Adrienne Rich’s Solitudes
Critics tend to discount Rich’s later poems, fundamentally misunderstanding how they engage her radical vision of community.
May 26, 2021
May 26, 2021
29 Min read time
Critics tend to discount Rich’s later poems, fundamentally misunderstanding how they engage her radical vision of community.
I met Adrienne Rich when she chose my first book of poems for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. We first spoke just before New Year’s Day in 2000. In short order, we became friends and colleagues, partners, of a sort, maybe of a strange sort. I was in my early thirties and navigating the early years of marriage, parenthood, and what appeared to be a writing career; in this respect Adrienne understood the various pressures my wife, Stacey, and I were under better than we did. As for writing, I came to literary arts out of experience more than out of academic study. And I’d never had any connection to the field of “creative writing” at a university. Born to an immigrant, bricklayer father in the Midwest, I’d also lived (what might now be called) a racially nonbinary life athwart the divisions of American apartheid from the time I was a child. Adrienne and I shared a deep love of and respect for music, especially Black music. Somewhere in the midst of these forces in our lives, and in our work, Adrienne and I found much to discuss.
I was reluctant to go back and study her career. It felt like it would be strange to admit the division between my friend “Adrienne” and the famous poet “Rich” about whom so many have opinions.
At the time we met, I knew her work—a few essays more than poems—only slightly, though of course I knew of her work. I found that she was game to discuss poems, ideas, life, music. My early impression was that she seemed willing to engage anything except foolishness. We wrote each other about our work, mine just beginning, hers picking up just before the publication of Fox (2001), a copy of which she sent to me. By 2003 we were exchanging pretty much everything we wrote and notes about much that we read; we wrote notes and letters to each other multiple times each week, a correspondence that lasted up until the last weeks she was alive. I’ve never met a person more willing—in fact, driven—to engage in conversations and meditations on what living here on the planet is all about. Adrienne was uniquely able to be present in nonreductive but still coherent ways. Knowing her as I did, that was my accumulating impression over the years.
The one thing we didn’t talk about much was her previous work, though her previous life came up often enough. We dealt with each other as much as possible as contemporaries, which we both kind of were and most certainly were not. What is important to share, I think, is that for those years I was reluctant to go back and “study” her career. It felt like it would be strange to research the life of a friend I was writing to and talking with all the time—to admit, in a sense, this division between my friend “Adrienne” and the famous poet “Rich” about whom so many have opinions. But when she died, I decided to read and then reread all she had written, especially the poems, which, as she had made very clear, constituted the most meaningful element of her work. Adrienne said that she wrote essays on assignment, and of course she was extremely good at it. Her essays are important. But she always maintained that the poems came from a denser and more necessary place. Poems made things possible in unique ways.
So in a way to continue our relationship after she died, I started to read her books of poems in sequence, keeping quotes and notes in unlined notebooks. I told people I was trying to learn some of what she taught me, or teach myself some of what I’d learned through knowing her. After a few years I began to sense a structure wound into the textures and rhythms of the images, passages, and stanzas.
• • •
Scholars and reviewers have rigorously engaged with the first half of Rich’s career. Tendency, however, has been to discount the work from the end of her career as less formally accomplished and out of step with contemporary aesthetic and political fashions.
A clue to this structure can be found in the foreword to her first volume of collected poems, Collected Early Poems: 1950–1970, published in 1993. In it, she looks back on the beginnings of her career as a poet: “I was like someone walking through a fogged-in city, compelled on an errand she cannot describe, . . . holding one end of a powerful connector, useless without the other end.” The powerful connecter could be understood as poetry or, alternatively, as consciousness itself. Over the decades Rich would come to explore how profoundly both depended on what she called “the other end,” a sense of experience, a shifting reality inextricable from the situation of her body—a body among bodies—in history. The remembered character-self in her 1993 foreword sees how experience must lead outside “neighborhoods already familiar.” Rich’s sense of an outward beyond the familiar involved questions at every level of her life, aesthetic questions, experiential necessities, and political confrontations.
