Once upon a time, I lived in a town roughly the size of Our Town (aka, Jacksonville). Northampton, Massachusetts, home to Smith College, is also home to the highest percentage of feminists per household of any community either side of the Mississippi. For those doubting my claim, I offer none other than, that venerable source of credible information, The National Enquirer. While I was dwelling in “NoHo,” said rag issued a warning that said community was a “town where men aren’t wanted.” And, while there were days I believed this seemingly wild assertion, on the whole, I was made to feel as welcome as the next outsider, regardless of gender.
One evening, while out on the town in question, I was playing — under the influence of too much Valpolicella — the provocateur. I said, “Political poetry is an oxymoron. Social activism is as necessary as any other evil that rights the wrongs committed by the right, but poetry must, rightfully, remain above this untoward fray.” Or words to that effect. Never content to quit while ahead, I went on to sing the praises of Pablo Neruda. Well, needless to say, my heedless remarks were taken to task by some perceptive member of our party. She said, “How can you claim — in one breath — poetry’s superiority to politics, and — in the next — loudly laud Neruda’s body of work, which included, among other stridently political manifestos, A Call for the Destruction of Nixon?” Or words to that effect.
Long before Nixon entered the scene, Pablo sang of love and despair. An avid collector of maritime memorabilia, he penned passionate odes to “things,” many of which pertained to his beloved sea. He lived on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. And within his unique home — a pilgrimage site for Neruda worshipers — old ships’ figureheads figure prominently. Calling for a power-abusing figure’s head on a plate, while arguably justified, seldom translates into high art. Calling spirits from the vasty deep. Now that is poetry.
Not that daffodils and nightingales are the only subjects worthy of verse. Wordsworth and Keats are in the canon for their uncommon talent, not their subject matter.
With the passing of Adrienne Rich this past week, we have lost an uncommon talent indeed. One of the most gifted and ardent voices raised in protest against patriarchal tyranny, she railed eloquently, poem after poem, in defense of uncommon sense.
Chosen by W.H. Auden, Rich received the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book of poems, A Change of World. Evolving over time, freeing her verse, and airing her grievances more directly, she progressed in step with (and often ahead of) her times. Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law put her on both the poetical and political maps. The title poem of another award-winning book, it reads like a feminist manifesto, unleashing her “…Furies cornered from their prey:/The argument ad feminam, all the old knives/that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours,/ma semblable, ma soeur!” Later, in the seventh section of the poem, Rich quotes the eighteenth century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley):
“To have in this uncertain world some stay
which cannot be undermined, is
of the utmost consequence.”
a woman, partly brave and partly good,
who fought with what she partly understood.
Few men about her would or could do more,
hence she was labeled harpy, shrew and whore.
With the publication of Diving into the Wreck, winner of the National Book Award, Rich hit her full stride. As she delved into the mess of ills and evils that permeated the late 60’s and 70’s, she seemed to strike the right balance between vehemence and eloquence.
…the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck…
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot…
With Neruda’s figureheads still in my head, I reread Rich’s allusion to one in this passage with keener awareness. Neruda counted these carved beauties among his muses, worthy of sonnets and odes. Rich, on the other hand, identified with them, suffering, as they did, the abuses of that vasty deep, at the hands of men of conquest.
By the time she had written An Atlas of the Difficult World, her best known “mature” work, Rich had lost no steam. But her originality had petered considerably. This long poem of long lines is uncomfortably reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, that seminal testament of The Beats. If Kerouac was that movement’s matinee idol — and Burroughs’ its crackpot priest — Ginsberg was its laureate. But their heydays were decades past when Rich wrote this (albeit rhapsodic) sixties coffee house riff:
Catch if you can your country’s moment, begin
where any calendar’s ripped-off: Appomattox
Wounded Knee, Los Alamos, Selma, the last airlift from Saigon
the ex-Army nurse hitch-hiking from the debriefing center; medal of spit on
the veteran’s shoulder
–catch if you can this unbound land these states without a cause
earth of despoiled graves and grazing these embittered brooks
these pilgrim ants pouring out from the bronze eyes, ears, nostrils,
the mouth of liberty
over the chained bay waters
Dot, dot, dot. And The Beats go on… and on. After reading all thirteen sections of the poem — most of which were excellent (a case of Rich doing Ginsberg better than Ginsberg) — I just had to read a poem by Samuel Menashe to cleanse my palette of such wordiness. But wait, there’s an “and yet.” And yet, I was rewarded for my reading. In the final section:
…I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
However did she know?