No Place for Little Lyric: A Discussion of Adrienne Rich's "Wait"

January 7, 2008

Al Filreis: I'm Al Filreis, and this is Poem Talk at the Writer's House, where I had the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close, but not too close reading of a poem. We'll talk and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities and we hope gain for a favourite poem some new readers and listeners. I say listeners because all the Poem Talk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our Penn Sound archive,

Today I'm joined here in Philadelphia in Studio 111 at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing by Jessica Lowenthal, a teacher and poet, author of As If in Turning, and director of the Kelly Writers House, and by Linh Dinh, the Saigon-born poet whose most recent book of poems is Jam Alerts, and by Randall Couch, a poet, critic, administrator, and teacher of poetry and poetics at Arcadia University. Welcome, all of you, to Poem Talk and thanks for joining me.

Jessica Lowenthal: Thanks Al.


Randall Couch: Hey.


Linh Dinh: Glad to be here.


Al Filreis: Our poem today is Adrienne Rich's short lyric called “Wait”, W-A-I-T. Before we begin to talk about it, let's have a listen. Our recording was made in April 2005 during Rich's visit here to The Writer's House, so here now is Adrienne Rich reading “Wait”.


Adrienne Rich:

In paradise every

the desert wind is rising

third thought

in hell there are no thoughts

is of earth

sand screams against your government

issued tent hell’s noise

in your nostrils crawl

into your ear-shell

wrap yourself in no-thought

wait no place for the little lyric

wedding-ring glint the reason why

on earth

they never told you


Al Filreis: Let me ask first what you think the title of the poem means. This is another way of asking you to say generally what you think the poem is about.


Jessica Lowenthal: Well, the title is repeated in a moment in the poem, the “wrap yourself in no thought / wait”. It seems to be a directive of some kind that appears in the poem, although I don't know what that wait in the middle of the poem means.

Al Filreis: Randall, ideas? What's being waited for? Who's waiting and who's been waited for?

Randall Couch: Change.

Al Filreis: Change?

Randall Couch: Political change.

Al Filreis: Oh, so you're going big on this? Linh, can we be a little more narrative about this? If this were a short story, what would it say? What would it be about?

Line Dinh: I just see it as happiness and desire suspended. The soldier has to sacrifice now in hope of some future fulfillment.


Al Filreis: I like to think of this title as referring to sitting around, waiting in a tent during a sandstorm. There's a lot of waiting.


Randall Couch: Rich also said that she wrote this poem on the eve of the actual invasion, so there was a mass force of people in advance of the actual —


Al Filreis: Oh, this is not about the war that hadn't started yet, but about waiting for it to start.


Randall Couch: Exactly.


Al Filreis: Who is being ... There is someone being addressed. Linh has said he. I think it might be a she. It might be a woman soldier. I'm not sure why I say that, but someone is being addressed, presumably a soldier. Okay, so let's get to this proverb. “In paradise every third thought is of earth”. It's interlineated so that there are two of Rich's own lines in between italicized lines, three of them, that are quoted from a proverb. I know, Randall, that you've found the source of this. Can you tell us a little bit about it and then tell us what you think it means?


Randall Couch: Sure. The source of the line is from a poem by Stanley Moss, which was published in The American Poetry Review in November, December of 2002. It's a long poem. It comes right at the end: “Death, I think you take your greatest pleasure in waiting us murdering in great numbers in ways even you have not planned. They say in paradise every third thought is of earth and a woman with a child at her breast”. That's the way he ends the poem. The opening of Rich's poem, “Wait”, interlineates that and interrupts it with two other lines. After those six lines, the poem converges again, and it's only one stream of voice. It seems to me one reading is that that interlineation creates in the readers kind of mental theater two voices, not really fully characterized speakers, but two different sources of sound that then converge in a kind of chorus. It's a strategy to counter what's the great risk of a political poem is it's like one isolated individual whining about something.


