Adrienne Rich spoke at my college last Thursday, and what a treat that was. She may be elderly and more than a little frail, requiring a walker and some special arrangements for getting around, but her mind is still sharp as a tack. She did read a couple of poems from her latest book, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, but really she bounced back and forth between several collections. I'm not sure how much our students understood the more complex poems, but she did get a lot of applause for the anti-war poems. I had the great pleasure of introducing her, so I thought I'd post the text of that intro. here:
"Emily Dickinson once wrote that she knew she’d read a poem if she felt physically as if the top of her head had been taken off. For me, that’s what it’s like to read Adrienne Rich.
It’s a great pleasure for me to introduce her, but I have to admit it’s a daunting task as well because there’s so much I could say. Adrienne Rich is a poet whose work spans five decades. She’s written more than sixteen volumes of poetry, and this doesn’t even count the prose. As a poet, she’s so many things—a formalist, a lyricist, but then again a master of free verse. John Freeman has written that she’s is in the habit of torching her own style every ten years or so. She’s a feminist poet. She’s a lesbian poet. She’s an anti-torture, anti-war, pro-civil rights poet. She’s a poet who demands that you pay attention.
If anything seems to tie all her work together, there’s something W.H. Auden wrote in 1951, in his introduction to her first book. He said of her poems that they “don’t tell fibs.” That’s high praise. Adrienne Rich is so often our conscience, telling us the hard truths we sometimes might not want to hear. Naturally, she’s been criticized for being “too political.” But if you separate Adrienne Rich’s poetry from the political, there’d be no poetry by Adrienne Rich. Yeats might ask, how can we know the dancer from the dance?
Because… she’s not just talking. She lives her words. Adrienne Rich is a radical dissenter and is a voice of radical dissent. This is a woman who, upon winning the National Book Award in 1974, chose to accept the honor but only with her co-nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, and they accepted it on behalf of all women who have been silenced. This is a woman who was invited to the White House to accept a National Medal for the Arts, but she turned down the invitation because she saw the Administration as abusing its powers. This was 1997—it was Bill Clinton’s Administration.
You might think a brave voice such as this would have been stifled or ridiculed into silence, but Adrienne Rich is a fighter, and she’s a legend in the arts. Aside from the National Book Award and other prizes, she’s won the Wallace Stevens Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Common Wealth Award in Literature, the Tanning Award for Mastery in the Art of Poetry, a MacArthur Fellowship, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation. That’s an award only one other American poet has won.
Mark Doty has written that “in Adrienne Rich’s strong hands, the poem is an instrument for change.” The poems in her newest volume, composed between 2004 and 2006, offer us a montage of snapshots of the Iraq War, of Homeland “Security,” Hurricane Katrina, the devastation of New Orleans. It’s not all sweetness and light. Neither is it all doom and destruction. If Adrienne Rich is in the habit of torching her style every ten years or so, I suspect she does it because she’s always seeking a way to connect. Her dream of a common language has never been extinguished. In the face of catastrophe, the poet can hold out a light, find a new passage in a tunnel in the dark. She is, perhaps, for us, a telephone ringing in the labyrinth.
I am so honored to introduce Adrienne Rich."
Now y'all go out and buy one or two of her books!