Adrienne Rich won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974 for Diving into the Wreck and was a Finalist four other times: in 1956 for The Diamond Cutters, in 1967 for Necessities of Life, in 1991 for An Atlas of the Difficult World, and in 2011 for Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. She was also the recipient of our Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented by Mark Doty, in 2006. After hearing the sad news of her passing at the end of March 2012, we asked a handful of poets to share their thoughts on Rich and her work. We would like to thank Martha Collins, Suzanne Gardinier, Patrick Rosal, and Patricia Smith for their heartfelt words, and we also invite you to read Evie Shockley’s appreciation on Rich’s original NBA Poetry Blog page.
In Doty’s presentation of the DCAL Medal to Rich, he noted, “Her lived commitment to questioning and revealing the structures of power and how we live within them turns out to be the deep rock shelf under her work.” Rich’s acceptance speech echoed these words: “I am both a poet and one of the everybodies of my country. I live in poetry and daily experience with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion, and social antagonism huddling together on the fault line of an empire.”
Patricia Smith writes:
Let’s just say I lied to America, and singlehandedly ruined journalism for all time.
I was a demon, a lightning rod, a circumstance, the downfall. I’d been fired from my job, publicly flogged, pointed at, pointed to. I was the news. Someone on CNN muttered the wretched four syllables of my name. Panicked in the sudden flood of limelight, my husband at the time left skid marks getting away. My mother was ashamed at her church. I think she denied knowing me.
Look it up if you’re curious. This is not the place for that story, but there is much, much story if you care to explore. You will see me differently when you are done. But you will see me.
And you will know the woman who ventured home in the midst of this, hungry for the warm clutches of Chicago.
Chicago. I was raised up on the West Side, first generation up north, and it is that locale and that time came to define me. I was the gangly little colored girl who opened the dictionary and started with “A,” repeating and memorizing, stunned by the way words pried open my world, determined to own every one of them. After all, everything I laid eyes upon was expected to fail—my neighborhood, my school, my mother, my father. But language dazzled me, entered my body, became both hurt and hallelujah. It screeched otherwise. I wanted all of it, wanted to hurl it at every day’s blank canvas, wanted its riotous colors. I wanted to live in the center of its stories. Being who I was, where I was, I was born to fail, but words taught me to live beyond my boundaries. I believe it’s called defying the odds.
Until the odds defeated me. Look it up. Let’s just say I handed the words all the power that I had. I allowed them to rename me. And the world as I knew it imploded. I locked myself in the smallest rooms, swilled biting spirits, and shoveled oily food into my mouth, desperate to change my shape. Depression swirled through the core of my body. I slept desperately, waking to sweat and a discussion of my sins on morning radio. Convinced that days would spin brighter without me, I held a gun in my hand. Its chill, clunky weight was an answer.
But Chicago knows her girl. As I balanced on the edge of an end, she called me, said Come home, chile like a mother, like a warm wall. Poetry was the only language I hadn’t betrayed, and Chicago wanted to hear my voice, whole and possible, it wanted rhythm, it wanted breath from me. My friends, knowing the outline of what I’d held in my hand, wanted to know I would not die.
What kind of poet was I? Fresh from the slam, teetering on that line between making a splash and living my passion. Reading poems like reading poems was food. Come home, meet this woman, read with her, and the woman was Adrienne Rich, and I suppose right here I should tell you how Adrienne Rich saved my life.
The Chicago Cultural Center is a massive, high-ceilinged, glitter-tiled place, and I didn’t know her before we both found ourselves there, and we said hello, friendly but formal at first, and then she pulled me to her and held me there, her fingers pressing into the backs of my shoulders, she held me just long enough for both of us to know. And that evening I read my poems like reading my poems was food, every word took on a new, and I gasped my stories and there she was, small and glaring love at me from the front row, hating me for giving up, daring me forward. And I swept the room with my eyes and saw friends who clutched me hard before I was a headline, people who remembered how language was bone. And then this woman, Adrienne, took the stage and wrecked me with narrative, dismantled and rebuilt me, brought me home.
We became friends after that. A friendship built upon a fracture.
That night after the reading, I stumbled into the restroom and wept myself stupid, snorting snot and saying some words aloud and cursing that woman for making me remember
the weapon of language coiled inside my body
that I was a woman still, and a woman’s whole voice is weather
Patricia Smith is the author of six books of poetry, including the newly-released Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah; Blood Dazzler, chronicling the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award, and one of NPR's top five books of 2008; and Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series selection. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, Tin House, and both Best American Poetry 2011 and Best American Essays 2011. She is a Pushcart Prize winner and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition's history. She is a professor at the City University of New York/College of Staten Island, and is on the faculty of both Cave Canem and the MFA program of Sierra Nevada College.
