Adrienne Rich, political poetry, and a confession


A debate on the qualities of Adrienne Rich’s poetry, and an even bigger debate on the nature of political poetry.

Ange Mlinko’s review of Adrienne Rich’s Later Poems is here.

And Carol Muske-Duke’s spirited defense of Rich is here.

I don’t totally disagree with Mlinko’s assessment of Rich’s poetry: it is cool, careful, intellectual. But it also cares intensely about women’s experience of the world. I was lucky to read Rich in college, and while I didn’t fall in love with her writing, I took away something perhaps more valuable: a sense of respect for women’s intellects. Rich was serious: she took her thoughts seriously and she opened up the possibility that I could take my thoughts seriously as well. I can’t overstate how important this was for me as a twenty-something-year-old woman.

Did I think Mlinko was trashing Rich? Not as much as Carol Muske-Dukes did. But Muske-Dukes gestures towards perhaps a bigger issue: what she sees as a particular style of writing poetry – “indeterminacy” or “playfulness,” manifesting as apolitical poetry.

It’s a debate that certainly resonates for me. Even as my admiration for women poets was cemented by Adrienne Rich and the anthology No More Masks, I was aware that my own poetry was hardly ever explicitly feminist in either subject or theme. As a college student, I wrote about rejected love, and depression, and family drama. My own assessment of my work was that it was all too inward, too minor. Those women poets who wrote to all women were my heroes; I felt I didn’t measure up.

Twenty years later, I think it’s time for me to stop feeling like a failure.* I mean, I’ve been a feminist for as long as I’ve had a coherent thought in my head; everything I write comes out of that viewpoint. Feminism means I get to take my thoughts seriously; but it also means I get to take my sensitivity and my ambivalence seriously.

I am thinking of two poems that found a home in a small literary magazine** this past year. Both were about the experience of being a teenage girl. Yes, I did the emotional work of writing about difficult memories. But I also did the intellectual work of making those fragments into poems – bringing to bear whatever skill I have to make them accessible, well-shaped, and true. These two kinds of work are both necessary to the creative endeavor; each is pointless without the other. And sometimes, finding ways to talk about the political turns out to be the same as finding ways to talk about the intensely personal.

*About this, anyway.

**Shameless promotion of a very nice journal.

Another way of looking at it

The 80s are back, and this time it's personal.
The 80s are back, and this time it’s personal.

(Actually, there’s only one way to look at neon mesh fingerless gloves. FABULOUS. Am I right?)

A little Onion humor from The Onion Book of Known Knowledge.

Poetry, literary form that would be much more effective if poets simply came out and clearly specified: (1) how they were feeling, (2) the potential sources of their emotional state, and (3) any ameliorative actions that should be taken, if necessary. By following these three guidelines rather than obscuring their point with abstract symbolism and airy metaphors, poets would not only be able to communicate their feelings more quickly and efficiently, they might also manage to feel a little better in the process; indeed the fact that poets avoid confronting their feelings directly might be the source of the problem.

For example, Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” would have been much more productive for her and her readers if she had stripped away all the imagery involving shoes and the Holocaust and simply written: “Hello, my father died when I was 8 and that has caused me a lot of psychological problems throughout my life. Also my husband, Ted Hughes, recently had an affair and we are now separated, so that has been a difficult thing for me, too.”

The Onion Encyclopedia on the father of American poetry:

Whitman, Walt (b. May 31, 1819 d. Mar. 26, 1892), 19th-century American poet whose poems evoked the great, benevolent spirit of America, a country that is and always has been incredibly tolerant and supportive of eccentric gay poets.

One more:

Suburb, levee put in place to prevent the unchecked spread of culture.

And lastly,

Quip, joke made by people who attended an Ivy League college.

– From The Onion Book of Known Knowledge, 183rd Imperial Edition (A Definitive Encyclopaedia of Existing Information in 27 Excruciating Volumes).


How shall I live? A short list of favorite poems.

this water dropping

In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share some of my favorite poems – poems that have stuck with me for years, that I never get tired of re-reading. Some folks have works of religious or spiritual guidance; I have poems. How shall I live? is the question. All these poems answer: With as much kindness and wonder as you can.

I did a little research on the ethics of posting other people’s poems to one’s amateur poetry blog. Ahem. The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry states

an online resource (such as a blog or web site) may make examples of selected published poetry electronically available to the public, provided that the site also includes substantial additional cultural resources, including but not limited to critique or commentary, that contextualize or otherwise add value to the selections.

What I have to say about these poems is “I love this” and “This makes me happy” and “Smiley-face.” So in fairness, I don’t think I should reproduce them here; follow the links instead.

Mary Oliver – “Wild Geese”

Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift”.

Ted Kooser manages to be accessible and still a subtle, inventive, and original voice. And the guy just comes off as awesome in interviews. “After Years”

I’ve already talked about Tennyson’s work – “The Splendor Falls”

And a new favorite, Mark Strand’s “The Night, the Porch,” courtesy of Knopf’s Poetry Month emails.