Al Filreis: That's great. I think it helps us understand why she needed this short poem to have at least the beginning two voices. What do you think the actual, the italicized section, of the poem actually means? What would be a translation of it?


Jessica Lowenthall: I think it means even in paradise we have responsibility toward political action or we have political action toward the things of the earth that a heavenly state or a paradisiac state doesn't mean that we leave aside our earthly concern.


Randall Couch: I think it's important to remember here, in terms of context, that there were a lot of media repetitions of the idea that there were some biblical scholars who placed the location of the Garden of Eden in the marshlands in the southeast of Iraq. That was said a lot during this time, so there's some irony here, too, about the person in the poem being situated in paradise, in addition to the heavenly idea.


Adrienne Rich:

In paradise every

the desert wind is rising

third thought

in hell there are no thoughts

is of earth


Al Filreis: If in hell there are no thoughts in this poem, she says it explicitly, then is it being implied that in paradise there are thoughts? I think it is, at least every third thought, is of earth. Is it that the state of not thinking is hell? If your answer to that question is yes then why is she recommending to the person she's speaking to in this poem that he or she wrap him or herself in no thought? One would think that would be a negative state.


Linh Dinh: Well, because he's in hell already. He's ... The soldier is literally being placed in hell. He's forced to remove thoughts from his head because nothing makes sense in a sense. That's why “wrap yourself in no thought”. “Wait no place for the little lyric”, the normality, the supposed normality that we are entitled to.


Adrienne Rich:

In paradise every

the desert wind is rising

third thought

in hell there are no thoughts

is of earth



Al Filreis: This is a poem that in the simplest sense beautifully, although briefly, reproduces the condition of being in a tent, a government-issued tent, hell's noise. Any of us have been in a very, very loud place. You can't think, can't hear yourself think. This poem, which is itself a little lyric, this poem is in some sense an answer, a thought in response to the loud noise of no thought.


Randall Couch: I'd like to follow up on that. I think that there's an interesting little clue here, in terms of strategies, about the political poem in the missing hyphen. Notice lower in the poem where she has compound adjectives before the noun. She conventionally uses the hyphen as in wedding-ring glint. At the end of the line, screams against your government issued tent, she omits the hyphen to sort of emphasize that line break. I would suggest that one of the functions of that is to create a situation where the sand that is nature is seeming to resist the policy that the solider represents. In other words, it's a way to invoke the pathetic fallacy here that nature basically is resisting this war mightily.


Adrienne Rich:


into your ear-shell

wrap yourself in no-thought

wait no place for the little lyric

wedding-ring glint the reason why

on earth

they never told you


Al Filreis: Let's look at the end of the poem because I think we are going to disagree about this. The soldier is asked to wrap him or herself in no-thought and to wait, and then this assertion, no place for the little lyric wedding-ring glint. The reason why on earth they never told you.Let me ask first all of you, who is they? Who is it that's not telling the soldier something?


Linh Dinh: They are the deciders (LAUGHING).


Jessica Lowenthal: They are the deciders. Government, Government.


Randall Couch: It depends on how far you want to go with that. It could be the whole cultural chain of socialization, but I think immediately the government policy, but it could be, no, the parents who told you to be good and follow orders.


Jessica Lowenthal: That's what I find so odd about the wedding-ring glint is that Rich is so interested in thinking about marriage as an institution that's a problem.


Randall Couch: Yeah. Right.


Jessica Lowenthal: Yeah, in this poem that seems to be the source of solace or the thing that allows the solider …


Randall Couch: Right.


Al Filreis: Oh, I disagree.


Jessica Lowenthal: Really?


