of Whitmanesque technique with a Whitmanesque poetic stance: Rich uses the combination quite frequently in her later work.
Consider for example, section 7 of “From an Old House in America” written in 1974:
I am an American woman:
I turn that over
like a leaf pressed in a book
I stop and look up from
into the coals of the stove
or the black square of the window
Foot-slogging through the Bering Strait
jumping from the Arbella to my death
chained to the corpse beside me
I feel my pains begin
I am washed up on this continent
shipped here to be fruitful
my body a hollow ship
bearing sons to the wilderness
sons who ride away
on horseback, daughters
whose juices drain like mine
into the arroyo of stillbirths, massacres
Hanged as witches, sold as breeding-wenches
my sisters leave me
I am not the wheatfield
nor the virgin forest
I never chose this place
yet I am of it now
In my decent collar, in the daguerreotype
I pierce its legend with my look
my hands wring the necks of prairie chickens
I am used to blood
When the men hit the hobo track
I stay on with the children
my power is brief and local
but I know my power
I have lived in isolation
from other women, so much
in the mining camps, in the first cities
the Great Plains winters
Most of the time, in my sex, I was alone
The first person voice assumes a series of different identities in the course of this brief poem. The technique is reminiscent of Whitman’s catalogues, for example in section 15 of “Song of Myself”, where the poet provides a panoramic view of American citizens from different regions and different walks of life, and with a clear egalitarian intent:[x] Whitman ends this section:
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.
Rich adopts a strategy similar to the one Whitman describes here, but she pushes it one stage further by speaking as these diverse American women. The “considerable” dialogue with Whitman includes the lesbian feminist gesture of focusing exclusively on women, whereas the homosocial and homosexual poet includes all genders in his catalogues. One major difference between the Whitman poetic text and Rich’s here is that Whitman’s rhetoric draws together men and women who are diverse in terms of ethnicity, class, economic status, and geographical region, but who are co-existent in time. In fact their temporal coincidence is the factor that permits poetic and thus political contiguity. Rich achieves the same end of having one factor in common across a diverse series of individuals, but for her that factor is gender. On the other hand, she introduces the dimension of historical time, which is absent from Whitman’s panoramic and contemporaneous vision. Indeed without the historical dimension her reader might be forgiven a certain confusion as to whether this is of one voice or of many to begin with.
After the initial allusion to Leaves of Grass,[xi] Rich indicates the premise of this section of the poem by placing two different experiences in the same couplet:
Foot-slogging through the Bering Strait
jumping from the Arbella to my death
I take it that this refers to two different histories of migrations to the American subcontinent: the first by Indigenous Americans from Eurasia moving eastward across the land bridge between Siberia and
I am struck by the influence of Whitman on the line that has always seemed to me to be the most feminist of this poem, namely: “I am not the wheatfield /nor the virgin forest,” with its refusal to collude with assigning the subject position of being at one with nature to women just because of their biological sex. Whitman also distinguishes himself as poet from the natural world, as in section 7 of “Song of Myself”:
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
So, this poem is in itself a jazzy dialogue with Whitman, in which one of the personae the poet adopts is that of Emily Dickinson:
In my decent collar, in the daguerrotype
I pierce its legend with my look
Rich wants to claim the expansive, all-encompassing rhetoric of Whitman to dramatise the constrained and claustrophobic existence of prior American women. Unlike the anonymous and invisible early immigrants, Rich has a specific and distinctive image of Dickinson in mind, which she evokes in this couplet; namely the only known daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, taken around 1847 or 1848 when she was approximately seventeen years old. [xii] So, in this poem, and I would say far more generally in her oeuvre, Rich works to weave together the dual inheritance of Whitman and Dickinson. The result is dialogic, as a polyphony of poetic discourses converse and converge in the re-gendered and regenerated enunciation of a poet who is “split at the root” and working towards a new kind of lesbian androgyny.
