You may not recognize Adrienne Rich’s name, because we don’t sufficiently celebrate our poets in America. But, when she died a few weeks ago, the New York Times called her a “towering” figure both for her art and for her “unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, empathic ferocity.”
Whatever your political or social assumptions may be, we all meet at ReadTheSpirit around a central commitment to compassion and hospitality toward the people in our communities who we often think of as “the other.” Celebrating our diversity is the path toward building healthier communities. Check out our founding Ten Principles for more on that.
When we discovered that writer Lynne Golodner had saved the text of an unpublished interview with Adrienne Rich, we invited Lynne to share it with our readers. Lynne Meredith Golodner is a widely published poet, journalist and author. (Care to learn more about Lynne’s upcoming books—and perhaps even meet her? See the note at the end of this story.)
A RICH TRADITION:
Reflecting on the art and empathy
of Adrienne Rich
By Lynne Meredith Golodner
Adrienne Rich died on March 27. She was, for most of her 82 years on Earth, an inspiration, a voice to reckon with, and a voice for many who live on the margins—including Jews, women, feminists and lesbians. For half a century, Rich kept a politically poetic conversation going about equal rights for all people. The mother of three spent the latter part of her life as a proud lesbian. She wrote two dozen books of poetry and more than half a dozen prose tomes. Her poetry sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to her publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.
I met Adrienne Rich in 1995 when I was a green reporter covering Capitol Hill for trade newspapers and the Washington Jewish Week. I scored an hour-long interview with the famous poet before her sold-out reading of Dark Fields of the Republic in a packed church, where a larger-than-life crucifix hovered above her diminutive head on the altar.
She was physically tiny but vocally powerful, having fought for the rights of women, lesbians, writers and Jews for most of the 20th century. It must have been gratifying to see a sea of faces at her reading to promote yet another book of poems in an era when writers of poems often found no audience at all.
My interview was long and rich; I hung on every word. I transcribed my notes and kept them in a file through several states and nearly two decades. Upon hearing of her passing from complications of rheumatoid arthritis, I pulled out those words from two decades ago.
Adrienne Rich founded Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends, but her life’s work focused more on subjects central to the lives of all people, not just Jews or feminists. She was one of the first poets in the 1970s to write openly about being gay. She pushed limits and didn’t shy away from topics others found painful to write about. She paved the way for so many other writers.
Here is the text of our interview …
LYNNE: Has your writing voice matured over the years—become more confident, as you have?
ADRIENNE: Well, you know I published my first book when I was 21 and I might not at that point have even thought of publishing a book except that it had won this prize, the Yale Younger Poets Prize. I had been writing poetry for most of my life because I loved it so much. I was quite guarded. The first poem I ever published, “Storm Warnings,” was about protecting oneself in a world of great tumult and storms and uncontrollable forces. I wrote that poem in 1947, just after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, the nuclear bomb impinging on our consciousness. Young people in my college generation were very well aware that it was now possible to destroy the world and also that six million Jewish lives had been destroyed. My work since then has gone on to tear down the idea of protection and say we have to risk going out unprotected in order to know this world and to know ourselves.
LYNNE: What is your goal, your agenda, when writing?
ADRIENNE: To connect. To connect things that I have felt were disconnected in my life, things that were disconnected in society, in a relationship, in the transactions between the individual and the community.
Adrienne Rich on Poetry in America
ADRIENNE: There are a lot of poets and a lot of different kinds of poets. This is a magnificent time in American poetry, a fact which is not always reflected in the poems that students are reading in schools and it’s not always reflected in the mainstream treatment of poetry. As far as our poetic and literary mainstream is concerned, there’s a terrible kind of apartheid. At the grassroots, there’s never been more people going to poetry readings and reading poems. You find communities of writers all over the country and this isn’t necessarily making news but it’s happening. And it’s contributing to people’s sense of community, to people’s sense of self, to their sense of duty. Poetry renews our sense of what language can be.
LYNNE: What is the writer’s responsibility?
ADRIENNE: Not to sell the people short. Every artist who has some sense of an audience has to come to a point where they decided to do something that’s different, to keep on searching and probing.
