I was nineteen, recently enrolled at a reputable mid-western liberal arts college. I had aspirations of becoming a poet, but my professors insisted that first I needed to read “The Greats.” Instead of attending writing workshops I wrote academic papers about The Canterbury Tales and Paradise Lost, took tests asking me to identify the authors of sonnets by analyzing their subject matter and word choice, their metrical substitutions. All well and good, but there weren’t any sonnets written by females on these tests. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any female poets at all in the textbooks we were assigned. In another course I was enrolled in, Traditions of American Literature, we spent a few minutes during one class period discussing a poem by Anne Bradstreet. After that we stuck to the guys: Edwards, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Poe, and Bellow. It was a testosterone fest! The fact that Emily Dickinson was omitted from a survey course in American literature confounds me to this day.
Unfortunately, these kinds of omissions were standard, not exceptions to the rule of male hegemony. In another class, the instructor deftly guided us through a detailed analysis of Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” a poem dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop, but neglected to assign one Bishop poem. Many would agree with me that “Skunk Hour” is one of the best poems of the 20th century, but why not include Bishop’s “One Art,” arguably the best poem of the 20th century?
Sometime during this autumn procession of the great and white and male, I spied one of my dorm mates in the cafeteria engrossed in a book titled The Dream of a Common Language. I’d read a few poems by Adrienne Rich in high school, but I had not heard of this one. When I asked her about it, she gushed profusely, then said here, take it. Over the next few months I read and re-read this book so many times the binding came apart. We sat up late into the night talking about these poems of raw honesty and bravery, poems about, gasp, the erotic love between two women, between Rich and another woman. Through this book and these poems, what was a cordial acquaintance grew to close friendship as we reveled in a poet who shared her thoughts on history, on humanity, from her own personal-equals-political perspective:
… and I want to show her one poem
which is the poem of my life. But I hesitate,
and wake. You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…
and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down the upbreathing air.
Rich was writing from her politicized life with an intimacy and immediacy I’d never encountered. It was as if she were talking directly to us, as if she were sitting there on that dormitory floor sharing not only her joys, but the difficulties inherent in removing the mask, rewriting the myths, examining the past with not just a lens but with body-armor and absurd flippers. This was indeed something new; we knew it in our bones. It was a natural leap to sign on. A given. It occurs to me only now, in writing this piece, that we were being called on to take Dickinson’s slanted truth one step further: to tell the truth, as Rukeyser had rhetorically asked us to, about our lives. Rich had taken up that call, and in sense the world had split open.
I’m not going to say I was terribly damaged or forever scarred during those brief years of being taught mostly white, male writers, of the daily delivery of the subconscious message that it was the male poem and the male viewpoint that mattered. In truth I learned much from reading not only Lowell but Stevens, Yeats, and all those other wonderful, rightfully canonized guys. I am a daughter of Whitman as much as I am a daughter of Dickinson. But whatever subtle messages the male-fest was providing began to erase when I happened on Rich’s words. Through the examination of a lover’s hand, she affirmed for me, for so many of us, that a woman could do anything a man could do:
Your small hands, precisely equal to my own—
only the thumb is larger, longer—in these hands
I could trust the world, or in many hands like these,
handling power-tools or steering-wheel
or touching a human face… Such hands could turn
the unborn child rightways in the birth canal
or pilot the exploratory rescue-ship
through iceberg …
Rich continues, in life and in death, to be a guiding force. Of Woman Born was one of the books that gave me permission to write an entire collection focused on birthing and rearing my two children. “An Atlas for the Difficult World” expanded and enriched my sense of whom exactly I was writing poems for, which readers I wanted to reach. Rich’s palpable empathy in this very Whitman-esque poem did very much blow the top of my head off:
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are …
There are the poems of hers I’ve known since early womanhood, the ones that feel as if they are part of my cellular structure, and then there are the ones I continue to discover. As I became interested in writing about cosmology and physics, I happened upon “Planetarium” and “Orion” in the Norton Anthology. Once again, Rich showed me what was possible.
When I finally had the chance to teach a survey course in American poetry at a small college north of Seattle, I put “Diving into the Wreck” on the syllabus. As I listened to my students grappling with the journey Rich’s speaker takes, I felt a deep welling of gratitude toward a poet who kept me on course when my college professors failed me:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth …
It turns out I was being taught The Greats, just not all of them. How lucky for me, how lucky for us, that the status quo could not remain static, that soon enough the canon exploded, and out gushed a diverse and multifaceted array of writers. How lucky for us that one of those writers was Adrienne Rich.