When Rich alludes to “the dialogic phrasing of jazz” I am not convinced that Rich intends “dialogic” in the Bakhtinian sense; yet as reader of her poetry I am often aware of her being “in a dialogical relationship” with her subject, and as “actually conversing with” her subject (Bakhtin: 46). In which case, one might argue that her poetic oeuvre engages with society and conveys, even if partially, its polyglossic nature. Bakhtin argues that only the modern novel is capable of this task, yet his description of novelistic discourse suggests a quality of Rich’s “split at the root” poetic discourse:
The author represents this language, carries on a conversation with it, and the conversation penetrates into the interior of this language-image and dialogizes it from within. […] Language in the [poem] not only represents, but itself serves as the object of representation. […] Only polyglossia fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language (Bakhtin: 46, 49, & 61).[xiii]
Rich’s selected poetry is replete with poems of address both intimate and declamatory, poems of conversation, and poems that address the tyranny and the myth of “the oppressors’ language” from (to name but a few): “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” (1993: 17) to “Shooting Script” (1993: 45-7) to “Trying to Talk with a Man” (1993: 48-9) to “And Now” (2002: 264) and “If Your Name is on the List” (2002: 306-7). That she associates the dialogic imagination with jazz makes utter sense in an American context; but quite what does she mean in terms of poetics? It is a challenge to offer a neat example of polyglossic conversation and reflections. By definition, these jazzy dialogics often occur in longer poetic sequences where different voices from different regions, different classes, different ethnicities, and sometimes from different moments in history are juxtaposed in complex conversational patterns. However, “Contradictions: Tracking Poems” is one such sequence; and it encodes in its title different (contra-) “dictions”; furthermore, one connotation of “tracking” could be the “tracks” on an LP or CD. This sequence functions dialogically across its constituent parts, and I think we can also say that each poem within the sequence is dialogic in its construction:
I’m calling you up tonight
As I might call up a friend as I might call up a ghost
to ask what you intend to do
with the rest of your life. Sometimes you act
as if you have all the time there is.
I worry about you when I see this.
The prime of life, old age
aren’t what they used to be;
making a good death isn’t either,
now you can walk around the corner of a wall
and see a light
that already has blown your past away.
Somewhere in Boston beautiful literature
is being read around the clock
by writers to signify
their dislike of this.
I hope you’ve got something in mind.
I hope you have some idea
about the rest of your life.
(1993: 128; 2002: 205)
This dialogue of the poet with her alter ego sounds colloquial and conversational, although it includes effects such as anaphora, a device much used by Whitman:
As I might call up a friend as I might call up a ghost
I hope you’ve got something in mind.
I hope you have some idea
Here anaphora at beginning and end of the poem shapes this correspondence / correspondance; and is indeed evocative of the jazz musicians use of enunciation and repetition in composition and performance.
As I move towards an ending, I would just like to allude to “moments of delicacy on the edges of silence.” This is a theme Rich broached explicitly as early as 1975 in “Cartographies of Silences”:
If from time to time I envy
the pure annunciations to the eye
the visio beatifica
if from time to time I long to turn
like the Eleusinian hierophant
holding up a simple ear of grain
for return to the concrete and everlasting world
what in fact I keep choosing
are these words, these whispers, conversations
from which time after time truth breaks moist and green.
In “Twenty-One Love Poems IX” she confesses to her addressee, Michelle Cliff:
I fear this silence,
this inarticulate life. I’m waiting
for a wind that will gently open this sheeted water
for once, and show me what I can do
for you, who have often made the unnameable
nameable for others, even for me.
The retrieval of the articulate from the ineffable is an essential and recurrent aspect of poetic vocation; and here it seems to emerge from a Rousseauesque moment of reverie, such as we encounter in the famous book five of his Rêveries. “Late Ghazal” returns to this theme, yet again enunciating the barely articulate in a complex dialogue of two aspects of the self: the experiential and the articulating:
Footsole to scalp alive facing the window’s black mirror.
first rains of the winter morning’s smallest hour.
go back to the ghazal then what will you do there?