This Octavio Paz poem was posted all over the walls of my college when Paz won the Nobel in 1990. I took one of the copies* and memorized the poem just through constantly reading it. And I can’t find it online anywhere in its intended format (aside: Internet, we need to talk about the impulse to center-align poems that shouldn’t be center-aligned. NOT OKAY.) So I’m breaking the rules because I think reading Paz is good for the soul. Thank you, Internet Diety of Obscure References (aka, Google Books).

*I hope that was kind of what you intended, anonymous Paz-sharing member of the administration.


Más transparente
que esa gota de agua
entre los dedos de la enredadera
mi pensamiento tiende un puente
de ti misma a ti misma
más real que el cuerpo que habitas
fija en el centro de mi frente

Naciste para vivir en una isla.

English translation:


More transparent

than this water dropping

through the vine’s twined fingers

my thought stretches a bridge

from yourself to yourself

                                                    Look at you

more real than the body you inhabit

fixed at the center of my mind

You were born to live on an island

I love that Paz recognizes this quality of  soul, of being “born to live on an island.” I’ve often felt that way. But really, the whole poem is just perfect – the spare image, the haiku-like turns, the surprising conclusion. This poem is a thing I have loved for over twenty years, which is pretty incredible.

Happy National Poetry Month, all. May you find many poems to love.

Falling in love, age sixteen

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains

It was in my English textbook, tenth grade. We didn’t even cover  it in class. I found it by skimming forward in the book, because I was bored. I don’t remember what I was supposed to be focusing on.

I only remember the feeling of transported joy. The poem seemed to me a perfect thing. It said something I had always wanted to say. It encompassed a feeling that I couldn’t really describe, but that I also looked for in the fantasy novels I was fond of. The feeling you get from the paintings of the Hudson River School. The idea that the world is full of the sublime – in its full meaning of “beautiful” but also frightening or awe-inspiring.

The Splendor Falls

The splendor falls on castle walls

    And snowy summits old in story;

The long light shakes across the lakes,

    And the wild cataract leaps in glory.

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,

Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O, hark, O, hear! how thin and clear,

    And thinner, clearer, farther going!

O, sweet and far from cliff and scar

    The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying,

Blow, bugles; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,

    They faint on hill or field  or river;

Our echoes roll from soul to soul,

    And grow forever and forever.

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,

And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

 – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“Our echoes roll from soul to soul” – there in the middle of this fantastical lyric is this serious statement about us, the little humans who haven’t even appeared in the poem up till now. What a hopeful assertion – that the echoes of us “grow forever and forever.”

How to revise a poem in 18 uneasy steps


You approach the poem with a sense of dread and disappointment. The poem hates you, rightly, for underestimating it. You get a snack. Come back. The poem makes you tired. You try to take a nap. But you can’t really sleep. You read the first couple of lines again. You realize that it starts much too blandly; it needs to start where the action is. You look up a single interesting line in another failed poem and type it at the bottom of the page. You go back to the middle and type, “something about this friendship dynamic. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. Stop trying to describe everything. Please change this title, it’s awful.”

You go back to the first line. Phrase it differently. You must continually crush the desire to write a book report or convince the reader of your point. You must give up the idea that you even know what the point is. You pick out the two or three most vivid images or feelings. They make you think of something else… something you’ve thought for a long time, something you’ve been afraid to say. Fear! The fear feels good. You can’t lecture your reader when you’re afraid. You follow the fear. Now a whole cascade of things is happening. Time kind of collapses.

Now the poem has a completely different shape; you’ve said some things that you really like. The danger is that now you’re kind of in love with the poem, but it’s infatuation rather than true love. So you have to resist looking at it for a while. When you finally have some distance, the cliches stand out like plastic bouquets in a field of blown grasses. Oh! I hate that I wrote those cliches! You delete them with a feeling of righteous, destructive glee.

It goes on like that: keep reading the poem over and over; skim over the good lines and keep fiddling with the weak parts. Sometimes you realize that what you thought were good lines were actually clever lines masquerading as good lines, so now you have something else to fix.

At some point, the poem is at its peak. Unfortunately, this is also a very fragile moment. Because now you have to stop working on it. If you keep re-writing it, it will start the return trip to banality. Also known as “work-shopping” a poem.

So that’s revising – which is another word for “writing,” which is another word for “re-creating.” It’s an adversarial process, but adversarial in the sense of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

Anne Carson, master of strangeness

Anne Carson is a delight, as always. Here’s the New York Times interview; her new book is  Red Doc>. The bracket is part of the title.

Carson is the human equivalent of the Garfield Randomizer. She is to poetry what David Lynch is to film. And of course the band Sigur Ros had to somehow be involved.

Sample quote:

I made up ice bats, there is no such thing.

Well, there should be, Anne. There should be.


I want them.


^Here’s what showed up when I image-googled “Red Doc.” The angle bracket is necessary. Which in itself sounds like an Anne Carson statement… Anne Carson is everywhere. And I am happy about it.