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.


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