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
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.