Adrienne Rich on
Jewish Feminist Poetry
LYNNE: How do we define Jewish feminist poetry? Poems written by Jews and feminists or something deeper?
ADRIENNE: If you’re a Jew and you write a poem, is it a Jewish poem? Does it have to contain certain vocabulary, allusions, references or values? And then we have to ask, what are Jewish values? There are those values we would like to think are Jewish. It’s a never-ending conversation. (Classifying a genre of writing) limits the reading of the poem. I don’t like to see the reading of a poem proscribed by too much definition. On the other hand, I think it is very interesting to look at writing done by a group of people, in this case women, who share a common heritage. And who also are in rebellion against parts of that heritage. A lot of writing comes out of activism, contemplation, meditation.
It can be useful to say: What is the poetry that Jewish feminism has made possible? Perhaps kinds of poems that women weren’t writing before that, although there is a whole tradition of women writing in Yiddish, who were writing very powerful work, not necessarily feminist work as we would define it today, but with something of that spirit.
LYNNE: Do you think that for some people, Holocaustism has replaced Judaism as religion or identity?
ADRIENNE: This is certainly a question which for me is a big search. It’s a huge question: How do American Jews frame their identity, in terms of the Holocaust or in terms of Israel? And what is it that we need to be doing here and now? On the cusp of a new century, a whole generation born long after the end of World War II and the establishment of Israel.
In some ways, there is a kind of flailing and thrashing of the old that is still with us that is more visible almost than whatever is new. (She references the harsh rhetoric of the right-wing spewed at the late Israeli leader, Yitzhak Rabin.) This is the absolute stunting of tradition, the reduction of a very complicated and rich tradition into nothing but hate. We see it in all religions. That right-wing, doctrinaire, rigid element hanging on for dear life because God forbid literally there are going to be great changes. There have to be changes.
I’m concerned about questions in the American Jewish community, about class and what does it mean that there is now a very distinct and wealthy American Jewish community that is hostile to the Jewish left wing and progressive tradition and to those of us who are trying to work out of that tradition.
LYNNE: How does the voice and intent of Bridges differ from other Jewish publications? How does Bridges distinguish itself and why is it needed in the marketplace?
ADRIENNE: Bridges grew out of our feminist newsletter for the New Jewish Agenda and it grew bigger, attracted more subscribers. We thought there was a place for a Jewish feminist journal, which would see as part of its mission being a player in the multi-ethnic, multi-racial women’s movement and be a connector.
Adrienne Rich on Listening to the Music
LYNNE: What role does religion play in your life?
ADRIENNE: I describe myself as a secular Jew. Secular for me is not just an emptiness; it’s not a void. It’s not the absence of something. It has a very positive content, which has to do with work and love and justice and ethics in this world. With passion. And with a strong desire to see every human being fulfill themselves to the utmost of their capacity and try to create the conditions for that in this world. When I say I’m a secular Jew, it’s a way of saying that I’m most attuned to that hunger for justice which rolls down like mighty waters.
(Adrienne Rich was raised not at all in the Jewish tradition. She attended a Christian girls school, which introduced her to the Bible, and to her Jewish roots. She said her parents were so assimilated that they were determined not to give their daughter a Jewish education. “I saw the price of that isolation from any kind of community and it’s made me tend toward community.”)
LYNNE: In some ways, don’t you think religion and poetry play the same roles? Both are vehicles for people to try to make sense of their worlds, to understand their place in the world?
ADRIENNE: There is something about art, whatever one’s art may be, that if you take it seriously, which doesn’t mean humorlessly, it begins to clarify the world for you in certain ways. It also takes you into much more complicated places, perhaps, than you would have otherwise gone, but that’s important too. And sometimes you do find yourself wandering in the wilderness. And you have visions. And I guess what I feel about art, in particular the art of poetry, is that it connects people in the way that religion can.