Life always pulsed harder than the lines. […]
Life was always stronger . . . the critics couldn’t get it.
Memory says the music always ran ahead of the words.
I use the gerund advisedly, since this poem, written in 1994, continues to enact a sense of ongoing process; and to enact an increasing sense that the poetry can barely be commensurate with experience, whether that of the self or of others. The caesura — marked by blank space mid-line — reminds us of the intrusion of significant silence in the moment leading up to the poem, a moment that is then dramatized in the poem itself. Rituals of reading, walking, driving, contemplating, crying, gazing often announce the beginning of poems, as Adrienne Rich captures the liminal space between desire, emotion, perception, intellection and the process of poesis.
Rich ends her most recent Fact of a Doorframe with a question:
how inhale the faint mist of another’s gazing, pacing, dozing
words muttered aloud in utter silence, gesture unaware
thought that has suffered and borne itself to the ends of the earth
web agitating between my life and another’s?
Other whose bed I have shared but never at once together?
Here yet again we find unfolding sense of process, a liminal space between self and other, and a subtle sense of the paradoxical nature of identity. Like Whitman and Dickinson, Rich’s work is ongoing, continuously in process and never set in its ways or its meanings. Poetry as doorframe is a poetry that can entertain “fact” and ineffability. Hovering in the sliver of space that separates these two categories. Hovering on the verge of utter silence, the magnetic voice still speaks to the 21st century as it did to the “bewildering sixties”.[xiv]
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Tr. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry. (Norton Critical Edition).
Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. (Norton Critical Edition).
Martin, Wendy. “Adrienne Rich b. 1929.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 2. 4th edition. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston &
Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother : an Analysis of the Archetype. Translated by Ralph Manheim. London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1963.
Rich, Adrienne. Selected Poems. (The Hogarth Press). London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.
Rich, Adrienne. Poems: Selected and New 1950-1974.
Rich, Adrienne. The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems: Selected and New 1950-1984.
Rich, Adrienne. The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems: Selected and New 1950-2001. (New Edition).
Rich, Adrienne. Fox.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1964.
[i] Since I am interested in the evolving discourses of the editorial introductions and prefaces, I have not included the Selected Poems. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967 in this survey, because it contains no preface.
[ii] Albert Gelpi’s “Adrienne Rich: The Poetics of Change” reveals how much he reads her work through a Jungian paradigm. While this is consonant with the emphasis on self-discovery, a Jungian psychoanalytic discourse is not overtly introduced into the co-authored preface.
[iii] I allude to the engraving of Walt Whitman from the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass:
See: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library: http://etext.virginia.edu/images/modeng/public/Whi56LG//Whi56LG008.jpg.
[iv] The footnote thanks Middlebrook “for pointing out this parallel between Rich’s stance toward experience and the central concerns of feminist theory”.
[v] “North American Time” is the final poem of The Fact of a Doorframe 1984, grouped under Poems 1982-1983. Rich as author, unlike her editors, can include previously uncollected poems in her selections, which she does in both 1974 and 1984.
[vi] “Made in and from the material of language, poetry is continually wrestling with its own medium (xv).
[vii] Wendy Martin foregrounds the lyricism of Rich’s work in her introduction to the poet in the Heath Anthology of American Literature 4th edition. 2525.
[viii] I allude to Rich’s “I am in Danger — Sir” from Necessities of Life (1966) (2002: 38), included in all selections of her work.
[ix] Prescient, because Fox opens with a poetic sequence entitled “Victory” charting Rich’s response to a friend’s presumably terminal illness from “a beautiful tumor” (3-5); not included in The Fact of a Doorframe (2001).