In her lyrical essay “Permeable Membrane” (2006), Rich scripted a concise and expansive description of the “connector” she had found herself coming into somewhat foggy possession of as a teenager in the years following World War II: “The medium is language intensified, intensifying our sense of possible reality.” Thus equipped and mobilized, the “poetic imagination,” Rich wrote, is “radical, meaning root-tangled in the grit of human arrangements and relationships: how we are with each other.” From the first, Rich’s poems evince an awareness that “human arrangements and relationships” are bracketed and policed by complex systems. Those systems operate within, between, and around people. Her experience of motherhood in the 1950s, as she put it years later, radicalized her, alerted her to a complex politics of human relationships, a politics informing, even controlling, “how we are with each other” even in the most private and intimate reaches of life.
Rich’s quest for “the other end” in poems transformed a prodigiously talented midcentury formalist lost in a “fogged-in city” into arguably the most socially sensual and expansively radical American poet of the twentieth century. Over the course of that journey, Rich’s speaker moved toward a historically constituted vision of a collective “we” (and at times more than one), positioning and repositioning herself, but always situated within that vision. Rich’s poems explore how the dimensions and dynamics of collectives fluctuate—indeed, radically—over the decades as class, war, race, gender, sexuality, geography, and economics appear and tangle together as factors en route to “the other end,” to a living sense of “how we are with each other.”
Rich’s poems are rarely direct and never simple. But they are also almost never more indirect or complicated than they need to be. Via a developing instrument, the poet feels her way out beyond the tips of her fingers, sensing the always-changing dimensions of her—which is also our—urgent, relational capacity for being. To travel over this vast and intricate terrain is to encounter the protean thrusts of a consciousness attempting to take itself and its world seriously. The result amounts to a phenomenology of experience in which the goal is a practical distillation of our social and sensual—our radical—situation: mutuality.
Scholars and reviewers have rigorously engaged with the first half of Rich’s career. Tendency, however, has been to discount the work from the end of her career as less formally accomplished and out of step with contemporary aesthetic and political fashions. In my new book Outward, I chart an itinerary across Rich’s full career, identifying a series of expanding and deepening “solitudes,” lyric spaces Rich designed to envision new kinds of relation to the world, and to people in the world, around her. Rich’s expanding solitudes aren’t spaces of transcendence. The poems in which she created them focus upon the cruelties and divisions—and upon those divisions as cruelties—that structure and imperil our worlds and ourselves. Once focused as they shift across decades, Rich’s poems make their ultimately radical responses by seeking to disturb and destroy the structures of division that separate us from ourselves and each other. In this the realization of freedom isn’t to be found in any kind of liberal or conservative autonomy. In Outward I chart Rich’s serial search for means of mutual—and practical—suffusion.
• • •
Her experience of motherhood in the 1950s radicalized her, alerting her to a complex politics of human relationships, a politics controlling “how we are with each other” even in the most intimate reaches of life.
A celebrated 1950s formalist (A Change of World, 1951; The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems, 1955), Rich defied the formal constraints of the poetry she was trained to write (Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, 1963) by writing poems from a subjective and at times gendered location and from a new proximity to her own personal and private life (Necessities of Life, 1966). In the late 1960s she embraced an aesthetics of process and opened her gendered, lyrical work to explicitly political events and concerns, connecting Black liberation to the struggle against the war in Vietnam (Leaflets, 1969; The Will to Change, 1971). In the early 1970s she became a celebrated, consciously feminist poet (Diving into the Wreck, 1973). Through that decade and into the early 1980s, developing into a publicly visible poet and racially aware author-activist (The Dream of a Common Language, 1978; A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, 1981), Rich was a principal architect of a lesbian-feminist revolution in women’s consciousness.
In The Aesthetics of Power (1986), poet and critic Claire Keyes traces Rich’s process (early 1950s to the mid-1960s), working beyond her position in the dominant masculine modes of poetry in which she had been immersed as a young writer. Keyes’s account of Rich’s career (which ends with Rich at the apex of her lesbian-feminist identification) is rooted in Keyes’s concept of an individualized integrity and the inward-looking, autonomy-based lyric process that serves it: “Poetry, at least in our age, depends upon the individual voice. Our poets are condemned to the personal.” Given that point of view, it makes sense that Keyes considers Rich’s poems weakest when “trapped in a shared reality” and engaged in political action.
