Poetry News

Ange Mlinko Looks at Adrienne Rich's Later Poems: Selected and New

By Harriet Staff


Last week the Nation posted Ange Mlinko's review and assessment of Adrienne Rich's Later Poems: Selected and New and Rich's impact on the latest generation of feminists poets. But when it comes to compositional influence, "Impact" might be too strong a word. "Meh" might be better. Mlinko survey's Rich's career, beginning with her winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize, chosen by W.H. Auden, and then...

... as with many poets of her generation, the Vietnam War precipitated a crisis that shifted the foundations of her style as well as her life. She grew increasingly radicalized throughout the 1960s, during which she published the free-verse Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963). As she was writing the poems that would become The Will to Change: Poems 1968–1970, her family life fell apart, and in 1970 her husband committed suicide. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Rich came out as a lesbian. Her essays on the eros between women and the ambivalence of motherhood were among the first of their kind. She became a hero to some for her courage, and a scourge to former admirers repelled by her newfound stridency...

Mlinko goes on to argue that after her initial impact on women's writing, Rich's radicalism hasn't spoken to the poetic concerns of subsequent generations of poets:

Yet if Rich’s impact on her fellow feminists was huge, her impact on poets of the last couple of generations has been weak. Consider Maureen McLane, a visible fortysomething practitioner and critic who makes no secret in her work of her LGBT affiliation. Her recent book on her poetic education, My Poets, contains essays on Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück, Fanny Howe and even a couple of men—but not Rich. There’s also Cathy Park Hong, whose book Dance Dance Revolution was chosen by Rich in 2006 for the prestigious Barnard Women Poets Prize. Hong has admitted that she “had a period when I reacted against her in college. This was when multicultural relativism was having its swan song in the late 90’s. I was taking a feminist lit theory course and the pronoun we was poison. Don’t include me in your we. It was a reaction against white bourgeois feminists who assumed their plight was universal.” Of the recent spate of poetry collections from younger white or Jewish poets whose emotional lives are inextricably bound up with new motherhood—among them Rachel Zucker, Arielle Greenberg, Brenda Shaughnessy and Joy Katz—one could conclude that the Adrienne Rich of Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution is at least partly responsible. That book of essays, published in 1976, was one of the first theoretical treatments of motherhood, and any young American mother who has looked into midwives and doulas probably has Rich to thank. But Rich did not put motherhood front and center in her poetry as women right now do; her most anthologized poems have to do with different experiences: the reclamation of women’s voices (“Diving Into the Wreck”); lesbian love (“Twenty-One Love Poems”); and global justice (“An Atlas of the Difficult World”).

In a blog post written after Rich died, Hong put her finger on another crucial difference between Rich’s generation and mine: “I thought about the word commitment. This is a word that rarely comes up in workshop. Instead, there is this word: play (‘the play of words in this line…’). In workshop, we have been raised on a diet of negative capability. Lines should quiver with equivocation.”

Argument and commitment were central for Rich as a way of addressing injustice and inequality through the vehicle of the poem. Mlinko argues that Rich's use of poetry has been a stumbling block for a generation of poets who locate greater value in play, indeterminacy, and the formal aspects of linguistic/poetic construction. She goes on to write:

Rich’s signature style—fragmentary (even halting), earnest, direct—did not alter much in the four decades covered by Later Poems. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Robert Frost warned; I thought of this maxim more than once while reading this thick volume. I also thought of Wallace Stevens’s distinction between the poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination; I thought of Keats writing “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us” and his insistence that the poetic character “has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.” I thought of Sir Philip Sidney, who died of a gangrenous battle injury in his early 30s, writing of the poet: “he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit.” These were poets who made a strong distinction between art and the world, imagination and reality. Rich belonged to a tradition that collapsed that distinction. 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.

Surf over to the Nation to read the rest.