Al Filreis: The implication of your comment is that this is not as radical a poem as other poems earlier, let's say. I think that when the soldier for one reason or another is caused to look at his or her wedding ring he or she is enacting the personal as the political, which is so important to Rich's poems of the 1970s, and is thinking that love is the one thing that he or she has some control over. You can't take the wedding ring off my finger. You could blow it off, I suppose, but there it is. Love is the reason why that this, whatever it is that I see in this glint of this wedding ring, I am reminded that the sun of Iraq is glinting on this wedding ring. This is the most powerful thing that I have. It's not simply sort of easy liberal solace, think about whom you love and you'll get through this horrible war scene, but in fact that's the very reason why they didn't tell you. I repeat my question. What is it? How would you spell out what it is that they didn't tell you?


Randall Couch: Well, one reading of the poem is that what they didn't tell him or her is the reason why they're about to kill a lot of people and have to endure this raging sandstorm in a remote place and suffer.


Al Filreis: Does this poem, or does a political poem like this in general, make you feel, the three of you, more or less confident that poetry is good at expressing political thoughts or feelings?


Randall Couch: I'm not sure you can generalize about that. I think that writing political poems has opportunities and risks. You adopt strategies to cope with the risks. I think this one has mixed success in my view.


Linh Dinh: This is a life-long project for Rich, meditating on war, so to look at this single poem and say whether it works or not is kind of unfair because this is her investigation into the ethics and the meanings of war, and just of living and what does it mean to be gullible and to be used.

Al Filreis: Is it possible that we don't know how to talk about this poem? Is it possible that we ... That there's allure to talking about this poem thematically that's going to miss what's so good about it?


Linh Dinh: Oh, I think that's quite possible.


Al Filreis: Would you state that adamantly and radically as this, it's not really important that the poem is about Iraq or this particular war, but that the strategies and devices used to create this lyric are what are ... What will be interesting?


Randall Couch: Absolutely. To me, that's the principle interest of the poem is how does she handle this problem of writing a good political poem?


Al Filreis: Linh and Jessica, isn't Randall being a little apolitical about this? He's being a formalist, isn't he? What kind of conversation takes place between you, not just about this poem but about poetry in general? How do we negotiate this discussion?


Jessica Lowenthal: I don't think Randall and I are far apart on this.


Randall Couch: No.


Jessica L.: If this is a poem where lyric is a problem or an issue, the first half is a demonstration of that problem or working out of that problem. The multivocal nature of the first half is in itself a weird thing for lyric, if a lyric is an overheard utterance or a singular speaker or a moment of distillation, or however it is that we individually take the lyric.


Randall Couch: Yeah. Going back to your —


Jessica Lowenthal: If it's a problem or a question or a working out of lyric, that first half is a demonstration of some kind of possibility in the lyric or directions in the lyric or problems of the lyric.


Randall Couch: Right.


Adrienne Rich:

sand screams against your government

issued tent hell’s noise

in your nostrils


Al Filreis: As a sophomore in college I asked a what was called a sophomoric question to my poetry teacher. I asked him what is great poetry. He said ... Gave me a great answer, which I remember. He said, "Great poetry is a poem that someone acknowledges that it is a poem or that it is in the act of finding what will suffice to be a poem," to borrow a little bit from Wallace Stevens there. Is this a poem? I'm not asking you whether it's a great poem. Is this a poem that in several ways indicates its status and its struggle as a poem trying to figure out what a poem can do, for instance, in relation to war?


Randall Couch: I think so.


Al Filreis: If so, where are the signals of that?


Jessica Lowenthal: Having the italics, having a source text other than the poem text indicates we're in a field, a textual field.


Al Filreis: Intertextuality, that’s one.


Randall Couch: Second is the polyvocality of interlacing the opening lines.


Al Filreis: Right. Another?


Randall Couch: Third is the hyphenation absence and emphasis on the line break which separates government issued into government.


Al Filreis: And, of course, finally, the reference to the little lyric at the end of the poem.


Randall Couch: Yeah.


Al Filreis: Linh?


Linh Dinh: Also, her absence of punctuations in most lines. Also, her very skillful use of the vowels, vowel sequences.


Al Filreis: Give us some examples of how that works.


