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> A Tribute to Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)


Diving Into the Wreck            

By Adrienne Rich 

Original and Current Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Evie Shockley writes:

Adrienne Rich is so widely known, read, and beloved not simply because she is an excellent wordsmith, but also because she puts her abundant talents as a writer to work in service of her deeply held political beliefs.  In a society that clings to the idea of aesthetics and politics as separate spheres, for more than half a century she has interwoven her work as a poet and essayist with her activism on a spectrum of issues that only begins with women’s rights.  Her commitment to this approach has brought her criticism and dismissal from some quarters, certainly, but has also earned her the respect and admiration of large numbers of readers and activists, both within and beyond the poetry community.

I was reading Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, by Alexis De Veaux, just a couple years ago, when I first learned about the pact that Rich, Lorde, and Alice Walker had made in 1974 when they learned that all three of them, along with Allen Ginsberg, had been nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry that year.  The women agreed that if any one of them received the award, she would accept it on behalf of all three and read a collaboratively written statement—a feminist manifesto, in fact—at the awards ceremony.  Rich and Ginsberg were named co-recipients of the award.  De Veaux’s account relates that Rich, in keeping with the pact, invited Lorde (Walker was not present) to share the stage with her as she read their words, including this pronouncement: “We symbolically join together in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women.”  Rich’s poetry, like Lorde’s, was and is equally unapologetic about naming and resisting the systems of oppression that keep the powerful in power.

Diving into the Wreck, the award-winning volume, represents Rich’s activist poetics as elegantly and stunningly as any collection in her still growing oeuvre.  The subjects these poems tackle encompass everything from nuclear weapons to women’s identity, from the need for truth to the difficulty of solidarity across difference, from patriarchy’s egotistical power-trip to women’s complicity in their own and others’ oppression.  But as is true of so many powerful political poems, Rich’s vibrate with the pulse of individual human desires, fears, and longings.  What is a “protest poem” but the casting of one person’s voice like a stone against the imprisoning walls of injustice in hopes of breaking through?  Rich does not write “protest poems,” per se, but her poems do offer sharp critiques of the power structures that use guns, rape, language, silence, and denial, among so many other tools, to disenfranchise the vast majority of the people on the planet.  Yet they do so often by representing individual people in situations at once specific and symbolic, literal and metaphorical. I might let the poems speak for themselves:

            Your dry heat feels like power
            your eyes are stars of a different magnitude
            they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT
            when you get up and pace the floor

            talking of the danger
            as if it were not ourselves

                                     —on the testing of nuclear bombs, from “Trying to Talk with a Man”

            Here in the matrix of need and anger, the
            disproof of what we thought possible
            failures of medication
            doubts of another’s existence
            —tell it over and over, the words
            get thick with unmeaning—
            yet never have we been closer to the truth
            of the lies we were living, listen to me:
            the faithfulness I can imagine would be a weed
            flowering in tar, a blue energy piercing
            the massed atoms of a bedrock disbelief.

                                    —from “When We Dead Awaken”

            If I’m lonely
            it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
            in the last red light of the year
            that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
            ice nor mud nor winter light
            but wood, with a gift for burning

                                    —a response to being asked “if I’m lonely,” from “Song”

            There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
            he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
            had certain ideals.
            You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
            on horseback, one hand touching his gun.

                                    —on filing a police report, from “Rape”

            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. 

                                    —from “Diving into the Wreck”

This is sustaining, nurturing poetry for those of us dissatisfied with the status quo: it feeds the heart and the head.  Don’t overlook the skill, the technique that first put Rich on the poetry map.  Listen for the stretches of iambs and anapests, the repeating and building rhythms.  Pause to take in the startling image.  Linger over the language that brings its own music, whether aria, dirge, or blues.  Rich’s poetry reminds us that this care-full attention to craft was never in opposition to care-full attention to politics.  The poet’s job is to see everything, if possible, and to use every tool at her disposal to record her observations.  As she writes in “From the Prison House”: “Underneath my lids another eye has opened / . . . / its intent is clarity / it must forget / nothing.”

Evie Shockley’s collections of poetry include the new black (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2011), a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks. She is also author of the forthcoming critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line, Iron Horse Literary Review, esque, Talisman, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Shockley co-edits jubilat and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: Stéphane Robolin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Hayden Carruth for From Snow and Rock, from Chaos
  • Evan S. Connell, Jr. for Points for a Compass Rose
  • Peter Everwine for Collecting the Animals
  • Richard Hugo for The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir
  • Donald Justice for Departures
  • Eleanor Lerman for Armed Love
  • Audre Lorde for From a Land Where Other People Live
  • Alice Walker for Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems
  • Charles Wright for Hard Freight

Poetry Judges that Year: David Kalstone, Philip Levine, Jean Valentine

The Year in Literature:

  • The Dolphin by Robert Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Stanley Kunitz was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Adrienne Rich (1929- ) was born in Baltimore, MD.
  • When Adrienne Rich won the National Book Award in Poetry, she was joined on stage by Audre Lorde and Alice Walker.  They jointly accepted the award on behalf of all women.  

Suggested Links:

Rich reading her poem "What Kind of Times Are These" for Poetry Everywhere.
Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation.

The 1974 National Book Award Invitation (25th Anniversary)

















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