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(AP Photo/Stuart Ramson)
Adrienne Rich, a major figure in the recent history of American poetry and a frequent contributor to The Nation, died on March 27. In addition to the twenty-two poems she contributed over fifty years, she also wrote essays and reviewed for the magazine; a remark in her review of John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs could serve as self-analysis: “One is conscious, as in few other poets, of a steely thread of strength running through the dislocation and the ruin.”
She also spoke up as a reader: in a 1993 letter to the editor, she urged the magazine to refuse “to drift toward the so-called center, a nerveless, benumbed position produced by the very financial and political interests that need to be called to account.” In the first of ten reviews the magazine ran of her work, Cheryl Walker identified the best qualities of her work, and their likely source:
This poetry is deadly serious, but it is not, like so much of women’s poetry in the past, death-enamored. For it is the poet’s appetite, her undeniable life force, which sustains these operations.
Through the years the reviews were positive, if cantankerously so: in 1978, Donald Hall noted that “she has a gift for being herself, much the way certain film actors possess the rare and difficult genius—which looks easy—of always seeming natural.” The same year, Hayden Carruth said that “The Dream of a Common Language may be a masterpiece.” A decade later, Marilyn Hacker observed that the crowds of hundreds that packed Rich’s readings may not “like, or even totally comprehend, what they hear that is new,” but almost every audience member “will carry, in memory, at least one poem of Rich’s that resonated, that made a difference in her or his life.” Lawrence Joseph summarized her project best:
For Rich, the poet inside a wrecked society must will an imagined common language to get to human love, which is for her the central subject of any personal or social order. A poetry of ideological commitment must enter the heart and mind, become as real as one’s body, as vital as life itself—that’s what makes it poetry.
—Jordan Davis, Poetry Editor
In memory of Rich's contributions to progressive politics and poetry, The Nation features below some of her poems published in the magazine in over five decades of writing.
At Willard Brook
November 18, 1961
Spirit like water
moulded by unseen stone
and sandbar, pleats and funnels
according to its own
submerged necessity —
to the indolent eye
pure wilfulness, to the stray
in that cascade-bent pool
a random fury: Law,
if that's what's wanted, lies
asking to be read
in the dried brook-bed.
November 23, 1963
Sometimes you meet an old man
whose fist isn't clenched blue-white.
Someone like that old poet
whose grained palm once travelled
the bodies of sick children.
Back in the typed line
was room for everything: the blue
grape hyacinth patch,
the voluntary touch
of cheek on breast, the ear
alert for a changed heartbeat
and for other sounds too
that live in a typed line:
the breath of animals, stopping
and starting up of busses,
trashfires in empty lots.
Attention once given
returned again as power.
An old man's last few evenings
might be inhabited
not by a public—
fountains of applause off
tributes read at hotel banquets—
but by reverberations
the ear had long desired,
accepted and absorbed.
The late poem might be written
in a night suddenly awake
with quiet new sounds
as when a searchlight plays
against the dark bush-tangle
and birds speak in reply.
December 25, 1972
You show me the poems of some woman
my age, or younger
translated from your language
Certain words occur: enemy, oven, sorrow
enough to let me know
she's a woman of my time
with Love, our subject:
we've trained it like ivy to our walls
baked it like bread in our ovens
worn it like lead on our ankles
watched it through binoculars as if
it were a helicopter
bringing food to our famine
or the satellite
of a hostile power
I begin to see that woman
doing things: stirring rice
ironing a skirt
typing a manuscript till dawn
trying to make a call
from a phonebooth
The phone rings endlessly
in a man's bedroom
she hears him telling someone else
Never mind. She'll get tired.
hears him telling her story to her sister
who becomes her enemy
and will in her own way
light her own way to sorrow
ignorant of the fact this way of grief
is shared, unnecessary
Tonight No Poetry Will Serve
May 26, 2008
Saw you walking barefoot
taking a long look
at the new moon's eyelid
sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair
asleep but not oblivious
of the unslept unsleeping
Tonight I think
Syntax of rendition:
verb pilots the plane
adverb modifies action
verb force-feeds noun
submerges the subject
noun is choking
verb disgraced goes on doing
there are adjectives up for sale
now diagram the sentence
June 8, 2009
Call me Sebastian, arrows sticking all over
The map of my battlefields. Marathon.
Wounded Knee. Vicksburg. Jericho.
Battle of the Overpass.
