Adrienne Rich: Essential American Poets
This is The Poetry Foundation’s Essential American Poets Podcast. Essential American Poets is an online audio-poetry collection. The poets in the collection were selected in 2006 by Donald Hall when he was Poet Laureate. Recordings of the poets he selected are available online at poetryfoundation.org and poetryarchive.org. In this edition of the podcast, we’ll hear poems by Adrienne Rich.
Adrienne Rich was born in 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a distinguished pathologist, and her mother a gifted pianist. Rich attended Radcliffe college, and at 21 years old she won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award. She graduated in 1951, and two years later she married Harvard economist Alfred H. Conrad. In the decade to come, they had three sons together, and Rich began to struggle against the conventional role of a 1950s housewife. During this time, Rich’s poetry was noted for it’s formal control and it’s constraint. But in the 1960s and 70s, her poetry and her life evolved dramatically. Rich became increasingly engaged in anti-war protests, and the struggle for civil rights. She also became an active participant in the women’s movement. In 1970, her husband died. In 1976 she came out as a lesbian. Rich has drawn parallels between sexuality, politics and poetry. In an interview with Michael Klein, Rich said “the connections I was making with the world by coming out as having any kind of sexuality had to do with the fact that early on I was critiquing the conventional male/female identities on which so much of Western poetry has been based”.
Rich is a self-described passionate skeptic, and believes steadfastly in the power of art to challenge an unjust status quo. According to Rich, both politics and poetry require the radical imagination of the not yet, the what if. The following poems were recorded in London in 2005, and at the University of Pennsylvania in 2005.
Adrienne Rich: Dreamwood
In the old, scratched, cheap wood of the typing stand
there is a landscape, veined, which only a child can see
or the child’s older self, a poet,
a woman dreaming when she should be typing
the last report of the day. If this were a map,
she thinks, a map laid down to memorize
because she might be walking it, it shows
ridge upon ridge fading into hazed desert
here and there a sign of aquifers
and one possible watering-hole. If this were a map
it would be the map of the last age of her life,
not a map of choices but a map of variations
on the one great choice. It would be the map by which
she could see the end of touristic choices,
of distances blued and purpled by romance,
by which she would recognize that poetry
isn’t revolution but a way of knowing
why it must come. If this cheap, mass-produced
wooden stand from the Brooklyn Union Gas Co.,
mass-produced yet durable, being here now,
is what it is yet a dream-map
so obdurate, so plain,
she thinks, the material and the dream can join
and that is the poem and that is the late report.
Adrienne Rich: What Kind Of Times Are These
There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.
Adrienne Rich: Wait
In paradise every
the desert wind is rising
in hell there are no thoughts
is of earth
sand screams against your government
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
they never told you
That was Adrienne Rich, recorded in London in 2002 and at the University of Pennsylvania in 2005, and used by permission of the author and the Francis Golden Literary Agency. Recordings of “What Kinds of Times are These” and “Dreamwood” courtesy of Poetry Archive UK. And recording of “Wait” courtesy of PennSound. You’ve been listening to the Essential American Poets Podcast, produced by The Poetry Foundation in collaboration with poetryarchive.org. To learn more about Adrienne Rich and other essential American poets, and to hear more poetry, go to poetryfoundation.org.