Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps
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May 2012

Musing on Adrienne Rich

Most poets, even those who've been widely published, are known only to their intimates and in literary circles.  Adrienne Rich, who died in March, was one of a few poets, whose name invokes intense feelings of kinship and familiarity from both loyal readers and those unfamiliar with her work.  As I wrote in The Washington Blade in April, "poets, women (queer and straight), people of color, anti-war activists and others who have struggled for justice will remember where they were when they heard " of Rich's death.

Rich's work is breathtaking.  No words can convey her talent.  Over a six-decades long career, she won more prizes than there are stars in the sky – from the National Book Award to a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant" to the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.  Who isn't bowled over  by her immense, vital body of work?  Take just one of her poems – one of her many masterpieces.  Whose spine doesn't tingle when reading "Diving into the Wreck," the title poem of the volume of the same name?

If you've been largely left out of the story of history, or if you know people who've been cast aside, I defy you to be unmoved by these lines from Rich's poem "Diving into the Wreck": "We are, I am, you are/by cowardice or courage/the one who find our way/back to the scene/carrying a knife, a camera/a book of myths/in which/our names do not appear."   

Yet, Rich inspired so many by the down-to-earth, seeking-justice-in-this-world way in which she lived her life as much as by the transcendent luminosity of her oeuvre.

I met Rich once when I was a budding lesbian, poetic wannabe grad student at Yale University in 1977.  She was giving a poetry reading and I stood in a long line to have her sign my book. As must have happened so often when Rich read, a zillion of her fans didn't just want her to sign her books. They wanted her to give them The Answer — on how to get published, where to find love, the safe way to come out — why all wars couldn't be ended right then and there.  I was no exception.

Most of us, I bet, after being kind (or trying to be helpful) to the first ten or so fans, would have either fled or resorted to rubber-stamping our signature on these seekers' books.  (I know this would have been the case if I'd been in Rich's shoes.)  But, Rich was patient and generous with everyone – wishing people well – looking deep into everyone's eyes.  Rich beamed when I mentioned (after pouring out all my youthful angst and ambition), that I knew the (now deceased) feminist theologian Nell Morton.  You'd have thought that I'd just invented chocolate or iambic pentameter.  "That's great!" she said, "Nell's wonderful! Give her my love."

Over the years, many — from women living with sexual abuse to people of color encountering racism to gay men facing homophobia to straight, white men working for peace and economic equality – have told me similar stories of Rich's kindness.  Perhaps, her empathy came from the particulars of Rich's life.  She didn't pretend to write from a universal stance on Mount Olympus.  "I write as woman, lesbian and feminist," she told "The Washington Post, "I make no claim to be universal, neuter or androgynous."

The particularity – the specificity of her poetry – is an important part of what forms the greatness of her work.  It's also what has driven, and continues to drive, critics of her writing.  Rich was the first well-known poet to write openly as a lesbian, and one of the first poets to write of women's bodies and lives. When she wrote of love between women in the 1970's, homosexuality had only just been removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental illnesses.  Women who write about love among women still threaten many. It's not surprising that some (both women and men) dismiss Rich's work.

Critics often put down Rich's work as being merely political poetry.  These put downs are fertilized by our cultural misperceptions of political poetry.  To begin with, too often political poetry is identified with rants.  If your voice hasn't been heard, you're likely (and understandably) angry.  But if you have no talent or are unskilled, what you write, will be a rant, not poetry. We've all read such screeds.  But, there isn't a rant to be found in Rich's work.

I can't help but wonder: why do we obsess so much about political poetry? Isn't poetry, poetry, that's either good or bad poetry?  If you have thoughts about this, I'd like to know.

All poetry comes out of the body – the body personal and the body politic.  Rich didn't reside in Mount Olympus.  She was of this world.  Matthew Rothschild, editor of "The Progressive," emailed me that he'd had the pleasure of meeting Rich twice.  "Once when I went out to talk with her in Santa Cruz {Calif.} in September 1993...and once in Madison {Wis.}, for lunch," Rothschild wrote, "Both times she was welcoming and wise, alert and probing.  What I recall from the Santa Cruz visit was the copies of poetry books by June Jordan and Audre Lorde that were on the coffee table."

What he recalled from the Madison visit with Rich "was the fact that she ordered and savored a cheeseburger."

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©2012 Kathi Wolfe
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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May 2012

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