I tremble to write about the towering figure of Adrienne Rich, the great, revolutionary lesbian poet whose work seemed to single-handedly change the world for the better. Her poems seem engraved in my mind and heart, so that reading her last collection, Later Poems: Selected and New 1971-2012, was like a retrospective of my life in poetry.
For me, this 500-page book was a page-turner; I was eager to read more and more, and I wondered if I was alone in this feeling, and what exactly it meant.
After I finished reading the book, I watched a video of a tribute to Rich at the San Francisco Public Library’s James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, and every poet who eulogized her and read some of her work seemed to change, to be almost lifted up in front of my eyes, by her poems. Perhaps it is possible, I thought, to be a genuine poet and also be a genuine healer. Rich’s father was a physician, so maybe healing was in her genes. And though she made it clear that autobiographical details should be separate from her writing, it is now public knowledge that she spent her life crippled by arthritis, which can be an intensely painful condition.
Which brings me to my belief that if poetry has a purpose (and as poet Marilyn Hacker stated in “The Poetry & Legacy of Adrienne Rich,” “It seems clear that one intention of Adrienne Rich as a poet was, at least since the 1960s, to do something useful …”), it is to transform pain and suffering into art. The greater the suffering, the more strength and wit it takes to transform the suffering, and the greater the art. The poet functions as her own solace and balm, and by doing so creates powerful medicine, not just for herself but for every reader. Language can do this, though the corrupt world does not believe in it.
So in Rich’s poems, you will not find an ordinary narrative of her life, but the transformation of things she has seen, felt, heard and thought into an extraordinary language. It is necessary only to read her words and to not struggle trying to understand. She has been there, she understands and she has translated it for us. Opening her book almost at random now, I find these lines from “Inscriptions”: “This week I’ve dredged my pages / for anything usable / head, heart, perforated / by raw disgust and fear…”, and from a poem called “From Strata”: “it’s your own humanity you’ll have to drag / over and over, piece by piece / page after page / out of the dark.”
I was once face-to-face with the great poet. It was around 1976; she had given a reading and was now answering questions for a few of us in a living room. I asked a question and she answered, “Read my books.” But Adrienne, I didn’t understand what you meant. I thought you were snapping at me, that you misunderstood who I was. My heart closed to you, and I continued my search in other directions. Reading Later Poems has at last brought me fully back to you, and I feel less alone:
I wanted to go somewhere
the brain had not yet gone
I wanted not to be
there so alone.
(from Adrienne Rich’s “Letters to a Young Poet”)
Photo of Rich in 2001 by Katharyn Howd Machan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons