Adrienne Rich & The Revolutionary Idea
For gathering at Revolution Books, 2012
When I think of Adrienne and revolution I think of the email she sent in 2005 called Washing the Revolutionaries, after I wrote that I'd seen men washing the statue of Simón Bolivar on Central Park South with a big brush and white soap, and wondered if José Martí would be next. In that same letter she wrote, "Working on poems, trying a kind of erotic Marxism or sensual materialism...Do you know Gramsci's Prison Letters? did I ask you this before?" The next year she gave a lecture in Scotland called "Poetry and Commitment," at a conference on poetry and politics, which included this:
"Antonio Gramsci wrote of the culture of the future that 'new' individual artists can't be manufactured: art is a part of society—but that to imagine a new socialist society is to imagine a new kind of art that we can't foresee from where we now stand. 'One must speak,' Gramsci wrote, 'of a struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing reality and, therefore, a world intimately ingrained in 'possible artists' and 'possible works of art.'" Adrienne called this struggle "a poetics searching for transformative meaning on the shoreline of what can now be thought or said"—"to remind us of something we are forbidden to see."—"the continuous redefining of freedom."
A new intuition of life. And where Marx blazed through history to say that consciousness does not condition reality but the other way around, Adrienne was exploring another part of the conversation—something like what Robin Kelley wrote about Martiniquan poet and revolutionary Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism: "Ultimately, Discourse is a challenge to, or revision of, Marxism; it draws on surrealism and the anti-rationalist ideas of Césaire's early poetry and explorations in Negritude. It is fairly unmaterialist in the way it cries out for new spiritual values to emerge out of the study of what colonialism sought [seeks] to destroy." — something like, in Adrienne's words, "what Muriel Rukeyser said poetry can be: an exchange of energy, which, in changing consciousness, can effect change in existing conditions." In a draft she sent of "Midnight Salvage" she wrote "where the new could be delivered"—and in the book it became "where the new would be delivered : : though I would not see it"
Really I just want to type her words here, to listen to her words, from essays, from letters, from poems, all night. To soothe the ache of the magnitude of what's finished. But what lived in every word she ever wrote, even before she knew that that's what it was, is not finished.
"This ongoing future, written off over and over, is still within view," she wrote. "All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented: through collective action, through many kinds of art. Its elementary condition is the recovery and redistribution of the world's resources that have been extracted from the many by the few." In a letter to poet Michael Klein in 2002 she wrote: "What I care about at this point is the love of my beloveds, art, and the revolutionary idea." And her revolutionary pathway was poetry's, and, in its toughest, most demanding senses, love's—in the ways Salvadoran poet and revolutionary Roque Dalton meant it when he said that All poems are love poems—and the ways Colombian priest and revolutionary Camilo Torres meant it when he said, "La revolución es la caridad eficaz"—Revolution is effective love—the fulfillment of the longing for love to be put into action. A longing for a new intuiton of life. A longing that persists. In one of her last beautiful inventions, "Axel, in thunder," Adrienne left herself a message, and all of us as well:
"while somewhere in all weathers you're
crawling exposed not by choice extremist
hell-bent searching your soul
--O my terrified my obdurate
my wanderer keep the trail"
Adrienne Rich & the deciphering flame
Panel talk at the Associated Writing Programs conference in Boston, March 2013
I was living in Havana last fall semester, spending a big part of this first year in a world without Adrienne Rich deeply distracted--so it wasn't until December that I stopped in a bookstore to see what I realized after a few minutes of staring must be her last book. Later Poems, it's called, which I kept misreading as Last--and when I picked it up I saw that the last of the last was/is -- we need a new verb tense here, could some of you poets get on this, please -- a poem that had been on my refrigerator since she sent it at New Year's 2011 -- called "Endpapers." It begins with that revolutionary word she loved: "If."
