Last night Adrienne Rich read at Rutgers. We had a superb day, with my lucky undergrads meeting with her in the afternoon, and then a relaxed and convivial dinner with a number of Rutgers poets and with Adrienne's old colleagues at Douglas College, which is the residential women's college of Rutgers, and a long-established center of feminist studies and literature. Adrienne has a warm, unguarded character; the time with her was a delight to everyone around. Here's the introduction I gave, in a very crowded hall, just before her reading:
Some artists, it seems, can’t help but be pathmakers; they open possibilities for other makers, and possibilities for their culture. Muriel Ruykeser, who opened new directions for American poetry that Adrienne Rich would further explore, wrote the following description of the situation of our poetry in 1949:
"American poetry has been part of a culture in conflict. ... We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; at another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the idea of perpetual warfare."
Sixty years later, those words seem more true than ever, and it seems no accident that those same sixty years mark the career – thus far – of the remarkable poet who reads for us tonight, one of contemporary American literature’s essential voices. Across 19 books of poems and four volumes of essays, Adrienne Rich has given body to a restless intellect motivated by an unshakeable compassion; she is out to get to the root of inequity, of the abuse of power; she is out, as Ruykeser suggested, to make American democracy a real thing, and to dismantle, in her own language, the sources of perpetual war.
So much has been said about Adrienne’s work, and I know that many of you have been reading and thinking about her poetry and her essays in preparation for this evening. So I want to say just two things about Adrienne. First, that she is a former professor of English here at Douglas College, and it is a delight to welcome her back; as a new professor here, her presence here reminds me that I stand in a serious tradition indeed. Second, I want to tell you what I perhaps what I admire most about Adrienne: her profound restlessness. I mean this in two ways. She has never been satisfied, as far as I can tell, in her quest for justice; she has never stopped asking further, looking deeper. As W. S. Merwin put it, “All her life she has been in love with the hope of telling utter truth…” That love, and her empathy with those in this country and in the world who are not in positions of power have not, I believe, allowed her respite; she has never set down that work. And that moral restlessness has been matched by an aesthetic one, as Rich has continued to reinvent her forms. Listen to this stanza from her much-anthologized classic, Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers:
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
That poem was published in 1951, in the poet’s first book. And this stanza is from a new poem, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” just published in the Best American Poetry 2008. It’s a poem that wants to think about extraordinary rendition, how syntax is broken apart as the torturer and the prison guard remove meaning from the world:
Verb force-feeds noun
Submerges the subject
Noun is choking
Verb disgraced goes on doing
I love knowing that these two stanzas came from the same hand. They represent points along on a long arc of invention, form constantly seeking the words that might serve her work of witness and of change – a work that continues to engage and to enlarge our time. Please welcome Adrienne Rich.