Magazine article Artforum International

Adrienne Rich 1929--2012

Magazine article Artforum International

Adrienne Rich 1929--2012

Article excerpt

WHEN THE POET ADRIENNE RICH appeared on the front page of the New York Times on March 29--two days after her death at age eighty-two--she was sitting just below the fold, an article on Syrian refugees at the Libyan border hovering over her. Beside her, daffodils were growing in London's St. James's Park; the US. Supreme Court was hearing arguments about health insurance; a fossil foot discovered in Ethiopia suggested the 'existence of a previously unknown prehuman species. Below her, the "Vogue of the veiled": a Turkish fashion magazine's renderings of Muslim life; the failures of the stock market; details of another massacre in Afghanistan.

The resonance of such adjacencies would not have been lost on Adrienne. She was a brilliant reader of surfaces, and of visual culture. Her imagination was--and is, within the present tense of her poems--sweepingly global, but it carries into the global "theater" a vision equally attentive' to archaeological depth.

Adrienne Rich's poems are relentlessly awake to the complexities of representation, but they are less polemical--and more revelatory--than they are generally made out to be. Bringing something into view can constitute its own argument. Her poems often locate us in the aftermath of violence, forcing. its to look closely and to consider what it takes to go on. They lead us into ruins, labyrinths, into the sunken slave ships and corporate wreckage I ying just beneath the surface of the news. These architectures frame our reading. They build their passages around us.


In her early twenties, Adrienne entered the literary world with a BA from Radcliffe and a first book from Yale University Press's venerable Younger Poets series, selected by W. H. Auden. A Change of World (1951) was followed by The Diamond Cutters (1955). Both books were praised--one by Auden, the other by Randall Jarrell--for their good behavior. Much of her work that followed can be read as an attempt at undoing the larger authority structures. beyond those that launched her career.

As her public recognition and readership grew, the ambition of Adrienne's writing and the ferocity of her person pushed both her literary work and her civic engagement beyond canonical group formations. In 1974, she was awarded the National Book Award for her collection Diving into the Wreck, an honor she shared with Allen Ginsberg and that she insisted on sharing also with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, who had books published the same year. She famously refused the National Medal of the Arts in 1997 to protest the Clinton administration's decimation of the welfare program and its disregard for the nation's growing racial and economic divide.

A commitment to action, she knew, comes at a personal cost. Her work asks us to consider questions of "difficulty" that surpass conventional literary concerns. Where does the difficult work of aesthetics meet the struggle for social justice? More fundamentally, how is the work of consciousness embodied in the struggle for something that does not yet have words?

Adrienne's imagination was catalyzing and explosive, qualities she valued in other people and in their poems. Her groundbreaking essay on Emily Dickinson was titled "Vesuvius at Home" (1976.). Like Dickinson, she was concerned not just with what is but with what it takes to imagine the possible. To make of possibility an art. The potential energy of the volcano.

Her use of open form was connected with a desire not to foreclose the human in the interest of individual representation. She was a brilliant writer of the loosely structured ghazal, a form that is anchored in personal loss and longing but that directly engages its audience, often combining direct address with an indeterminate voicing of gender. "Did you think I was talking about my life?" she writes in her 1968 homage to 'Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. "I was trying to drive a tradition up against the wall. …

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