I should say at the outset that this isn't going to be a disinterested critical assessment--partly because Adrienne was part of a tradition that's made it clear that there's no such thing--and partly because we were friends for twenty years, after I ran to the Sag Harbor post office the winter I was 31 with two copies of the manuscript of my first book under my arm, trying to make the 5pm postmark deadline to get one copy to Lucille Clifton, who was judging the AWP contest that year, and one copy to Adrienne. "If you can read and understand this poem," she'd written when I was twenty, "send something back"--so I did, and then she sent something back to me, and we kept on like that a good precious long time.
--and before that, it's probably most accurate to say that she was a maker of the air I breathed--the air so many of us breathed, as part of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s that need new names, could you get on that too, poets, while you're making new verb tenses--the air I breathed from my time of being a 17-year-old justice-hungry anti-racist-whitegirl queer poet in 1978 onward--the air she helped make in her work of being, as she wrote about René Char, an "insoluble riverrain conscience echo of the future"-- in her work of, as she put it once, "taking part in an immense shift in human consciousness"--
So that for someone whose first poetry reading was in the summer of 1979, at Sanders Theater on the Harvard campus--a reading that started with a moment of silence for the thirteen black women murdered in Boston already that year, before the incendiary words of Audre Lorde & Adrienne Rich shifted the atoms of everyone in the room--from isolation to something else--from despair to resistance--from spectators to fighters--for someone who came up like this, for me, someone saying as Auden did that "poetry makes nothing happen" sounded like a message from the time when humans thought the sun revolved around the earth. Because Adrienne and the movements she helped to make and was made by had changed what we call reality in that deep a way. (Because what we call reality is something we make together, quiet as it's kept.)
And it's not the reality in which she first grew--not what she found when she reached for her first sustenance--as I was reminded when I happened to open a thin Sarah Lawrence library book of lectures on poetry from 1953, and saw written inside in that unmistakable handwriting "Adrienne Conrad. 1956." It was the year her first son was born, a year in which she wrote in her journal, "Of late I've felt towards poetry--both reading it and writing it--nothing but boredom and indifference...I have a strong sense of wanting to deny all responsibility for and interest in that person who writes--or wrote." She's twenty-seven years old. But she's reading this book, Erich Heller's The Hazard of Modern Poetry, and she's made a pencil mark beside this sentence: "Every civilized society lives and thrives on a silent but profound agreement as to what is to be accepted as the valid mould of experience." (This society she will call in The Dream of a Common Language "this still unexcavated hole/called civilization, this act of translation, this half world.") (But not yet.) (Because she and her dialogue partner--in this case, the history of this country, and by connection the history of the rest of the world--had a little work and waiting to do before their real meeting.)
Adrienne was devoted to dialogue, its pleasures and its rigors and its fruits, and my dialogues with her have formed me maybe more deeply than any others--since I was seventeen, and had the great good fortune to come out the same year The Dream of a Common Language did. She was the only person on this earth I showed drafts to--& she'd say useful things like 'You do use 'desperate' a good deal," and "Is there a better word than 'moan' here?"--and on New Year's Day in 1995, when I was licking my wounds after some scathing criticism, she wrote, "We (I have said this to myself as well) are going to have to be a lot tougher."
She had to be tougher because she had to fight--for among other things the value of the tradition in which she worked--which is already being wrangled over again, when she hasn't yet been gone a year. Of course this didn't start with her passing--
In 1975 Pearl Bell wrote about Leaflets, " Some of the poems are little more than metered fragments of Leftist rhetoric."
& in 1976 William Pritchard wrote in Poetry magazine, "Wall-to-wall solemnity and dedication," which needless to say he did not mean as a compliment--
& in 1996 New York Times reviewer Denis Donoghue wrote about Dark Fields of the Republic, "She is determined to be glum,"
& here's Kirkus Reviews on her Midnight Salvage, at the end of the century whose poem-ways in English she shifted forever:
" no lesser figures than Marx, Wittgenstein, Enzensberger, and Guevera [are]—all duly and dully quoted in service of Rich’s self-aggrandizing bits of comradely memory.
