WASHINGTON, March 29th, 2012 - Although we may not agree with the words they choose, some poets are obviously doing their best to make people stare at things that need staring at. Adrienne Rich was such a poet.
She put it best herself. “Still, as a poet, I choose to sieve up old, sunken words, heave them, dripping with silt, turn them over, and bring them into the air of the present. Where every public decision has to be justified in the scales of corporate profits, poetry unsettles these apparently self-evident propositions—not through ideology, but by its very presence and ways of being, its embodiment of states of longing and desire.” (from What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry & Poetics.)
Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929. She grew up in a home with a well-stocked library. Among the books were poems by Keats, Blake, and Tennyson. Her father, a professor of medicine, encouraged his daughter to read and try her hand at writing. Adrienne’s mother had a heart for the arts. She was a composer and pianist.
In 1951, Rich graduated from Radcliffe, and two years later married a Harvard economist, Alfred H. Conrad. The couple had three sons by 1959 and the realities of motherhood are expressed in Adrienne’s writing. During the 1960s, Rich’s poetry began to reflect her active feminism, she moved with her family from Cambridge to New York, and Rich was estranged from her husband in 1969.
Rich taught at Swarthmore College, and City College of New York, and earned respect as a researcher and historical author. In 1976, Adrienne Rich revealed her sexual preference for women.
The poet David St. John said of Rich, “There is no one whose poetry has spoken more eloquently for the oppressed and marginalized in America, no one who has more compassionately charted the course of individual suffering across the horrifying and impersonal growth of recent history …”
The themes in Adrienne’s poetry were (besides motherhood, lesbian sexuality, and self-determination for women) alienation, racial inequality, the passing of time, aging, and the hope and disappointment of the American Dream. She also had a lot to say about poetry and poets, loss, the holocaust, and the Persian Gulf War.
The poet W.S. Merwin said that Rich was “in love with the hope of telling utter truth.” It is hard to fault someone for attempting harsh honesty, even when you dislike their politics.
Though Rich’s poems will likely never be found inside a Hallmark card, there is no denying her deep compassion for those struggling, and for all of us who experience the winds of time.
Burning Oneself Out
by Adrienne Rich
We can look into the stove tonight
as into a mirror, yes,
the serrated log, the yellow-blue gaseous core
the crimson-flittered grey ash, yes.
I know inside my eyelids
and underneath my skin
Time takes hold of us like a draft
upward, drawing at the heats
in the belly, in the brain
You told me of setting your hand
Into the print of a long-dead Indian
and for a moment, I knew that hand,
that print, that rock,
the sun producing powerful dreams
A word can do this
or, as tonight, the mirror of the fire
of my mind, burning as if it could go on
burning itself, burning down
feeding on everything
till there is nothing in life
that has not fed that fire
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