Victories turned inside out
But no surrender
Cemeteries of remorse
The beaten champion sobbing
Ghosts move in to shield his tears
No one writes lyric on a battlefield
On a map stuck with arrows
But I think I can do it if I just lurk
In my tent pretending to
Refeather my arrows
I'll be right there! I yell
When they come with their crossbows and white phosphorus
To recruit me
Crouching over my drafts
lest they find me out
and shoot me
Press your cheek against my medals, listen through them to my heart
Doctor, can you see me if I'm naked?
Spent longer in this place than in the war
No one comes but rarely and I don't know what for
Went to that desert as many did before
Farewell and believing and hope not to die
Hope not to die and what was the life
Did we think was awaiting after
Lay down your stethoscope back off on your skills
Doctor can you see me when I'm naked?
I'll tell you about the mermaid
Sheds swimmable tail Gets legs for dancing
Sings like the sea with a choked throat
Knives straight up her spine
Lancing every step
There is a price
There is a price
For every gift
And all advice
Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland on May 16, 1929. She attended Radcliffe College, graduating in 1951, and was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for A Change of World (Yale University Press, 1951) that same year.
In 1953, she married Harvard University economist Alfred H. Conrad. Two years later, she published her second volume of poetry, The Diamond Cutters (Harper & Brothers, 1955), of which Randall Jarrell wrote: "The poet [behind these poems] cannot help seeming to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale."
But the image of the fairytale princess would not be long-lived. After having three sons before the age of thirty, Rich gradually changed both her life and her poetry. Throughout the 1960s she wrote several collections, including Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (Harper & Row, 1963) and Leaflets (W. W. Norton, 1969). The content of her work became increasingly confrontational—exploring such themes as women’s role in society, racism, and the Vietnam War. The style of these poems also revealed a shift from careful metric patterns to free verse. In 1970, Rich left her husband, who committed suicide later that year.
It was in 1973, in the midst of the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and her own personal distress, that Rich wrote Diving into the Wreck (W. W. Norton), a collection of exploratory and often angry poems, which garnered her the National Book Award in 1974. Rich accepted the award on behalf of all women and shared it with her fellow nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde.
Rich went on to publish numerous poetry collections, including Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010); The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004 (W. W. Norton, 2004), which won the Book Critics Circle Award; Collected Early Poems: 1950-1970 (W. W. Norton, 1993); An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 (W. W. Norton, 1991), a finalist for the National Book Award; and The Dream of a Common Language (W. W. Norton, 1978).
In addition to her poetry, Rich wrote several books of nonfiction prose, including Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (W. W. Norton, 2001) and What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (W. W. Norton, 1993).
About Rich's work, the poet W.S. Merwin has said, "All her life she has been in love with the hope of telling utter truth, and her command of language from the first has been startlingly powerful."
Rich received the Bollingen Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the National Book Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship; she was also a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
In 1997, she refused the National Medal of Arts, stating that "I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration." She went on to say: "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."
The same year, Rich was awarded the Academy of American Poet's Wallace Stevens Award for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. She died on March 27, 2012, at the age of eighty-two.
Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (W. W. Norton, 2016)
Later Poems: Selected and New 1971–2012 (W. W. Norton, 2013)
Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007–2010 (W. W. Norton, 2011)
Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2006 (W. W. Norton, 2007)
The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004 (W. W. Norton, 2004)
The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950–2000 (W. W. Norton, 2002)
Fox: Poems 1998–2000 (W. W. Norton, 2001)
Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995–1998 (W. W. Norton, 1999)
Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991–1995 (W. W. Norton, 1995)
Collected Early Poems: 1950–1970 (W. W. Norton, 1993)
An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988–1991 (W. W. Norton, 1991)
Time’s Power: Poems 1985–1988 (W. W. Norton, 1989)
Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems (W. W. Norton, 1986)
The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950–1984 (W. W. Norton, 1984)
A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978–1981 (W. W. Norton, 1981)
The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977 (W. W. Norton, 1978)
Poems: Selected and New 1950–1974 (W. W. Norton, 1974)
Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971–1972 (W. W. Norton, 1973)
The Will to Change: Poems 1968–1970 (W. W. Norton, 1971)
Leaflets (W. W. Norton, 1969)
Necessities of Life: Poems 1962–1965 (W. W. Norton, 1966)
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (Harper & Row, 1963)
A Change of World (Yale University Press, 1951)
The Diamond Cutters (Harper & Brothers, 1955)
A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997–2008 (W. W. Norton, 2009)
Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (W. W. Norton, 2001)
What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (W. W. Norton, 1993)
Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (W. W. Norton, 1986)
On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978 (W. W. Norton, 1979)
Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (W. W. Norton, 1976)