"Best when plaintive and sensitive to the modest pleasures of her sounds, Rich’s “I—less" lines, with their pretentious denial of ego, sound more like the breathless phrases of George Bush."
Here's Dana Goia on Midnight Salvage: "Rich, who has lived in Santa Cruz for the past fifteen years, enjoys–and also perhaps suffers from–a unique status in American poetry. While she is not our only major living poet, her reputation vastly overflows the poetry world’s small pond. Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, and Gwendolyn Brooks may safely be called major literary figures, but Rich alone ranks as a major cultural figure. No other living poet...has made such a profound impression on American intellectual life. She remains an intellectual force, but she has almost vanished as a credible poet, (1998)
( --which reminded me of something the poetry editor of the New York Times wrote in the 1930s: "’Hence, unpleasant as it is to record such a conclusion, the very remarkable work of Wallace Stevens cannot endure." )
More recently Ange Mlinko, reviewing those Later Poems in The Nation, wrote, "Political poetry, generally, wants to persuade, and its chief mode is one of unplayful earnestness." (This may come as a shock to anyone familiar with Faiz Ahmed Faiz's passionate formal inventions or Pablo Neruda's jokes and images or Nazim Hikmet's intimate colloquial address or Yannis Ritsos's or Juan Gelman's unthinkable tenderness or Amiri Baraka's densely textured verbal rhythms or Lucille Clifton's deceptively simple lower-case thunder or Mahmoud Darwish's pyrotechnic verbal virtuosity or Audre Lorde's cadenced prophet denunciations, etc. etc. -- but that's a talk for another time.)
Mlinko wrote, "Rich belonged to a tradition that collapsed that distinction between art and the world, imagination and reality. The fact that such poetry attracts large, committed audiences is not lost on either its proponents or its detractors. Even so, most poets are not willing to give up their prerogative to be uncommitted: ambiguous, ambivalent, negatively capable and, yes, playful."
I'm not sure who Mlinko means by "most poets"--but it seems to me that Adrienne connected a love for language with a thirst for justice in a way that's fairly common everywhere else in the world except in the United States, in a way that for many citizens of the world is inextricable from what a poet does, from what a poem is. As Adrienne put it in one of her lectures, "radical politics is a great confluent project of the human imagination, of which art and literature are indispensable tributaries."
Sometimes I think that the most taboo part of Marx's thought here in this country isn't what his readings of economics or history might mean in terms of human equality, but his insight that the interests of particular groups of people are opposed. That there is no 'human nature, ' no one big happy family, no liberal consensus -- no, as a writing workshop might put it, "people," or "the reader," no generic "audience" -- no 'we're all on the same page.' He says that we're on different pages -- shared-with-others pages, social pages -- framed by the realities of power, and we fight. By dialectic he means permanent struggle. La lucha, in the supple, living sense, where the terms of the dialectics constantly change, but the dance of their contending -- their opposition, and temporary resolution into new terms, and opposition again -- persists. The fight persists, and Adrienne was a fighter, and would have been I suspect even if she'd lived some other history. A fighter by temperament. So she was someone here in this country who could make a bridge to the rest of the world, where to be a poet often means being a fighter whether you like it or not. Where to be a poet often means to go to prison. Because the terms of the fight elsewhere are often out in the open, unlike here, where as Brecht might say the butcher still washes his hands before weighing the meat. And in the places where this isn't the case, poets go to prison for doing the part of a poet's job Adrienne & Audre Lorde and the poets in their tradition before and after them focused on: To refuse to separate beauty from its contexts. To question relations of power. So where William Carlos Williams in this country in the 30s writes about the poor woman eating plums "They taste good to her/they taste good/to her. They taste/good to her," Neruda in Spain by way of Chile writes "Come see the blood in the streets,/come see/the blood in the streets,/Come see the blood/in the streets!"
