David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Genius of Adrienne Rich


I’m surprised by the amiable but lukewarm reception Ange Mlinko gives in The Nation to Adrienne Rich’s Later Poems: Selected and New. The 500+ retrospective was published late last year.

Mlinko holds at arm’s length the charms of Rich’s later fragmentary lyrics. Succinctly, and in a manner I am wholly on board with, Mlinko defines her own critical stance toward Rich’s later work:

[Rich’s poems pose] provocative questions, but we expect something more from a poem: a moment-by-moment dramatic contest between content and form, theme and prosody.

Yes, we do expect something more. But is that it? Content + form added to the coefficient of theme + prosody…equals…a poem?

I’m being daft but there is something more than just that, right? Or, is it something else? Not just more? We also want intelligence. And wisdom. And connection to another human being — in Rich’s case to hundreds of thousands of readers. All of which makes me want to ask the good reviewer, a reviewer I admire a great deal, are you weighting singularity of art over the communion between poet and reader? Okay by me if you are. And I acknowledge that the review addresses this subject in an interesting, albeit relegated way.

But what I mean is, though I too appreciate the charms of the singular, the vitality of form advancing the content’s argument, whether that’s a meter-making argument, as Emerson puts it, or not, I also am deeply interested in what Rich’s later poems also convey. That…something else that poems must convey. They convey agency and reciprocity. They convey affinity and intercourse. They convey relationship and semblance and, well…cahoots. And that is their chief interest, no? Conveyance. Rich’s poems gave up fierce attention to the Mlinko standard sometime back during the Kennedy administration.

I don’t think Mlinko and I are that far apart really. It may just be a matter of what we are measuring. So, to be fair, here is what follows the quotation above:

“Meditations for a Savage Child” has no such internal tensions, and no self-delighting qualities. It employs, as all of Rich’s poems do, a fragmented, staccato rhythm, but there are no startling tropes or sharp wit; no humor and no real warmth. A reader would come to such a poem for ideas—and she might uneasily recall Paul Valéry’s words to Edgar Degas: “A poem is not made of ideas, it is made of words.” Likewise, the famous sequence “Twenty-One Love Songs” feels misnamed; these aren’t songs, with a song’s qualities (brevity, musicality), but further meditations, addresses, in a rhetorical mode. They clearly felt necessary to a generation that lacked love poems between women. But if the very syllables can’t generate heat now, we wonder—as with some marriages—if they ever did.

Oh, they did. We know they did. Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” for instance, which is a precursor to the fragmentary lyrics Mlinko is a wee turned off by — and not just a precursor but debatably one of the seminal poems of 20th century poetry — embodies the lyricism of the fragmentary sequence: indirectness, innovation, clarifying accretion, metaphoric development. It’s worth trotting out too that “Diving into the Wreck” doesn’t just embody that fragmentary tradition, it can be credited with helping to reinvent it in American poetics.

I too have resisted Rich’s Bullhorn-on-Ten poems of the late 70s and early 80s. But beginning with Dark Fields of the Republic, I’ve come to favor Rich’s rediscovered inwardness. I admire that the poems become less restless, even as they become less traditionally lyric (Mlinko is dead-on in this regard). And I’ve come to favor Rich’s new sincerity, perhaps better to say, her verve about lifelong love and affection. These private poems of Rich’s — no, private verses — are better suited to the fragmentary lyric, no? Verses, I mean, in the traditional sense. Verses as exploratory. Verses redeemed not by conventional skills of lyric argument that prosody-making insists upon but by aspects of intensity. What I’m speaking of is the difference between Alexander Pope and, well…Adrienne Rich.

This is where Rich, for me at least, is at her most convincing, and where she re-champions the lyric in her later poems. She writes with an original comfort with failure, with imbalance, with imperfection. She writes in the direction of disruption. Not negatively capable, a phrase Mlinko brilliantly rechristens and reanimates! But, um…positively capable.

What I found fascinating also about the review comes when Mlinko embraces Rich on Rich’s own terms is this:

Rich belonged to a tradition that collapsed that distinction [“between art and the world, imagination and reality”]. The fact that such poetry attracts large, committed audiences is not lost on either its proponents or its detractors. Even so, most poets are not willing to give up their prerogative to be uncommitted: ambiguous, ambivalent, negatively capable and, yes, playful.

Give up? Most poets struggle just to achieve uncommitted-ness.

Granted, this could all be me. I revere Rich’s place in American poetry as a private poet with a civic imagination. I’m grateful for Mlinko’s review. It does what a good lukewarm review should do. It inspires attention to the poetry. It conveys enthusiasm for the art and the struggles that poet confronts. And it steers readers toward understanding not away from caring about the poet’s ambitions.


Poetry Wire Salutes Mrs. Kennedy, Latin Teacher of Bellaire High School, Houston Independent School District: I can’t tell you how delighted I was to read that the pope, the successor to St. Peter, the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, the Archbishop of Rome, the Vicar of Jesus Christ, and the Annuario Pontificio resigned in Latin. And thanks to the three years I studied with the angelic Mrs. Kennedy in Harris County, Texas, and the few years of college Latin that followed, I was able to read the pope’s resignation in its original. Though I note, from this lay translator’s perspective, it was far longer than Julius Caesar’s resignation letter, also offered in Latin, “et tu, Brute?’

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →