The Riches of Adrienne

29 March 2012

My tribute to the great American poet and feminist Adrienne Rich, who died this week.

Amid the international slathering over the return of Don Draper, the resolutely un-reconstructed white male Lothario of Mad Men, which premiered Season 5 this week (and with at least one shot of Jon Hamm’s naked torso in each episode to date, it looks to be a satisfying season), it seems somehow appropriate to commemorate the life and works of Adrienne Rich, the lesbian feminist poet, writer and activist whose life and work sought to rip apart the world of martini-soaked misogyny and unthinking male domination that Don Draper and his mid-1960s milieu represents. (Of all the obituaries currently circulating, I recommend Margalit Fox’s piece for the New York Times, for the elegance of its writing and the seriousness with which it notes Rich’s joint contribution to feminism and to the world of letters).

I studied Adrienne Rich in a 2nd year English Lit paper dedicated to Contemporary Women’s Literature, taught by the often fearsome and always inspiring Professor Jocelyn Harris, herself a pioneer in scholarship on women’s writing and a trailblazer for feminism and women’s studies at our university. The syllabus was, as I recall now, a fairly depressing selection of work which mostly recorded the suffering and oppression of women – from Margaret Atwood’s distopic novel The Handmaid’s Tale to the tortured pre-suicide poetry of Sylvia Plath, with only the occasional wolf whistle from Angela Carter to enliven things up. I was one of only three men in the class, an interesting experience in itself, as the class was at times as much a consciousness-raising group as it was a study of literature, and my classmates and lecturers represented almost every end of the feminist spectrum, from dyed-in-the-wool 70s-era feminists to polysexual 1990s cool kids who were “post-gender” and more excited by the burgeoning queer theory movement than the anguished strains of 1st-wave feminism.

Adrienne Rich came at the end of the programme, in a somewhat last minute canter through 20th century feminist poetry, and she was a striking force to be reckoned with, regardless of your brand or generation of feminism. Her poetic technique – metre, rhyme,  musicality – was accomplished, her literary allusions showed a comprehensive knowledge of classical and modern literature, and she managed to convey great intelligence and perception with a precise, economical and emotionally charged form of language. But it was the clarity of her perspective as an outsider – clear-eyed, sober (though not entirely humourless) and eloquent – that was most striking. Through sheer intelligence and unapologetic persistence, she spoke about her great thematic concerns – the systematic oppression of women in a male-dominated world, and her attempt through poetry to recreate the lost experiences of women through the ages and to give a voice to marginalised female experience, particularly lesbian love.

The chronology of Rich’s work and style seemed to evolve as a direct correlative to her own life – an academic prodigy schooled by her father to become a great poet, early success with a much-admired collection of formalist poems, early marriage to a fellow academic and children, followed by a period of greater technical experimentation and an embracing of a stronger individual voice as she discovered her own lesbianism and radical politics. As one of the first generation of poets ever to write about lesbian experience, she was firmly committed to creating a new poetic language for the love that until then had dared not to speak its name. In Diving Into the Wreck, the title poem from her 1974 National Book Award-winning collection of the same name, she writes:

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Rich’s work invariably showed more courage than cowardice, rewriting the book of myths to name the names of her invisible, forgotten ancestors – notably in her poem Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers, where the invisible seamstress and Angel of the House dies forgotten and terrified, “still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by”, while the tigers in her embroidered screen express a pride and fearlessness that she herself was unable to achieve – and later literally writing a “new book”, Twenty One Love Poems, celebrating the giddy newness and political significance of loving another woman. In our heavily sexualised, post-Internet age where teen pop stars simulate lesbian sex in music videos to gain street cred and a titillated audience, it’s difficult to imagine the effect that Rich’s work had on the North America of the 1960s and 1970s, in the days before lesbianism was chic, or even acceptable. In a sense, the radicalism of Rich’s work was best appreciated by New Zealand readers, who having only legalised homosexuality in 1986, were still adjusting to the relative “newness” of homosexuality as something able to be spoken about openly.

I wrote my final essay for the Women’s Lit course on Rich’s poetry, in something of a hurry and under sufferance, as I recall now: I’d neglected to submit the minimum number of assignments to complete the course, and Rich was the final author on whom an essay could be written before the drawbridge closed. I managed to wrangle a note from my sympathetic counsellor at Student Health, who cheerily noted that I was suffering from an inability to concentrate due to working through some serious issues in my personal life (which was largely true, as I’d spent most of the year agonising over how and when to come out as gay to my parents), and duly got an extension to pump out an essay. With no time to do any background academic reading on Rich, I was left with a photostat of excerpts from her poetry collection to work from.

As I discovered, the poems were all I needed to understand Rich, and possibly also as a roadmap to understanding life. She was a writer who truly loved and understood the tricksical, liquid qualities of language, and seemed unusually able to write work that resounded politically as well as aesthetically and musically. I was intrigued and enlivened by how work written at around the time I was born could still be relevant, provocative and inspiring, and needless to say, Rich’s own tracking of her autobiographical process of discovering her own sexuality and reclaiming an alternative history was exactly aligned with my own discoveries as a fledgling gaylet. It was one of those marvellously synergistic moments that happen occasionally as a writer, where the material matches your own vision as a reader and writer, and circumstances demand the intensive production of a piece of work. It was probably one of the best essays I wrote as a student, and delightfully Jocelyn thought so too, giving me my first A+ for the year, and my eventual overall grade for the course at year’s end. (Thanks, Jocelyn!)

I came across my Rich essay earlier this year when I was sorting through and discarding a lot of my university course materials, which had lived for the best part of the last 15 years in my parent’s roof loft space. I re-read it cursorily, noting Jocelyn’s effusive pencil scribbles of approval in the margins and the theatrical planting of the A+ on the back page, and I smiled. I can’t for the life of me remember whether I kept it or threw it away, though I hope it’s saved somewhere on a floppy disc.

Though the news today of Rich’s death saddened me, it made me very happy to revisit her work, and admire her extraordinary talent. Her work reminds us of a time when the Mad Men culture, rather than being admired and reminisced over nostalgically, was something insufferably awful that needed to be fought against. (This criticism of the period is built into Mad Men as well, of course, though that tends to get lost amid some of the critics’ and fans’ more facile appreciations of its cosmetic charms). Moving beyond the specificities of the period, Rich achieves what the very greatest writers are capable of: an ability to find in language a way of communicating across time and space to future generations, and to try to live one’s personal and political beliefs through one’s art. And that to me seems like something great to aim for as a writer, and as a person.

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