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.

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.

Accessible poetry? Part 3. (And no closure whatsoever.)

accidental green lights

Here, have a weird photo while you read about difficult art…

As I was thinking about the idea of accessibility in poetry, I came across this. Harold Bloom breaking down the types of difficulty:

“Hart Crane is a difficult great poet, but very good, even great, poetry need not be overtly difficult. A. E. Housman is a clear instance, and there are many others. There are also difficult poets who at first look easy, but are not. Walt Whitman proclaims his accessibility, but his best poems are subtle, evasive, Hermetic, and call for a heightened awareness of the nuances of figuration.

Difficulty in great poetry can be of several, very different, kinds. Sustained allusiveness, as in the learned poetry of John Milton and Thomas Gray, demands a very high level of reader’s literacy. Cognitive originality, the particular mark of Shakespeare and of Emily Dickinson, requires enormous intellectual agility as the reader’s share. Personal mythmaking, as in William Blake and William Butler Yeats, at first can seem obscure, but the coherence of Blakean and Yeatsian myth yields to familiarity.

I think that poetry at its greatest – in Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake – has one broad and essential difficulty: it is the true mode for expanding our consciousness. This it accomplishes by what I have learned to call strangeness. Owen Barfield was one of several critics to bring forth strangeness as a poetic criterion. For him, as for Walter Pater before him, the Romantic added strangeness to beauty: Wallace Stevens, a part of this tradition, has a Paterian figure cry out: “And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” Barfield says: “It must be a strangeness of meaning“… ”

from “The Art of Reading Poetry” in The Best Poems of the English Language (emphasis Bloom’s)

I hope you’ll forgive me for relying on these quotes of Bloom’s and Keillor’s, but they do synopsize well, as two ends of the spectrum. And it’s not a coincidence that Bloom is writing from inside the academy whereas Keillor is a humorist, radio host and popular author.

Here’s the thing: I agree with both of them. I wonder what they would have to say to each other if they were in a room together. I would like it if they would both show up and have a great big intellectual throw-down in my comments section.

Portrait of the critic as a young woman

Until then, happy writing.

Accessible poetry? Part 2.

Here's poetry-advocate Garrison Keillor:

America is in hard times these days, the beloved country awash to the scuppers in expensive trash, gripped by persistent jitters, politics even more divorced from reality than usual, the levers of power firmly in the hands of a cadre of Christian pirates and bullies whose cynicsim is stunning, especially their perversion of the gospel of the Lord to blast the poor and the meek and subvert the tax system in favor of the rich, while public institutions are put into perpetual fiscal crisis, meanwhile newspapers dwindle in sad decline, journalism is lost in the whirlwind of amusement, and the hairy hand of the censor reaches out — what mustn't be lost, in the dank time, is the passion of young people for truth and justice and liberty — the spirit that has kept the American porch light lit through dark ages of history — and when this spirt is betrayed by the timid and the greedy and the naive, then we must depend on the poets. American poetry is the truest journalism we have. What your life can be, lived bravely and independently, you can discover in poetry.

People complain about the obscurity of poetry, especially if they're assigned to write about it, but actually poetry is rather straightforward compared to ordinary conversation with people you don't know well which tends to be jumpy repartee, crooked, coded, allusive to no effect, firmly repressed, locked up in irony, steadfastly refusing to share genuine experience — think of conversation at office parties or conversation between teenage children and parents, or between teenagers themselves, or between men, or between bitter spouses: rarely in ordinary conversation do people speak from the heart and mean what they say. How often in the  past week did anyone offer you something from the heart? It's there in poetry. Forget everything you ever read about poetry, it doesn't matter — poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart. All that I wrote about it as a grad student I hereby recant and abjure — all that matters about poetry to me now is directness and clarity and truthfulness.

from Good Poems for Hard Times (emphasis mine)

Accessible poetry? Part 1.

Accessibility. It's either a dirty word or a delightful word, depending on your point of view (and perhaps your relation to academia). I've been kicking around the idea of accessibility, especially as it relates to why people avoid poetry.

I suspect that a vast swath of Americans come away from high school or college exposure to poetry both scarred and skittish. There's an idea that poetry is essentially coded, oblique, elusive, and snobbish. Self-referential to a fault. Requiring a Cliffs Notes. That it's only for insiders.

You know, that's sometimes a fair assessment. I can't blame anybody for avoiding those poems. I'm sometimes tempted to avoid them myself.

But meanwhile, there's a huge amount of poetry, past and present, that does consider its – if you will forgive the marketing term – its "target audience." Wonderful poetry, whose hoped-for audience is the average thoughtful reader.

Ted Kooser's "Selecting A Reader."

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will.