BOOK REVIEW / American mouse who roared: 'What is Found There: Notebooks on poetry and politics' - Adrienne Rich: W W Norton, 14.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
'WHAT does not change is the will to change,' wrote the American poet Charles Olson in 'The Kingfishers', a much-anthologised poem of 1950. To Adrienne Rich, who published her first collection of poems in 1951, it had not seemed that way. Nor did W H Auden think so, when he chose Rich's book for the Yale YoungerPoets Series that year, and wrote that her poems were 'neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs'. This is Auden in prim style, but what he said was largely true. Rich's early work seems self-protective now; clever, beautifully crafted and painstakingly grounded in formal technique, of course, but also emotionally costive, wise before its time.

This is not entirely surprising. Rich, born in Baltimore in 1929, had a sheltered upbringing. Her mother, a pianist who aspired to be a composer, had her playing Mozart by the age of four. The household was a model of upper-middle- class respectability, and the move from home to Radcliffe had had a sense of inevitability about it.

Her new book is a collection of miscellaneous prose writings which incorporates fragments of autobiography, diary jottings, reflections on the impotence of mass culture, poetry criticism of a highly personalised kind, and a sustained defence of the writings of marginalised peoples. It is a demonstration of just how far Rich, now in her sixties, has travelled in the intervening years - from that well-bred young woman, mindful of her social and poetical Ps and Qs, to one of the most defiant and raucous voices on the American poetry scene, staunch in her Jewishness, her feminism and her lesbianism. What changed her?

Encounters with poets - Rilke and Wallace Stevens in particular - and politics. In the general ferment of the Sixties, politics seemed 'an expression of the impulse to create, an expanded sense of what's humanly possible'; the poetry changed dramatically as a consequence. Rich began to learn - from William Carlos Williams, Olson and others - what exactly it meant to write in an American idiom, to find an authentic voice for herself. Her lines became longer, freer; she incorporated social documentary into the poems, as well as the feeling life of the self. That self was no longer closed off - or locked away in domesticity or behind the doors of the academy. It had thrown itself headlong into the tumult of the social, reconciling 'the search for beauty' and 'the search for justice'.

In this book, Rich shows herself to be a social commentator of large and generalising ambitions. Poetry, no longer a discipline set apart from the world of politics, history and money-making, has unleashed its tongue; it is, she argues, as much a necessity as 'food, shelter, health, education, decent working conditions'. Why? Because it is poetry's job to 're-charge desire', restore 'numbed zones of feeling'; to give voice to the voiceless; to help to reinstate some sense of community. And all this must be done in the teeth of what America has now become: millions of meaningless, fragmented lives, duped by mass culture, reflected in some 'fun-house mirror'.

As Rich explains in 'What is an American life?', America has been turning its back on the poetic impulse since the conquest: 'Time has been tragic here for five hundred years; before that, the land was not tragic, it was vast, fertile, generous, dangerous, filling the needs of many forms of life.' Those who lost out included the native peoples of America, and Rich gives them generous space in this book.

All told, it is an impassioned defence of the need for an American poetry which will be equal to 'the new unfoldings of history', a poetry which will be a 'pulsing, racing convergence of tributaries - regional, ethnic, racial, social, sexual.'