Adrienne Rich

One of my most instructive teachers, one I’ve been quoting for 30 years, one who I met in words but never in person, just left this world. In my 20s Adrienne Rich taught me about how to submerge myself in poetry, to dive into the wreck, to stare in wonder at it, and to think twice or more times about oneself.  Her essay on compulsory heterosexuality was one of those illuminating moments.  I liked her essays. I loved her poetry, though sometimes I was a bit put off by its polemic. Do art and overt politics mix well?  Is Guernica, for example, as political art, something that calls out the horror, not the wonder, of life?

So, yeah, I found myself putting up with her political messaging through poetry, but I was compelled nonetheless.  As someone who spends a good deal of my life writing, her words from her poem “North American Time” (in Your Native Land, Your Life) regularly haunt me.  Stanza II,

Everything we write

will be used against us

or against those we love.

These are the terms,

take them or leave them.

Poetry never stood a chance

of standing outside history.

One line typed twenty years ago

can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint

to glorify art as detachment

or torture of those we

did not love

but also did not want to kill

We move     but our words stand

become responsible

for more than we intended

and this is verbal privilege

Rich is writing about a level of responsibility that is beyond what is usually expected. The usual complaint is “how did I know what someone else would do with my words?” One’s responsibility is to anticipate it. That’s the kind of responsibility that runs through Adrienne Rich’s work and this very poem.  Stanza V:

Suppose you want to write

of a woman braiding

another woman’s hair —

straight down, or with beads and shells

in three-strand plaits or corn-rows —

you had better know the thickness

the length     the pattern

why she decides to braid her hair

how it is done to her

what country it happens in

what else happens in that country

You have to know these things

All these lines come to me unbidden all the time.  Wherever I am inquiring, especially into new areas where I might not know much, I have to learn the context and situation deeply.   I can’t just drop in to some scene and start philosophizing without any sincere curiosity and concern about what is going on.  I need to know these things.