On Adrienne Rich: “She Showed Me How Poets Ought to Live.”

Adrienne Rich loomed large in my life as a young poet and person.  She showed me how poets ought to live.  I went to a dinner at her apartment on the upper west side that she shared with Michelle Cliff and there was a Georgia O’Keefe on the wall—the first time I’d seen a major artist work in a poet’s private home.  There were books, books and more books and the stuff and nonsense of a life lived in words with great energy and also great suffering.  Soon she would move from Manhattan to Maine which was a huge mistake health wise and then to sunny California where the beauty and danger of America is confronted daily.  She showed me the other part of the city-the bookish, comfortable side as opposed to the scruffiness of the East Village and downtown circa 1977.

She was one of many women poets:  June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, Jan Clausen, Sharon Olds, Charlotte Carter, Marilyn Hacker, Cynthia Kraman, Maureen Owen, Thulani Davis, Cyn Zarco, and Jessica Hagedorn who were older or closer or my age who made New York City a wonderful place to grow as a woman poet.  Readings series were set up. Books published. Anthologies created out of late night talk and desire. The city was cheap and poor and wide open.  The city needed to hear our voices.  And we needed the city to push us forward.

 Rich supported our work on Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women (OW, 1978), offering advice, money for the printing, reading the poems and introducing the book.  She started her introduction with these words:  “It’s the women who cope.” And she ends it with the following after quoting from a range of poems from the anthology:  “As more and more women of every tongue and color affirm those connections, hope also grows for the strength and wisdom to move, embrace difference as identity as key  break loose and transform cities.” Later she chastised us for not including lesbians, of course there were lesbians published in the anthology, but that was not our focus. That was hers.  Sara Miles, Sandra Maria Esteves, Fay Chiang and I remain proud creating a model multi-cultural, multi-racial women’s poetry anthology.  And we remain grateful for her encouragement and her example.

While I’ve read several of Adrienne’s poetry volumes, her critical prose and the still wise, Of Woman Born, my  favorite Rich works are the poems in the great  sequence from The Dream of a Common Language. She asks the questions that I think all writers ask.

From VII:
What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What atonement is this all about?

And I can think of no better way to talk about mature women loving each other and loving life than

Rain on the West Side Highway
red light at Riverside:
the more I love the more I think
two people together is a miracle.

You’re telling the story of your life
for once, a tremor breaks the surface of your words.
The story of our lives becomes our lives.

Adrienne Rich had a brilliant literary career; she demanded change and acted on her on politics.  She was angry and smart and funny and sexy and generous and desperately misunderstood by the Establishment of which she (ironically) was part.  The commentary in the New York Times tries so hard to deny her rage.  Others only see that rage.  But all careful readers know that a raging heart is a loving one and Adrienne Rich had a great and loving heart.  When she passed I kept thinking of the phrase “the Mother of us all” and somehow that fits.