Craig Werner ends his account in Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics (1988) at almost precisely the same stage of Rich’s career as does Keyes, but with inverse conclusions. Far more attuned than Keyes to the cultural and political (even revolutionary) stakes of Rich’s poems and public persona, Werner stresses how Rich’s poems reach beyond conceptions of integrity understood as “self-conscious individual assertion.” Instead, he reads Rich’s work as a search for “an integrity based upon relationships rather than solipsism.” Werner finds that, at its best, Rich’s poetry “implies an alternative means of conceiving the self as a conscious manifestation of ever-shifting relationships.” I think it is important to note that these are not racially neutral emphases. Werner’s grounding in African American literary and cultural traditions positions him to approach Rich in ways that engage her emphasis on relational in addition to (and at times as opposed to) individualized assumptions and goals.
Subsequent studies of Rich’s career have tended to follow the structure of Keyes’s readings more closely than that of Werner’s. Because of the key role played by an ever-expanding radius of relation and radical political engagement in Rich’s later poems, Keyes’s white-leaning emphasis on individuality and on the self as an owned quantity presents difficulties for tracking Rich’s career through the 1980s and beyond.
Without a relational basis on which to ground critical explorations of Rich’s later works, many critics have relied heavily on the author’s essays as guides to her decisions. Readings of her later career have focused on the “public” nature of her poetry (as in Jeanette E. Riley’s 2016 Understanding Adrienne Rich), often emphasizing her role as a “citizen poet” (as in Miriam Marty Clark’s “Human Rights and the Work of Lyric in Adrienne Rich,” 2009) over and against her supposedly slipping power as a lyric technician. Other scholars have read Rich’s works in strictly feminist terms across her full career, an approach that of course identifies key veins of importance but which, in the end, proves insufficient.
Most critical perspectives on Rich’s work have remained grounded in conceptions of personal and artistic integrity generally compatible with Keyes’s readings in The Aesthetics of Power. For many reasons, most of which orbit this central tendency, the well-acknowledged itinerary of Rich’s career is seen as weakening after A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far in 1981. For many reasons, but mostly because fewer critics have seriously engaged Werner’s emphasis on “an integrity based upon relationships” in Rich’s work, the second half of her career has not received adequate attention. The nine collections of poems that Rich published across the last three decades of her life have certainly been noted, and features of her radically shifting voice and approach have found praise or criticism depending on the politics guiding the wide array of scholars and reviewers who have been positioned to comment. But none has really examined the sustained and searching relational structures in the second half of Rich’s career in poems. At times, indeed, it appears that the point has been not to engage. Reviews of the collections Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971–2012 (2012) and Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (2016) illustrate this reality with stark clarity.
Both of these books enabled and encouraged (and, for reviewers, required) serial or global readings of Rich’s later works. Judging by the reviews and essays dedicated to these volumes, this is a task that critics were unprepared to undertake. The published reviews of these volumes differ quite drastically from one another in all ways except one: nobody really seems to know what to make of Rich’s poems from 1981 to 2012. The two most extensive reviews of Later Poems betray their authors’ intolerance for what they understand to be Rich’s politicized view of poetic vocation. Cynthia Haven’s “The Suffering of Others: On Adrienne Rich” (2013) compares Rich’s later poems’ supposed artlessness with a “Twitter feed” and their “heavy rhetorical baggage” with “aesthetic toxicity.” Ange Mlinko’s “Diagram This: On Adrienne Rich” (2013) argues that Rich’s “impact on poets of the last couple generations has been weak,” in part because Rich’s stress on meaning misaligns with the training that writers now receive in academic workshops. Mlinko quotes Cathy Park Hong’s observation that many later writers have been “raised on a diet of negative capability” and taught that poems “should quiver with equivocation.”
Contrasting sharply with the barbed, takedown tone in reviews of Later Poems, a chorus of celebration greeted the posthumous appearance of Rich’s Collected Poems. Maybe readers (and editors who assign such essays) had had time to prepare themselves for a respectful send-off appropriate for a poet of Rich’s stature. Still, even Dan Chiasson’s perceptive “Boundary Conditions” (2016), published in the New Yorker, characterizes Rich’s career largely in terms of negative gestures: “She grew as a poet by self-repudiation . . . disowning, with real pain, her delegated roles as wife, mother, straight woman, and privileged white American.”