The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordain'd with cross'd hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars as he walks on a First-day loafe and looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm'd case,
(He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother's bed-room;)
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco while his eyes blur with the manuscript;
The malform'd limbs are tied to the surgeon's table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand, the drunkard nods by the bar-room stove,
The machinist rolls up his sleeves, the policeman travels his beat, the gate-keeper marks who pass,
The young fellow drives the express-wagon, (I love him, though I do not know him;)
The half-breed straps on his light boots to compete in the race,
The western turkey-shooting draws old and young, some lean on their rifles, some sit on logs,
Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his piece;
The groups of newly-come immigrants cover the wharf or levee,
As the woolly-pates hoe in the sugar-field, the overseer views them from his saddle,
The bugle calls in the ball-room, the gentlemen run for their partners, the dancers bow to each other,
The youth lies awake in the cedar-roof'd garret and harks to the musical rain,
The Wolverine sets traps on the creek that helps fill the Huron,
The squaw wrapt in her yellow-hemm'd cloth is offering moccasins and bead-bags for sale,
The connoisseur peers along the exhibition-gallery with half-shut eyes bent sideways,
As the deck-hands make fast the steamboat the plank is thrown for the shore-going passengers,
The young sister holds out the skein while the elder sister winds it off in a ball, and stops now and then for the knots,
The one-year wife is recovering and happy having a week ago borne her first child,
The clean-hair'd Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill,
The paving-man leans on his two-handed rammer, the reporter's lead flies swiftly over the note-book, the sign-painter is lettering with blue and gold,
The canal boy trots on the tow-path, the book-keeper counts at his desk, the shoemaker waxes his thread,
The conductor beats time for the band and all the performers follow him,
The child is baptized, the convert is making his first professions,
The regatta is spread on the bay, the race is begun, (how the white sails sparkle!)
The drover watching his drove sings out to them that would stray,
The pedler sweats with his pack on his back, (the purchaser higgling about the odd cent;)
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute-hand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open'd lips,
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck,
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other,
(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you;)
The President holding a cabinet council is surrounded by the great Secretaries,
On the piazza walk three matrons stately and friendly with twined arms,
The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold,
The Missourian crosses the plains toting his wares and his cattle,
As the fare-collector goes through the train he gives notice by the jingling of loose change,
The floor-men are laying the floor, the tinners are tinning the roof, the masons are calling for mortar,
In single file each shouldering his hod pass onward the laborers;
Seasons pursuing each other the indescribable crowd is gather'd, it is the fourth of Seventh-month, (what salutes of cannon and small arms!)
Seasons pursuing each other the plougher ploughs, the mower mows, and the winter-grain falls in the ground;
Off on the lakes the pike-fisher watches and waits by the hole in the frozen surface,
The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep with his axe,
Flatboatmen make fast towards dusk near the cotton-wood or pecan-trees,
Coon-seekers go through the regions of the Red river or through those drain'd by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansas,
Torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahooche or Altamahaw,
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons around them,
In walls of adobie, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day's sport,
The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.
[xi] I turn that over
like a leaf pressed in a book (my emphasis).
[xiii] I quote Bakhtin against the grain of his thinking on poetry. See “Discourse in Poetry and Discourse in the Novel” where he makes the distinction that “In the poetic image narrowly conceived (in the image-as-trope), all activity — the dynamics of the image-as-word — is completely exhausted by the play between the word (with all its aspects) the object in all its aspects. […] The world of poetry, no matter how many contradictions and insoluble conflicts the poet develops within it, is always illumined by one unitary and indisputable discourse. Contradictions, conflicts and doubts remain in the object, in thoughts, in living experiences — in short, in the subject matter — but they do not enter into the language itself. In poetry, even discourse about doubts must be cast in a discourse that cannot be doubted” (Bakhtin: 278, 286, & passim 275-300). Consequently I wouldn’t want to pursue this point too far, but just to raise the question whether that Bakhtinian assertion is as true now as when it was first made.
[xiv] I end with a phrase used by the Gelpis in their first Preface (1975: ix).