April is National Poetry Month. It arrived with its usual fanfare: the poetry organizations in the United States breathlessly announcing the many events that they are sponsoring, again suggesting that this month and this art form are important culturally. Simultaneously the Economist, in an unrelated article, noted that the general public now chooses memorable lyrics from songs or phrases from films as online passwords. It is almost impossible to imagine any words from any contemporary American poem eliciting such recognition. Against this background, what can the death of Adrienne Rich on March 27, 2012 mean to those outside the world of poetry?
Though she wrote and published poetry for six decades, Rich’s obituaries focused less on her artistry than on the political and cultural contexts of her life and words. The New York Times described “a poet of towering reputation and towering rage, whose work—distinguished by an unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, emphatic ferocity—brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century.” It also noted that Rich was “[t]riply marginalized—as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew.” Measured against this hyperbole, less about the quality and resonance of her poetry and more about the ideologies of her admirers, is it possible to assess the public value of contemporary American poetry in the context of this artist’s words? Yes, because Rich went farther artistically than most poets.
Last year Rich’s last book Tonight No Poetry Will Serve (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011) was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry. It is personal and a casual reader might question the representative public value of:
Burn me some music Send my roots rain I’m swept
dry from inside Hard winds rack my core
That is the first stanza of the first poem, usually a place of importance. If one ignored the puffery in its publisher’s press release (“poems [that] dissolve boundaries between the intimate and the social,” “startlingly confrontational,” “telegraphically compressed and urgent”) and continued reading this slender volume, as always with Rich one would find poems that allude to recognizable incidents, such as a short poem about turbulence that wonderfully recounts those unspoken thoughts and experiences that everyone has shared aboard a shuddering airplane, including the warning to “put on/the child’s mask first” [sic] and “Breathe normally”. (Typically, Rich omits the end-stop in this poem and many others but I will leave it to future students in need of thesis topics to deliberate why.)
One would also find in this last volume the requisite poem of condemnation and despair. “Ballade of the Poverties” begins:
There’s the poverty of the cockroach kingdom
and the rusted toilet bowl
The poverty of to steal food for the first time
The poverty of to mouth a penis for a paycheck
The poverty of sweet charity ladling
Soup for the poor who must always be there for that
There’s poverty of theory
poverty of swollen belly shamed
Poverty of the diploma or ballot that goes nowhere
Princes of predation let me tell you
There are poverties and there are poverties
The poem also contains the foreseeable denunciation of “Princes of finance” and “Princes of weaponry”:
You who travel by private jet like a housefly
Buzzing with the other flies of plundered poverties
Princes and courtiers who will never learn
Here’s a mirror you can look into: take it: it’s yours.
Would this poem have been published if Rich had not previously published “more than thirty books of poetry and prose” (again quoting her publisher)? Probably, because it conforms to the political expectations of contemporary poetry. Yet her work is substantive enough to look beyond these obsessions.
It was W. H. Auden who introduced Rich (then a 21-year-old student at Radcliffe) to the world by selecting her first volume for publication in the Yale Younger Poet Series in 1951. Contrast Rich’s last book to Auden’s last volume, Thank You, Fog (Faber and Faber, 1974) in which, for example, Auden also challenges an established view:
The poets tell us of an age of unalloyed felicity,
The Age of Gold, an age of love, of plenty
When summer lasted all the year and a
Of lawns and woods and orchards made an
Later, in the same poem, changing his meter, Auden the old master writes:
O but alas!
Then it came to pass
The Enchanters came
Cold and old,
Making day gray
And the age of gold
For men fell
Under the spell,
Were doomed to gloom.
There came instead,
Hearts grew unkind,
Glum and numb,
Without hope or scope.
The rapidity and rhymes of these lines from 1974 might strike a more responsive chord with today’s young Americans accustomed to quickened song lyrics and tweets than Rich’s leaden poem from last year. Isn’t it odd how deaf America’s poets have become?