There’s truth there. But it misses the overwhelmingly affirmative nature of Rich’s career: the ever-shifting record of self-creation, of solidarities and intimacies (and pain) embraced, of political and moral dangers engaged and clarified in poems over six decades. In “As in Tendrils a Transparency” (2006), Roberto Tejada counters such one-dimensional accounts of Rich’s supposed “grim intellectuality.” He argues that her poems are “powerful reminders that it is still possible to address the catastrophe of the historic present and to resist its harrowing world effects with a sensual optimism of body and language.”
Quoting Yeats, Chiasson writes of Rich, “‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’” But Rich warned against essentializing the personal element in her poetry: “I don’t think my only argument is with myself.” In effect, Chiasson enlists her work as a character witness against itself.
Rich’s constantly evolving longevity makes global statements about her career elusive. Chiasson links Rich to Yeats, and there is certainly a connection—especially early in her career—but it wears a mask. According to Chiasson, “The key to Rich’s genius, in fact, is Yeats’s famous aphorism, maybe the best thing anybody ever said about the art: ‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’” Though presented as a compliment, this remark quarantines Rich’s poems—and the lyric or poetry in general—in a way that Rich actively resisted and eventually overcame. In the foreword to her collection of essays Arts of the Possible (2001), reiterating an explicit theme in her poems dating to the early 1970s at least, Rich warns against essentializing the personal element in her poetry: “For more than fifty years I have been . . . a poet of the oppositional imagination, meaning that I don’t think my only argument is with myself.” In his compliments, in effect, Chiasson enlists Rich’s work as a character witness against its own core intentions. The results reinforce our impression of the lyric as an essentially inward-looking device. As Craig Werner notes in “Trying to Keep Faith: Adrienne Rich’s ‘Usonian Journals 2000’” (2006), Rich’s career attests powerfully otherwise. Werner highlights how, more than arguing with herself, Rich’s later poems combine “her rejection of conventions predicated on patriarchy and white supremacy” with “her belief in the value of embodied political passion.”
In his likewise laudatory review of Collected Poems for the New York Times Book Review (2016), Wayne Koestenbaum presents an alternative to the critical claims of artless rhetoric in reviews of Later Poems. He trains the ear to “physiologies” of Rich’s language in her “revolt against tamed sound.” In ways like Chiasson, Koestenbaum reads Rich as an architect of discreet (if politically resonant) lyrical bursts: “She founded a perpetually astonishing body of work” that moved in “illuminating flashes.” This is important for sure. But, as if playing one side of a dialectic, this praise reins in a career of poems that—beginning possibly with “Apology” (1961) and intensifying all the way until the end—pushed beyond epiphany and astonishment to build bridges of connection along a disenthralling rhythm reaching toward clarity. Once more, the clarity Rich sought in poems grew increasingly mutual. She came to understand, in effect, that people in real danger—from threats interior, personal, and political, local and global—cannot afford to depend on flashes of astonishment and quiverings of equivocal disquiet, no matter how negatively capable the instructor lauds them for being. Koestenbaum, reading poems that Rich arranged in rigorously chronological terms over decades, still relies on single statements that propose to cover the whole of her career, as if her songs of “long vowels and keen consonants” floated along in a space dislodged from the place of the poet’s (and reader’s) body in successive eras of history. Increasingly throughout her career, Rich disavowed this kind of lyrical free-floating in principled and unmistakable terms. The music of Rich’s most powerful work tunes itself into subversive, relational solidarities and sounds its way toward engaged mutual presences in contest with (not detachment from) history’s dangers and trials.
Unlike reviews of Later Poems that warn us away, reviews of Collected Poems invite us on a journey, and a long one. But these readings of Rich’s career offer at best untrustworthy signposts and almost no map at all for half of the trip. As such reviews accumulate, the message seems to be this: if we can’t avoid a long conversation with Adrienne Rich’s poetry, here’s how we might navigate her career without having our sense of poetry—and experience—disrupted too profoundly. Let’s look for astonishing moves in phrases while understanding that, in the end, Rich is really arguing with herself. At best, this is a profoundly insufficient approach. At worst, these readings, whether caustic or celebratory in tone, amount to a cover-up, repudiation by omission.