I had a fascinating experience in Salt Lake City, where I learned a lot about the Mormons, whom I had never known much about. Somebody took me to see the Mormon Tabernacle, where the choir sings. It’s got such incredible acoustics that you can literally drop a pin and hear it. And they turned on the sound system and there was the Bach chorale being sung by hundreds of voices. And it was amazing. And the woman who was taking me around was a lapsed Mormon and she said, “You know, there are times when I feel very nostalgic for the music.”
And I said to her, “Sometimes I wonder if religions would have lasted as long as they have without music.”
And I was thinking of the High Holy Days. Something I do every year is play a tape of some old cantorial music, wherever I am. And I hear the shofar. And that’s important to me.
Adrienne Rich on a Life’s Work
ADRIENNE: This book comes out of a succession of books. I began to increasingly feel the need to address the politics of my country, starting around 1980 with the Reagan election. I started to feel a kind of foreboding about the direction this country is taking, not only within itself but around the world. And become more aware of the extraordinary power, military and financial, that can be exerted in the name of the United States.
A lot of poetry I’ve been writing grapples with that. I was writing very consciously as a woman. And a Jew. And a lesbian. And I began to write more and more as a citizen. I began to feel that I’m not simply a marginal person here. I have a right to look at my country and say, “What the Hell is going on here?” Or to look at my country and say, “I am part of this. This is being done in my name. What is my responsibility?”
LYNNE: Tell me about your poem, “Yom Kippur 1984”? (It took a year to complete the poem.)
ADRIENNE: I had just moved to California from the East Coast, and I felt I was leaving all kinds of community behind and really striking out. That whole question of being cut off from one’s community, being forgiven by one’s community, how do we know ourselves to be part of a community if we’re also within that community in some way on the margins?
I was trying to pull all those things together and then ask the very necessary question for a poet, “How can I also have solitude, which I need, in order to do my work?” Does community mean surrendering solitude?
LYNNE: (Rich released early works later in life.) Why release early works now?
ADRIENNE: As you get older and you write more, you find yourself going back to earlier works and thinking, “Yes, I was that person. And I’m not exactly that same person now but I could still say those things.” And I feel very connected now to all of my books.
The very young woman who wrote the poems in A Change of World (1951) was a very different person from me, but she’s in me somewhere, too. It was my late editor’s idea to collect the first six books in one volume, rather than keep them all in print separately. I was very glad of that. It put that part of my life in a place. And now I’m working on the second part.
LYNNE: How do you see the future of poetry?
ADRIENNE: Poetry is becoming an ever more popular art in the best sense. We tend to say popular meaning that which is mass-marketed, but genuinely, grassroots, and it’s multilingual in this country, bilingual, written in Navajo and English, Spanish and English, Vietnamese and English, Yiddish and English. There’s a lot of work being done because we are such a nation of immigrants, trying to bring together the language of the past, the mother tongue and the American vernacular, which can be so many things. A lot of poets are writing for the microphone.
(Rich’s 1995 release was her first accompanied by a cassette tape of her voice reading her poems. She loved the idea that people could be driving down the road, listening to and immersed in her words. A generation before the Kindle, here’s what she said:)
I don’t think poetry will ever stop being on the page…books are so portable. You want your book to stick in your pocket. It’s amazing all the places you see people reading.
That said, poetry is being taken off the page and put back onto the voice.
Read Rich! Here are a few great starting points …
CLICK ON the book covers, above, to visit Amazon. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose (Norton Critical Editions) is the most complete collection and remains on sale after nearly two decades. We also recommend the more recent Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006 and A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008
Care for more with Lynne Golodner?
Lynne Golodner is an expert in cross-cultural issues with a specialty in writing about food, faith and family. Her most recent platform is Parenting Without a Map™, an empowering workshop currently touring the country. Her next books are a novel and “Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads”—a tour through the breads that are symbolic in a variety of communities and religions. Both will be published this year by ReadTheSpirit Books. She is founder of Your People LLC, a company known for taking fresh approaches to marketing. She recently published an overview of her ideas in “Stand Out from the Crowd: The Your People Guide to Beside-the-box, Funky, From-the-Heart DIY Marketing, PR & Social Media.”
Care to meet Lynne as a writer? She has a limited number of openings for a writers’ retreat she is organizing for August in Nova Scotia.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.