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Eavan Boland Reviews Adrienne Rich
Check out Eavan Boaland’s review of Adrienne Rich’s Later Poems Selected and New: 1971-2012 over at The New Republic.
It has been a remarkable journey. Adrienne Rich began writing in a strange, charged poetic moment. Her first book, A Change of World, was published in 1951. She was twenty-two years old. In that era of American empire and postwar anxiety, there was still an exclusivity, a prescribed decorum, about the poet’s identity. A poet who was daring or dissident—and Rich would prove to be both—might well end up like the brother in the Icelandic fable, who confronts another brother and demands his share of the kingdom. Here is your share, says the older sibling: here is six feet of the kingdom.
The American poem was not in a grave at that time; not by any measure. There was achievement, experiment, excitement. But there was also confinement. It could be felt in the air, in an ethos of conditional acceptance. A young woman poet was not yet a familiar sight. When Auden remarked about Rich’s poems, after choosing her as a Yale Younger Poet, that they were “neatly and modestly dressed,” it sounded more like a counsel for the nursery than acclaim for a new writer.
This book, as the title suggests, moves forward from the mid-point of Rich’s career. There are thirteen sections here, with generous inclusions from signature work such as “Dark Fields of the Republic” and “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” There is also a luminous final section, just ten poems long, titled “New and Unpublished Poems 2010–2012.” The very last poem is called “Endpapers” and finishes with a final, elliptical gesture toward striving:
The signature to a life requires
The search for a method
Reading through this book, some things immediately strike home. Most of all the remarkable consistency of craft—an underappreciated element of Rich’s work. For so many years Rich has been typecast as a poet of statement, anger, witness. And all of those modes have their place. But the meticulous artistry of poems such as “Diving into the Wreck” or “Power” deserves a closer look.
In poems such as these, the marvelous weaving in and out—of relations between line and line, between music and voice, between image and insistence—is intense and exemplary. The artful deployment of broken space on the page, the fractured syntax, and the absent punctuation signal stylistic decision at the highest level. Not just the poem, but also the history of Rich’s poetic independence, unfolds as we read. In a lyric age, Rich refused a lyric project. In a narrative era, she shunned story-telling. Her strategy was to take a voice-driven line and stampede it toward stanzaic drama, as in “Diving into the Wreck”:
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
The most powerful poems here—and they are scattered right through the book—establish a psychic horizon in which the tone manages to be both conversational and oracular; in which the reader can feel solitary and communal at the same time. There may have been, for the apprentice Rich, a shadow of Lowell in this practice; there may also have been a light from Yeats. But the deliberate structure of a Rich poem, gliding between private awareness and public oratory, often in the space of a few lines, is entirely hers.
Full review here.