On the other hand, essays about Rich’s Collected Poems by Claudia Rankine and Sandra M. Gilbert testify to a profoundly shared sense of connection and purpose that arose in their readings of Rich’s work. The connections were not about similar arguments these poets just happened to have with themselves. A few reviewers—all of them women—understood that the key was a deepening and widening sense of mutuality. In “A Life Written in Invisible Ink” (2016), published in the American Scholar, Gilbert quotes Ruth Whitman’s remark about the collective (social and political) capacity of Rich’s work: “in one woman the history of women in our century.” Gilbert, recalling her “own feminist awakening” illuminated in Rich’s poems in the 1960s and 1970s, and rereading those works in the Collected Poems, “realize[d] how much of what she said I didn’t really grasp, even as I’m more than ever astounded by her body of work.” But the clarity of Gilbert’s identification with Rich’s feminism, too, dissolves after 1980.
In “Adrienne Rich’s Poetic Transformations” (2016), which appeared in the New Yorker and also serves as the introduction to the Collected Poems, Rankine extends the impact of Rich’s work beyond the brackets of gender/sexuality in the 1970s:
As a nineteen-year-old, I read in Rich and [James] Baldwin a twinned dissatisfaction with systems invested in a single, dominant, oppressive narrative. . . . Rich claimed, in “Blood, Bread, and Poetry: The Location of the Poet,” from 1984, that Baldwin was the “first writer I read who suggested that racism was poisonous to white as well as destructive to Black people.” It was Rich who suggested to me that silence, too, was poisonous and destructive to our social interactions and self-knowledge.
Rankine describes how Rich’s career created a public terrain for writers whose work “questioned paternalistic, heteronormative, and hierarchical notions of what it meant to have a voice,” so that these writers would not have to “experience their own work as ‘sporadic, errant, orphaned of any tradition of its own,’ to quote from her foreword to her 1979 book On Lies, Secrets, and Silence.” Eavan Boland, in her perceptive review of Later Poems for the New Republic (2012), offers one useful global statement: Rich “re-united the public poem with the political one . . . an enormous achievement.”
While the reviews noted above do highlight important aspects of Rich’s later work, we still lack a structure that would enable readers to engage the deep logic of the poet’s development over her full career. A range of scholarly essays engage the public, political nature of Rich’s later poems. These essays position the author as a radical “citizen poet,” a poet whose work plays a self-consciously activist, public role in the world beyond its strictly literary and traditionally inward-looking lyrical domain. Despite these contributions, we still lack an adequate vision of how the structures in Rich’s poems shifted over the final three decades of her career. This dilemma is relational. It weakens our ability to respond intensely and coherently to the series of crucial calls made in her later works. The result is a diminishment of our capacity for presence, for what Muriel Rukeyser called the “moving relation between the individual consciousness and the world.”
• • •
Rich’s later poems combine “her rejection of conventions predicated on patriarchy and white supremacy” with “her belief in the value of embodied political passion.”
During the first half of her career, Rich’s poems betray, in my view, shifts at the core of what is known as lyrical, shifts away from the introspective (focused within a person) to what I term the “interspective” (focused between people). Setting up the trajectory of her later career, as they play out across the decades, these moves profoundly alter the nature of creative solitude, an alteration that radiates through Rich’s career as she sought ways to grow more radical with each decade. More radical? What might that mean? Rich’s later work answers that question in waves of left-verging and delving images across decades, images that seek and salvage living connections between people while thwarting the evolving means of quarantining and dividing people’s lives. So doing, Rich offers an ever-shifting, subversive, and socially engaged sense of creative “solitude.”
To understand the sinuously subversive scope of Rich’s career in poems, it helps to have a basic sense of the tradition she entered and a precise sense of where her work engages and expands that tradition. Generally speaking, the traditional lyric has been an inward-looking device. In the preface to the 1800 edition of his Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth defines poets as those who, “from the motions of their own minds merely,” create sensations in writing that “nearly resemble the passions produced by real events.” The nature of lyrical creation for Wordsworth turns exactly on the poet’s own powers of re-creation set apart from the surrounding world. The poet, according to Wordsworth, composes using “especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement” (italics mine). In short, as employed by poets, Wordsworth’s concept of lyrical solitude is meant to convey freedom from external constraint and social limitation: autonomy. In Rich’s reading, however, intensified by modern industrial and social structures, by the mid-twentieth century, even—maybe especially—for those privileged enough to have rooms of their own in which to encounter it, lyrical solitude means becoming “unavailable to others”; it represents isolation more than freedom. At times, Rich thought, such lyrical solitude proposed isolation as freedom.