Linh Dinh: Yeah. Well, “little lyric”, “wedding-ring glint”. The eye.


Al Filreis: The short eye.


Linh Dinh: Yeah.


Al Filreis: That creates a sense of self consciousness. This is a raw expression as opposed to simply what's on her mind about the war.


Randall Couch: When you see it on the page as well there's also some interesting expanded spacing between words resonating with the title Wait. It's like she's, again, enacting this frustration of postponing the expected.


Al Filreis: Ah, you've answered a question I haven't asked yet, which is going back to the title “Wait”, if we were simply thinking of this poem in the basic thematic way it would be a poem having to do with waiting, waiting for war to start, waiting in your tent for the sandstorm to end. Now we're talking about wait in a different way, in a poetic sort of way. How would you restate that? Wait means ... In a metapoetic sense, wait means wait for what?


Randall Couch: Closure.


Al Filreis: Waiting for closure.


Randall Couch: So, invoking a kind of suspension. Interestingly, this poem does, though, move toward a fairly firm closure at the end, I think. Why do we have that sense, I wonder? Why does it feel like a close?


Al Filreis: Oh, I don't have that sense.


Randall Couch: You don't?


Al Filreis: I have a sense of openness in a political sense, radical openness. You can't help, I'll speak for myself, I can't help end this poem without thinking, "What is it that they didn't tell you?"


Al Filreis: Of course, that causes me to have the political thought that didn't get explicitly into the poem, they didn't tell you that this was the reason that you've gone to war, they didn't tell you that this is the reason you'll never see your loved one again.


Randall Couch: Absolutely, thematically. I was speaking of closure poetically and or technically. It feels to me like it closes with a click and I don't expect another line.


Al Filreis: Is that bad? Is that bad?


Randall Couch: I don't think it's bad or good. It's traditional. Given what we were saying earlier about the sort of poetic experiments and strategies in the poem, it's a little surprising given the title, Wait, and what we've said about waiting and suspension.


Adrienne Rich:

wait no place for the little lyric

wedding-ring glint the reason why

on earth

they never told you


Al Filreis: All across the 20th Century modern and modernist poets said in one way or other, those who were interested in political issues and social issues, there weren't too many of them, but those that were interested said if the poem is going to be open formally then its thematics has to be open because you create a conservative poem saying radical things. If you write a poem about the depression, about hobos standing in the food line, bread lines, it's a been there, done that poem that's not open in any sense formally. Then, it becomes a conservative poem about a radical topic. Is this a poem that falls into that little bit of that trouble? I ask the question asking you to keep in mind that that is the charge that was made against Rich when she turned to political poetry after her formalist beginnings. Do you think that's a ... That this poem can revive such a charge? I don't, but I wonder if you do.


Linh Dinh: No, I don't think so because I think there's more ambivalence here.


Al Filreis: Yeah. On her part, on the speaker's part.


Linh Dinh: On her part, yeah.


Al Filreis: Yes.


Linh Dinh: Which I see as a philosophical poem rather than a war poem, so I think she's less likely to be charged of being didactic or bombastic, or whatever.


Jessica Lowenthal: So, we don't even agree what all of this poems means, so I think that it's clear on that level that it's not a closed poem. It's not hobos standing in a bread line, easy to understand, read, easy to understand what the message is.


Randall Couch: Yeah, and the fact that the ending moves towards a kind of closure doesn't mean that the other techniques in the poem are similarly conservative, either.


Linh Dinh: I just want to comment, too. The proximity of paradise to wait made me think of Waiting for Godot. It's like the kind of …


Al Filreis: A modernist kind of waiting, waiting for something that's not going to come. In Becket or Ashbery you often get a message that’s going to be delivered and isn’t, or you open up the message and it doesn’t say anything, or the speaker doesn't give you the message that's been received. If you apply that message never received to politics, to contemporary postmodern politics, global politics, you get the message never received by the poet. Why are we at war?


