Adrienne Rich is one of the leading American poets of our century. For forty years, her distinguished writings have brought accolades, including the National Book Award, the Fellowship of American Poets, and the Poets Prize. But as she puts it in her early 1980s poem "Sources," she is a "woman with a mission, not to win prizes/but to change the laws of history."
It is this mission that sets Rich apart, for she has forsaken the easy path of academic poetry and hurled herself into the political fray An early feminist and an outspoken lesbian, she has served as a role model for a whole generation of political poets and activists. Consciously she has fused politics and poetry, and in so doing, she - along with Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and a small handful of colleagues - rediscovered and rejuvenated the lost American tradition of political poetry.
Her latest work, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, takes its title from a stanza of William Carlos Williams: "It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day for lack/of what is found there." This ambitious, sweeping work contains an elaborate defense of political poetry, an intricate reading of three of her great predecessors (Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Muriel Rukeyser), and generous introductions to dozens of contemporary political poets. It also is a trenchant indictment of American society today and a turbulent coming-to-grips with her own citizenship. In this regard, it is a prose continuation of An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991.
I spoke with her one cool sunny September afternoon on the patio of her modest home on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, California, which she shares with her partner, the novelist Michelle Cliff. When it became too cold, we went inside and finished the interview in her living room. Works by June Jordan and Audre Lorde rested on a nearby coffee table.
Q: In What Is Found There you write that "poetry is banned in the United States," that it is "under house arrest." What do you mean?
Adrienne Rich: When you think about almost any other country, any other culture, it's been taken for granted that poets would take part in the government, that they would be sent here and there as ambassadors by the state proudly, that their being poets was part of why they were considered valuable citizens - Yeats in Ireland, Neruda in Chile, St.-John Perse in France. At the same time, poets like Hikmet in Turkey, Mandelstam in the Soviet Union, Ritsos in Greece, and hundreds of others have been severely penalized for their writings, severely penalized for a single poem. But here it's the censorship of "who wants to listen to you, anyway?" - of carrying on this art in a country where it is perceived as so elite or effete or marginal that it has nothing to do with the hard core of things. That goes hand in hand with an attitude about politics, which is that the average citizen, the regular American, can't understand poetry and also can't understand politics, that both are somehow the realms of experts, that we are spectators of politics, rather than active subjects. I don't believe either is true.
Q: How did American poetry come to be viewed as so marginal?
Rich: Poetry in America became either answerable to a certain ideology - as it was, Puritanism - focusing on certain themes, expressive of certain attitudes, or it became identified in the Nineteenth Century with a certain femininity, the feminization of literature, what Nathaniel Hawthorne called "that horde of scribbling women." In What Is Found There, I suggest that in carrying out the genocide of the indigenous people, you had to destroy the indigenous poetry. The mainstream American tradition depends on the extirpation of memory and the inability of so many white American poets to deal with what it meant to be a North American poet - Whitman, of course, the great exception in his way, and in her own way Dickinson, so different but so parallel. And yet that still doesn't altogether explain it.
Q: What more is there?
Rich: I think there's been a great denial of the kinds of poets and poetries that could speak to a lot more people. Poetry has been kind of hoarded inside the schools, inside the universities. The activity of writing about poems and poetry - the activity of making it available and accessible - became the property of scholars and academics and became dependent on a certain kind of academic training, education, class background.
Q: Is that why people say, "I just don't get it. I don't understand poetry"?
Rich: It's something people say in reaction to feeling, "I don't know much about it. I haven't been exposed to a lot of it." It may also be a defense against what Muriel Rukeyser calls "the fear of poetry" - which she calls a disease of our schools.
Q: But a lot of contemporary political poetry is extremely clear and accessible, isn't it?
Rich: Instead of political poetry, we might want to say poetry of witness, poetry of dissent, poetry that is the voice of those and on behalf of those who are generally unheard. I'm reading poetry all the time that is enormously accessible in its language. And I don't mean by that using the smallest possible vocabulary. We're living in a country now where the range of articulateness has really diminished down to almost a TV level, where to hear people speaking with rich figures of speech, which used to be the property of everybody, is increasingly rare.
Q: What you call "the bleached language" of our era?
Rich: Yes. But I'm seeing a lot of poetry that is new, that is political in the broadest and richest sense. Fewer people would feel the "fear of poetry" if they heard it aloud as well as read it on the page. There are enormous poetry scenes now - poetry slams or competitions - they have the flavor of something that is still macho, but certainly lots of people go to them, and there are some remarkable women participants, like Patricia Smith. Throughout this...