The first step in Rich’s reconception of lyrical solitude resists this sense of isolation, which she increasingly considers to be a pillar of patriarchal ideology. Indeed, images in her early work (“An Unsaid Word,” 1951; “Ghost of a Chance,” 1962) betray traces of what Rich would initially term the “estranged intensity” of masculine isolation. By the early 1970s, and imprinted by the suicide of her estranged husband in the fall of 1970, she identifies isolation as a potentially lethal affliction, a key symptom of patriarchal design. Isolation was woven into the cultural and political norms of the time; it operated as a badge of cultural attainment and sophistication. In “The Ninth Symphony / Of Beethoven Understood At Last / As a Sexual Message” (1972), Rich hears the “music of the entirely / isolated soul.” In addition to the cultural prestige isolation carries, Rich reads it as a masculine social legacy in a militarized history. In “Dien Bien Phu” (1973), isolation extends the violence of warfare as a nurse moves among men who are “terribly alone.” Like malfunctioning military ordnance, figures stricken in these ways are prone to antisocial outbursts: “each man she touches / is a human grenade / an anti-personnel weapon.” When it operates with the force of a principle, isolation becomes, as Rich writes in “Merced” (1972), a dangerous feature of “a world masculinity made / unfit for women or men.”
By the mid-1980s, Rich suspects that, together with class privilege, whiteness intensifies the isolation of the men—and women—whom she meets, whose stories and poems she reads. Recounting a litany of gendered isolations, Rich pauses, in section IX of “An Atlas of the Difficult World” (1990–91), to interject: “I wonder if this is a white man’s madness.” If it is, she concludes, “I honor your truth and refuse to leave it at that.” She meant that. As she depicted in poems such as “Virginia 1906” (1983), Rich found that racial isolation afflicts white women—even feminist activists, herself among them—separating them from their nonwhite counterparts and (at least potentially) from compatible artistic and activist traditions. Her poems from the 1990s and up until the final weeks of her life, in fact, leave a detailed and engaging record of precisely how, in “refus[ing] to leave it at that,” she took it from there.
Rich’s career remade the lyric into an ever-evolving public and political—as opposed to strictly private and personal—vehicle. Resources for lyrical invention and social momentum were not essentially one’s own. Some inventions and momentum, in fact, could not be created by secluded geniuses who were white men with wealth. Many forces could be—even had to be—generated mutually and collectively; very often they were the products of relationships. Thus, the surviving substance of this lyrical force could not be owned, it had to be shared.
There are identifiable stages in the process by which Rich expanded and extended the nature of the lyric. A key turn takes place with Rich’s realization of a lesbian-feminist “relational solitude” in The Dream of a Common Language and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. In these books she explores the power and complexity of a creative solitude patterned by mutual energies. The importance of mutuality resonates publicly from Rich’s acceptance of the 1974 National Book Award on behalf of fellow finalists Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, and on behalf of all silenced women. From there Rich’s career proceeds in ways beyond the brackets of feminism as such. That she worked beyond the brackets of feminism should not be taken to imply that Rich became a postfeminist or left important ongoing solidarities and critiques of feminism behind. She never did that. Instead, successive phases of her career in poems from the early 1980s onward make it increasingly obvious that, as Marilyn Hacker puts it in “The Mimesis of Thought” (2006), because “Rich took a woman’s worldview to be emblematic, her inquiries did not stop—as they had not started—at questions of gender.”
Rich began to explore a more expansive “social solitude” in the 1980s (Your Native Land, Your Life, 1986; Time’s Power, 1989; An Atlas of the Difficult World, 1991) that culminated with her most politically extensive, racially inclusive poetic sequence, “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” In social solitude, relational patterns cross borders between inherited racial, classed, and geographic (in addition to gendered and sexual) territories and identities. While no one has explored these signal elements of Rich’s later career adequately, at least two scholars have noticed their centrality. In “Human Rights and the Work of Lyric in Adrienne Rich,” Miriam Marty Clark highlights the searching relational openness in Rich’s later poems. She notes the intensity and power of Rich’s “attention to the join between her own experience and the experience of others” as a feature linking the eras of her full career, in fact, eras that change as the poet fathoms “figurative strategies of affiliation” in ways that shift across the decades. In her brief review “Adrienne Rich: Later Poems,” Cynthia R. Wallace observes how complex and at times competing urgencies toward mutuality provide the basis for how Rich’s approach to the lyric developed. Wallace writes:
Rich’s poems do not tend to be narratives or mellifluous lyrics: more frequently they are snapshots, speeches, questions stacked on questions. . . . The result of these various voices, insistent questions, and second-person pronouns is a certain air of populatedness in [Later Poems]. Read together, the poems suggest the multiplicity of human life, the negotiations of relationship, the responsibility implicit in dialogues both intimate and public.