Randall Couch: Reading the poem now, particularly, a strong overtone here is because none of the goals for which this war was launched seem to have been realized. We're also waiting for the redemption, the justification, the rationale.


Al Filreis: We're waiting for paradise in the both unironic and the ironic sense. Heaven can wait. Before we get to the gathering paradise segment of our show, let me ask each of you to offer a final word on this poem, or maybe something more on what you get from it. Jessica, final thought?


Jessica Lowenthal: Yeah. I don't think of Rich as a poet who challenges the use value of lyric. Lyric seems to be something that has politically efficacy, that does something. This poem, though, seems to work with the lyric as something that might have some problems, that moment, little lyric wedding-ring glint, and that really interests me, that poetry is not quite indicted here, but included in what they haven't been talking about.


Al Filreis: Is this poem itself an instance of the little lyric that's problematic?


Jessica Lowenthal: I think it is.


Al Filreis: Interesting.


Jessica Lowenthal: I think it is.


Al Filreis: Interesting. Linh, your final thought?


Linh Dinh: I like her blurring of the human, the individual body, and the earth as a body. The strategy she uses over and over again, so an assault on the single bodies and also an assault on the earth and vice versa. Also, the sadness and the resignation of the fact that all we have is the little lyric and it's all we can look forward to. Somebody, many people don't even get that, so I like the sadness in that.


Al Filreis: Beautiful. Randall, final thought?


Randall Couch: Well, recurring to your earlier question about what Jessica called a use value of political poems, I think what interests the most in this poem is the strategies that Rich attempts to employ to create a work that will stand up aesthetically in spite, so to speak, of the political use to which it's trying to be put.


Al Filreis: We like to end Poem Talk with a minute or two of gathering paradise, a chance for several of us to spread wide our narrow hands to gather a little something really poetically good, to extol, hail, puff up, or commend someone or something going on in the poetry world. Jessica, can you gather a little paradise for us?


Jessica Lowenthal: Sure, sure. Our director and editor, or our sound engineer, Steve McLaughlin, runs a series at The Writers House called “Machine” based around digital literatures. He's just introduced me to an artist named Notshold who has an ongoing interactive public art installation piece called Txtual Healing, that's T-X-T-U-A-L. Basically what this artist does is project empty text bubbles, like, from cartoons, onto buildings, in galleries, and then he posts a phone number and invites people to text in their messages. It's this great example of I think our typewriter, like a tab stop, a new way of using text that is creating I think formal changes.


Al Filreis: That’s really neat. Thank you.


Jessica Lowenthal: It's fun.


Al Filreis: Randall, your gathering paradise.


Randall Couch: I have some things from the amazing Peruvian poet César Vallejo. Clayton Eschelman has just published from University of California Press his translations of the collected poems after many decades of work. I want to read a little bit from one poem, however, by a different translator, Rebecca Seiferle. This is from poem 36 from Vallejo’s second book, Trilce. Are you there, Venus de Milo? You pretend to be one-handed, barely sprouting deep within the complete arms of existence. Of this existence that yet and yet perennials perfection. At the end he says, "Refuse all of you to lay plans in harmonies doubled certainty. Truly refuse the symmetry, mediate the conflict of the points that dispute among the most ruttish of the just, and leap through the eye of a needle.”


Al Filreis: Well, that's all the hobos in a bread line we have time for on Poem Talk today. Poem Talk at The Writer's House is a collaboration of The Centers for Programs in Contemporary Writing and The Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, and The Poetry Foundation of Chicago, Thanks to my guests Linh Dinh, Jessica Lowenthal, and Randall Couch, and to my co-producer, Mark Lindsay and Poem Talk's assistant director and editor, Steve McLaughlin, with special help from Curtis Fox. This is Al Filreis and I hope you'll join us again soon for another Poem Talk.






Hosted by Al Filreis and featuring poets Linh Dinh, Randall Couch, and Jessica Lowenthal.

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