Patrick Rosal writes:
The Making of a Difficult World
I voted for George Bush in 1988. I was 19. I got kicked out of college a second time. It was the same year Clint Eastwood, my childhood hero from “The Outlaw Josie Wales” and “Dirty Harry,” directed “Bird,” which drove me towards the records of Charlie Parker—I wore “Ornithology” down to a crackle on wax. Same year, I cut class every week with a basketball in my trunk and hit the outdoor campus courts, more for fistfights than the runs themselves.
A patriot is a citizen…
Of course, Bush won. And 1988: that was the year that Adrienne Rich began to write An Atlas of the Difficult World.
Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference…
Here, she says, are the suburbs of acquiescence—whose streets I knew well. (By nine I’d ride a half block off our tree-lined street and head not a quarter mile down the county road to pass the truck ramps at Revlon and Fedders—now closed; if I pedaled southwest along the same stretch, the Ford auto plant—shut down now too—lay just past U.S. Route 1). Rich’s poem maps out a landscape of collisions, crossfade, quick cut and splice.
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water…
Though I was American, there was no country I knew that would take me, none to accommodate my rage. No nation, you could say, but violence itself… or, maybe, poetry. It was 1988. For the next half decade my anger would grow faster than any language I could acquire in order to record or transform it.
…locked away out of sight and hearing, out of mind, shunted aside…
Edison, New Jersey, heading south on our block, up the hill, another county road, four lanes across with a grass divider, led to what used to be army barracks. An eight-foot fence of iron pikes painted black picketed the sidewalk all the way to the plastics plant. As kids, we scaled that fence, flipped our scrawny legs over, and dumped ourselves into a huge blacktop lot: missile casings lined up for some hundred yards. Sometimes we would just stand there looking at the rows. We ran our fingers along their shells’ smooth bodies. We played among them. We were never chased out.
“An Atlas of the Difficult World” names the wardens of silence, but also the political being I would eventually choose to be…
A patriot is trying, Rich writes, to remember her true country.
I used to cover our piano with a bed sheet and slide my hands underneath to practice II-V-I changes in various inversions, hoping I could play one day like Dodo Marmarosa. Hours later, I could choke a kid so his spine bent back over a flimsy second-floor banister. Let him up, Pat. Let him up… Or I could be one of about three dozen half-time roughnecks who burst out a bar to flood the intersection of Livingston and George Street, cracking each other in the nose until the red hatchets of police lights chased us out. And don’t we read maps, in part, by legends? What’s the story anyway? I thought. It was 1988. What’s a boy to do with his hands…
… bind, join, reweave, cohere, replenish…
I was a young man, a kid really, who felt radically about love and justice but had no way to name that feeling let alone describe what that meant in civic or intellectual terms, a boy who knew something about the good exile of music and the terrifying wonderment of art but who had no way to make peace or sense of his estrangement from a nation to which he was obliged a particular kind of patriotic love.
…and he experiences his first kindness, someone to strain with him,
to strain to see him as he strains to be himself,
someone to understand, someone to accept the regard,
the love, that desperation forces into hiding.
…no one responds to kindness, no one is more sensitive to it
than the desperate man
Rich’s poems in An Atlas of the Difficult World and my numerous reckless withdrawals into personal violence and the comforts of ignorance belong to a time—down to the year. I didn’t know that my own desperation might correspond to something or someone else. It was 1988, the year I’d begun to confront my own terror and my own sensuality.
A patriot is a citizen trying to wake…
It was certainly not the last year I would thoughtlessly fulfill an obligation. But I look back now and consider that all my bewilderment might indeed have been the beginning of awe. The making of my poetic life was the making of my political life. The difficulty of the world is the difficulty of connecting the personal and particular to the public record. (What’s a civic institution got to do with a kiss?) It was 1988. And the making of my poetic life could not have happened without the work of Adrienne Rich.
California; March 2000.
I’m 31. Have been reading/writing poems for six years. Dropped $250 from my dwindling 400-dollar bank account to fly from Jersey to L.A.
Childhood friend, Phil, is a pharma rep on a trip to Marina del Ray. We meet at his hotel. On our way down to dinner we enter the elevator where a boy, maybe four, with his back to his father, examines his yellow plastic pistol. He is shooting at the doors as we drop one floor. When the doors open, Adrienne Rich enters. The boy begins to shoot her with his imaginary bullets. The child is not rambunctious but matter of fact. The father pats the boy on the shoulder. The late West Coast light is bright off the marina’s waters and through the glass. This is the America that confounds me. The boy is firing away. Which one in the sun-filled elevator is ruffian? Which one the man in the good blue suit? Which one poet, which one father, which one boy with the gun? Where is the America I refuse to wrestle with or love? Which one do I dare not write down?
If your voice could overwhelm those waters, what would it say?
