The death of Adrienne Rich marks not only the end of a long and transcendent literary career — thirty books of poetry and prose, prizes beyond counting — but the end of a kind of poetry that mattered in the world beyond poetry. It is hard to believe, given the plethora of articles with titles like "Is Poetry Dead?," that there was a moment not so long ago when poetry and poets played a central role in our cultural and political life. Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot were iconic figures, even to people who never cracked a book, and so, in her old age, was Marianne Moore; what Robert Lowell wrote about the war in Vietnam or black civil rights or his marriage or his madness was news. It was proper, and gratifying, that the New York Times began its obituary of Adrienne Rich on the front page, but it made me wonder if an American poet would ever be honored that way again.
In 1951, W. H. Auden, who selected the twenty-one-year-old Adrienne Cecile Rich's first book, "A Change of World," for the Yale Younger Poets series, wrote that her poems were "neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them." (This way of writing about women's work was hardly limited to Auden. Floating around my parents' house was an early book by Doris Lessing whose jacket copy informed the prospective reader that the author was an "attractive young woman.") Talk about not seeing history massing its forces round the corner. In 1963, the year Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique," Rich published her first great book, "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," with its indelible title sequence:
A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.
The beak that grips her, she becomes. And Nature,
that sprung-lidded, still commodious
steamer-trunk of tempora and mores
gets stuffed with it all: the mildewed orange-flowers,
the female pills, the terrible breasts
of Boadicea beneath flat foxes' heads and orchids.
This is poetry that is literally unforgettable, that memorizes itself. It is astonishing how much of the still-to-come feminist revolution Rich foreshadowed in these still-early poems: not just the rage of a brilliant woman at being forced into a lesser, false, infantilized life, but a tough, unsparing insight into its seductions: "our blight has been our sinecure: / mere talent was enough for us— / glitter in fragments and rough drafts." Friedan made much the same points, but, because her book was topical journalism, it feels dated today: it is hard to use Friedan to convey to students, say, why a middle-class educated suburban housewife in the nineteen-fifties might have been restless and miserable, because for most young people the specifics of that life are too old and musty and alien; you might as well try to convey the world of a Roman matron or a medieval nun. But Rich's poetry from this era still carries the shock of recognition, because it is about the deeper truths of consciousness behind the period details and interviews and statistics, and those truths don't change so much:
When to her lute Corinna sings
neither words nor music are her own;
only the long hair dipping over her cheek, only the song
of silk against her knees
adjusted in reflections of an eye.
Thomas Campion's musical Corinna, who has no song of her own and exists, for him, only as she moves him to bliss or tears, could be any woman confined and defined by men's ideas about her, from a fundamentalist mother of ten to a porn star. Woman as Other is such a familiar trope now it's hard to imagine it was ever a hard-won intellectual discovery. What marks Rich as a great poet is her ability to convey ideas by melding intimate feeling and historical sweep so vividly it becomes what Ezra Pound said poetry must be: news that stays news.
Rich's career reminds us that poetry can be more than aesthetic, more than lyrics of personal feeling—although she wrote many beautiful lyrics. It can engage with the biggest issues of its day and speak to a large and passionate readership. There are risks in taking those issues on: the poem as sermon, as slogan, as leaflet. (One of her books, in fact, is called "Leaflets.") Some of her poems, indeed, fell into those categories. But in book after book, Rich triumphed. She took on our gravest perplexities and injustices—inequality of race and gender and sexuality and class, war and its consequences, the despoiling of nature and language—and asked the biggest question about them: Who would we be if we could change our world? I don't think she knew the answer. No one does. In "Prospective Immigrants Please Note," she wrote,
The door itself
makes no promises
It is only a door.