Rich’s first book (to put it gently) is traditional; and Auden, writing about his selection in his foreword, praised Rich’s display of “modesty . . . which disclaims any extraordinary vision” and of “a love for her medium, a determination to ensure that whatever she writes shall, at least, not be shoddily made.” Referencing T. S. Eliot’s observation about craftsmanship, Auden added:
In a young poet . . . the most promising sign is craftsmanship for it is evidence of a capacity for detachment from the self and its emotions without which no art is possible.
and praised Rich for her “grasp of . . . proportion, consistency of diction and tone, and the matching of these with the subject at hand.” In other words, he saw poetic promise in the young poet and by many of these standards Auden was proven correct.
The American poetic journey that ensued amply demonstrates Rich’s far-reaching and determined quest to create a new consciousness through a diction and tone commensurate with her subjects, though both her detachment and craftsmanship are questionable.
Yet Rich’s rich body of work—no matter how flawed—makes folly of today’s most well-known and celebrated contemporary American poets who appear less courageous, less well-read and less intelligent.
For example, the poet Tracy K. Smith, whose third book was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, in an article entitled “Why Poetry Is Essential to Democracy” that appeared on April 7, 2012 in the Wall Street Journal, suggested that the poem “Clouds” by Philip Levine, this nation’s current poet laureate, deserves our attention as an affirmation of democracy. Both the article and the poem are jejune and ordinary. Smith dwells on feeling: “[t]he scenario that brought the feeling into being might be imaginary, but the feeling, and whatever gets done with it, is real”; and Levine’s observations about clouds are no more profound (nor more worthy of print) than the typical remarks of Americans on vacations pausing to admire the sky:
The clouds have seen it all, in the dark
they pass over the graves of the forgotten
and they don’t cry or whisper.
Perhaps Rich thought that contemporary poetry required a less figurative and more literal approach to the issues that she wanted to confront. Thus, in the beginning what sounds very much like someone imitating W. B. Yeats or Robert Frost, as Auden suggested—or the lyrical skepticism of Thomas Hardy—quickly evolved into more lurid language:
A voice presses at me.
If I give in it won’t
be like the girl the bull rode,
all Rubens flesh and happy moans.
But to be wrestled like a boy
with tongue, hips, knees, nerves, brain . . .
He doesn’t know. He’s watching
breasts under a striped blouse,
his bull’s head down. The old
wine pours again through my veins.
(“The Demon Lover,” 1966)
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Rich’s politics or her use of the mythical rape of Europa, there are literally volumes of similar poems (and efforts at poems) in which Rich relentlessly forges ahead in an effort to alter our national consciousness. Few demonstrate such courage and even fewer succeed. These volumes may also have blazed a path for future poets such as Louise Gluck and Amy Clampitt, to name just two, based not upon gender but upon fortitude.
It may be impossible for any but the very greatest poets to champion cultural change through language; and, in this age of overabundant words and information, contemporary American poetry will always be measured and diluted by sincere but silly poets like the populist Billy Collins.
But isn’t reaching farther than others—free-thinking—a decisive part of the American character? We believe as a nation that we are endowed with abundant social and physical resources to make such a reach for the future. No matter which presidential candidate we choose, all candidates see this continent as a covenant of future promise and Americans as its rightful explorers.
One afternoon, read randomly some of Rich’s poems. Soon you will find references to the constellations, the Bible, Chopin, Bizet, Mary Wollstonecraft and others who decried the oppression of women; and to many recent events that filled our era. It doesn’t matter where you reside, whether you aspire to write, or that today’s memorable phrases come from songs and films. Language still defines our culture, and “We the People” have just suffered a loss of thoughtfulness. Even our poets may be unaware of its absence.
April is such a silly month. Where is the Simon Cowell to judge contemporary American poetry?
Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets (Paris: Éditions Underbahn, 2006). He also practices law on Wall Street.