In these ways Rich’s poems seize upon the relational textures of creative solitude that she realized under self-conscious feminist auspices and adapt those textures to resist increasingly broad and complex social and political predicaments.
Rich found that racial isolation afflicts white women—even feminist activists, herself among them—separating them from their nonwhite counterparts and from compatible artistic and activist traditions.
It is critical though that, throughout these explorations of lyric solitude, Rich sought out relationships that crossed and challenged historical divisions. And this in turn produced a number of different textures of solitude with which Rich experimented. I call the first of these “fugitive solitude” (Dark Fields of the Republic, 1995). In the mid-1990s Marxism became a major factor in Rich’s search, in poems, for politically vibrant relationships. As it turned out, paradoxically, the experience of figures who achieved connections to each other across historically policed borders took on a “fugitive” or “outlaw” quality. Images in these poems feature figures who steal away to sustain a sense of mutuality that violates norms enforced by identities as chartered by dominant social custom and institutions.
As these fugitives come to terms with the mutual implications of their marginal status, they eventually find ways to cooperate in resisting the systems of division and quarantine that surround them. In these spaces, in the late 1990s, Rich’s poems evoke a new energy: “dissident solitude” (Midnight Salvage, 1999; Fox, 2001). In 1997 Rich signaled this stage of her career publicly by refusing the National Medal of Arts bestowed by the Clinton administration. In ways that included but expanded on the terms of her acceptance of the 1974 National Book Award on behalf of all silenced women, Rich refused the National Medal of Arts on behalf of all laborers—artists such as herself included—whose work was demeaned and whose lives and communities were imperiled by the neoliberal policies of the Clinton administration.
In the twenty-first century this progressed to what I call “radical solitude” (The School among the Ruins, 2004; Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, 2007; Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, 2011). Radical solitude establishes images of mutuality among speakers threatened by alienation from themselves and isolation from each other in ways more subversively subtle and tactile than those for which American discourses of “identity” can account. In images of radical solitude that bristle with futurity, the liberal tradition of autonomy collapses as subjects connect with each other, suffused in the practical methods and media of resistance smuggled into the twenty-first century via the preceding succession of solitudes. “Endpapers” (2011), a poem placed at the very end of Collected Poems, conveys the mutual gist of radical solitude, which radiates back through all the eras of Rich’s work, and, I hope, casts out into the future waiting to be made:
What holds what binds is breath isprimal vision in a cloud’s eyeis gauze around a wounded headis bearing a downed comrade out beyondthe numerology of vital signsinto predictless space
So it is that Rich’s serial structure of morphing solitudes in poems comes to its final opening. Crafting them as sustained engagements with experience at many of its levels, she drew her poems, first into, and then out of individuated lyrical ownership and into outward-radiating frames of social and historical human and natural relation. As a result, people drawn into conflict with cultural and political forces aiming to prevail over their lives have a massive and intricate scaffold of alternatives to suffuse themselves with on their ways outward. Rich’s poetry offers thousands of locations (relational, social, fugitive, dissident, radical) where we can engage in lives of mutual suffusion, of survival. It’s a radical threshold we arrive to: “mutual suffusion is what it means ‘to survive’.” That’s where the record leaves off, the tone of its continued resonance outward. And that’s where we take it up. As a result, in short, apropos the place of poetry in our resistance to forces that desiccate and isolate us, as workers, as parents, as people contending with our lives and each other’s lives, we don’t have to be anymore—as Rankine put it, quoting Adrienne—“sporadic, errant, orphaned” than we want to be. Peace.
Excerpted from the Introduction to Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes by Ed Pavlić. Copyright 2021 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Reprinted by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.
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May 26, 2021
29 Min read time