This is a different tradition than the one that says a poet's job is to express original individual insight in sharp and inventive language--and these are issues on which great poets may disagree--as when Brecht wrote in "To Those Born Later," in a spirit closely akin to Adrienne's, "What kind of times are they, when/A talk about trees is almost a crime/Because it implies silence about so many horrors?"--and Paul Celan, born later, answered him, with a question, in a poem called
A LEAF, treeless
for Bertolt Brecht
What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much made explicit?
So these are issues on which great poets may disagree--But in the 'modification in the guts of the living' that Adrienne Rich's work is about to undergo, it might be useful to keep in mind these two contending traditions, equally worthy of respect and not the same, and not to be judged by the same criteria. Adrienne's tradition is not, for example, TS Eliot's, who said in response to a questionnaire about the Spanish Civil War, "While I am naturally sympathetic, I still feel convinced that it is best that at least a few men of letters should remain isolated, and take no part in these collective activities." Beside that you might hold in your mind Adrienne's beloved René Char saying, "We must write poems, but we must not stop there." This is not a tradition that began in 1960, this "great, vexed and maligned tradition," as Adrienne called it once, and it doesn't lend itself to good or bad poetry any more or less than any other literary tradition. And if one is interested in keeping one's negative capability chops in shape--in Keats's sense, "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts"-- keeping one's mind, as he put it, "a thoroughfare for all thoughts"-- it might be more useful to hold in one's mind--not only when reading the canon but when listening to and for the poets of tomorrow--the greatness of the poetry in each of these traditions, in their great dialectic, than to ask that a poet who can't see the plums without seeing the blood in the streets talk about the world less and equivocate more. “Did you think I was talking about my life?," Adrienne wrote in 1968. "I was trying to drive a tradition up against the wall." "Not to win prizes," she wrote later in "Sources," "but to change the laws of history." "I am an instrument in the shape / of a woman," she wrote in "Planetarium," "trying to translate pulsations/into images for the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind." "I wasn't looking for a muse," she wrote in Your Native Land, Your Life, "only a reader by whom I could not be mistaken."
David Biespiel wrote last month about those Later Poems, "they convey agency and reciprocity. They convey affinity and intercourse. They convey relationship and semblance and, well...cahoots." Adrienne was devoted to cahoots--to conspiring, as she put it in "Midnight Salvage" : "Had never expected the thing to form itself/completely in my time" she wrote,
But thought I was conspiring, breathing-along
with history's systole-diastole
twenty thousand leagues under the sea a mammal heartbeat
sheltering another heartbeat
plunging from the Farallones all the way to Baja
sending up here or there a blowhole signal
and sometimes beached
making for warmer waters
where the new could be delivered : : though I would not see it
( This was from the draft she sent -- in the book it became "where the new would be delivered : : though I would not see it" )
This is the last stanza of the poem I mentioned at the beginning, "Endpapers," her last poem in earthly cahoots with us:
The signature to a life requires
the search for a method
rejection of posturing
trust in the witnesses
a vial of invisible ink
a sheet of paper held steady
after the end-stroke
above a deciphering flame
Invisible ink is what you use if you have to write in code--if you or your correspondent are in danger--and it means writing what you yourself can't read, writing something legible only in the future. And here that vulnerable paper, which to many may seem blank, so easily mis-taken, is in a delicate dialogue with that deciphering flame. Which has something in common, in cahoots, with the eyes of everyone in this room. Which is the work she's left us. (The end of her last letter to me was a two-word paragraph, a question: "And work?") Part of the poem's saying, "I can sign my life at the end like a long letter, but it isn't signed really until you read it, until you answer. Until we're in cahoots." Via that deciphering flame she was in my life and in so many others, the deciphering flame a reader must be to meet her, the work ahead for us as we try to carry on what she did. As someone put it on Twitter, "she's kept me breathing and i'm very grateful." Thank you.
[ — Ed Pavlić sent this, saying it was his yahrzeit candle for Adrienne — ]