It’s an old-fashioned, an outrageous thing
To believe one has a “destiny”
— a thought often peculiar to those
who possess privilege —
but there is something else: the faith
of those despised and endangered
that they are not merely the sum
of damages done to them
No short passage could sum up the vast and various intellectual work of poet/essayist Adrienne Rich, but that short piece from a long poem speaks to two important things about her. She was undeniably privileged, a child of east-coast Establishment ease and Radcliffe education, a Harvard faculty wife by her early 20s, author of tasteful poems that W.H. Auden praised in a pat-on-the-head way for “not telling fibs.” Nobody would have blamed her for hosting Cambridge cocktail parties for the rest of her long life.
Yet the choices she made, in the process of remaking herself personally and professionally again and again, did make her “despised and endangered,” and in no figurative sense. She left the Ivy League and the Seven Sisters behind, taking a teaching job in the radical open-access SEEK program of the City University of New York. She came out as a lesbian. She devoted almost a half-century to speaking out against misogyny, homophobia, racism, militarism, and anti-Semitism. In the process, she forged a kind of free-verse, long-sentence, highly rhetorical poetry that has been hugely influential on American verse. Her poems read like essays and her essays read like poems. All are topical and engagée; she called one of her volumes Leaflets because she saw no essential difference between poems and calls to action.
And, unashamedly, Adrienne Rich believed she had a “destiny”:
When I talk of taking a trip I mean forever.
I could say: those mountains have a meaning
but further than that I could not say.
To do something very common, in my own way.
[“A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” 1971]
Somebody – it’s usually supposed to be Winston Churchill – once said that if you aren’t liberal when young you have no heart; if you aren’t conservative when older, you have no brain. Adrienne Rich, possessed of both, lived that trajectory in reverse. It’s not that her first few volumes of poems are especially reactionary, but they are decorous. Women’s half-lived lives feature in her books from the 1950s. One can imagine a poet retreating into half-silence after writing them, or flowering into madness (like Rich’s contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton). Rich instead did “very common” practical things, addressing what needed addressing with directness and sanity.
And as Rich aged, she just got more progressive. All her obituaries cite her 1997 refusal of a National Medal of Arts, when she wrote President Clinton that “the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” That’s the Clinton administration, mind you, the one so many progressives now look back on with nostalgia – the administration that Maya Angelou, no closet conservative, had memorably ushered in. But in Rich’s eyes, Clinton failed to pass a healthcare bill, dismantled welfare programs, capitulated on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” waged drone wars against ill-specified enemies, and made a mess of the Kyoto environmental accords. In fact, one could argue that one of the Clinton Administration’s most progressive positions was its determination to honor Adrienne Rich. She wouldn’t help them out.
Many of Rich’s poems read like essays, I’ve said, and her essays are probably the most vital part of her literary legacy. In “When We Dead Awaken” (1971), she argued that
“Political” poetry by men remains stranded amid the struggles for power among male groups . . . The mood of isolation, self-pity, and self-imitation that pervades “nonpolitical” poetry suggests that a profound change in masculine consciousness will have to precede any new male poetic—or other—inspiration. The creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out; what remains is its self-generating energy for destruction. As women, we have our work cut out for us.
Forty years ago, poetry was seen by academic critics almost entirely in aestheticist terms. If it is now seen almost entirely in rhetorical and political terms, we owe that more to Adrienne Rich than to any other single critic.