Patrick Rosal is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Boneshepherds, My American Kundiman, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. His poems and essays have appeared widely, including in Tin House, The American Poetry Review, and Harvard Review. He has won, among other honors, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. He is a member of the Creative Writing faculty at Rutgers University-Camden.
Suzanne Gardinier writes:
In 1999 Adrienne and I worked together on what became her Arts of the Possible; one afternoon we met to talk over the manuscript in a borrowed room on Central Park South, where we could see the statues of the Latin American revolutionaries from the window. At one point we were talking about a world beyond the "savagely fathered and unmothered world" her book described and struggled with―"where the new could be delivered," she wrote later in "Midnight Salvage," in a draft she sent―and in the book it became "where the new would be delivered : : though I would not see it"―and I said something like "We wouldn't recognize it―the new world would be too strange to us, it would be for our children and grandchildren"―and she looked at me and gestured with her chin out the window and said, "What if everyone out there had a place to sleep tonight," and my eyes filled with tears, at this thought that of course wasn't strange at all. She had a way of finding cowardice and despair and illusion and not dreaming big enough, and a way of taking it apart, with her acuity and her fury and her tenderness, which often began with those revolutionary words she loved: What if.
Here she is on Dickinson, in "The Spirit of Place":
with the hands of a daughter I would cover you
from all intrusion even my own
saying rest to your ghost
with the hands of a sister I would leave your hands
open or closed as they prefer to lie
and ask no more of who or why or wherefore
with the hands of a mother I would close the door
on the rooms you've left behind
and silently pick up my fallen work
Suzanne Gardinier is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Iridium & Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press), and a book of essays on poetry and politics, A World That Will Hold All the People (U of Michigan Press). She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Manhattan.
Martha Collins writes:
In fall 2007, FIELD magazine devoted its annual print symposium to the poetry of Adrienne Rich. The following is a slightly revised version of the anonymous introduction I wrote for that feature, to which several poets contributed essays on individual poems. The most difficult change I made in revising this short piece was shifting from the present perfect to the past tense, from has become to became.
Beginning in 1951, when she received the Yale Younger Poets award at the age of twenty-one for A Change of World, Adrienne Rich’s work was characterized—in practice, awareness, intention, and effect—by expansive change. Some of the changes seemed dramatic, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when even women who rarely read poetry found in Diving into the Wreck and The Dream of a Common Language a radical new voice. But change was, for Rich, a process of expanding, not supplanting.
As Marilyn Hacker has noted, Rich did not so much abandon the accomplished formalism of her early poems as build on it. And when, following the books mentioned above, Rich opened herself to both personal and political concerns that transcended gender in Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), she was not turning from the feminism of the past twenty years but rather extending the idea of what “the dream of a common language” might mean. After that, the poems moved beyond nation to world, as the 1991 title An Atlas of the Difficult World suggests, taking in more and more of what a 1993-1994 note calls “the continuing pressure of events.”
But Rich’s concerns were not limited to the political turmoil of the present: no poet has used historical materials more thoroughly than she, and none has looked more consistently toward the future. “I wear my triple eye as I walk along the road / past, present, future are all at my side,” she wrote in “Calle Visión” (1992-1993).
In expanding her territory, both geographically and temporally, Rich made way for a wealth of materials that include prose, journal-like entries, and extensive quotation from non-literary as well as literary sources, as well as the techniques of photography, film and collage. At the same time, she remained deeply conscious of poetic traditions and forms, among them the sonnet and the ghazal. That both of these forms are practiced sequentially is significant: poems in sections, or sequences of poems, became a trademark of Rich’s work.
Ultimately, Rich’s inclusiveness comes not from a facile vision of universal likeness and wholeness, but rather its opposite: the earliest poems address the tension between perfection and imperfection, and acknowledge that “We are split, / Done into bits” (“The Insomniacs”). It is precisely by acknowledging splittings, tensions, binary oppositions—between men and women, between art and life, between the powerful and the powerless, between the personal and the political, between tradition and change, between the poet and the reader—that Rich helps us to overcome them.
If there are more reasons than ever to despair of such a project, Rich is ultimately a poet of great hope. A poem from the 2007 collection, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, defines what she has done for generations of readers, including those who have followed her work for decades and those who are discovering poems that were written before they were born. What Adrienne Rich has written for 56 years are “poem[s] with calipers to hold a heart / so it will want to go on beating.”
Martha Collins is the author of White Papers, which was published by Pittsburgh in January, as well as the book-length poem Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), which won an Anisfield-Wolf Award and was chosen as one of “25 Books to Remember from 2006” by the New York Public Library. Collins has also published four earlier collections of poems and two collections of co-translated Vietnamese poetry. Her other awards include fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, as well as three Pushcart Prizes and a Lannan Foundation residency fellowship. Founder of the Creative Writing Program at UMass-Boston, she served as Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College until 2007, and is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine and one of the editors of the Oberlin College Press.