BOOK REVIEW / The unruly swamps: Natasha Walter on the brilliant career of a remarkable American poet, Adrienne Rich

In The Fact of a Doorframe (Norton), a reissued volume of selected poems, Adrienne Rich has changed some early works from their original version. In the Fifties, Rich was happy to see the pronoun 'he' as an expression of the universal point of view. But now he is a she. That may sit more comfortably with her inspiring feminism, but Rich will never be able to bring all her different voices into line.

Why try? Reading her selected poems is a bit like wandering through a gallery of choice Picassos. The astonishment is in the fast flick-flick-flick across styles as much as in the quality of each work. With Rich, these changes make up a moral as well as artistic odyssey, as she says in her new prose collection, What is Found There (Norton): 'The poet today must be twice-born. She must have begun as a poet, she must have understood the suffering of the world as political, and have gone through politics, and on the other side of politics she must be reborn again as a poet.'

Adrienne Rich's early work is all that most of us want from poetry: rigorously musical, with a constant nostalgic undertone. Keynote images are elegaic symbols - fountains, sculptures, gardens and clocks. 'And always time was rushing like a tram / Through streets of a foreign city, streets we saw / Opening into great and sunny / We could not find again, no map could show - / Never those fountains tossed in that same light, / Those gilded trees, those statues green and white.'

Many of these poems sound familiar even on first reading; we know what they want from us, and what Rich wanted from them. They can be too weighed down by the decorous European traditions Rich had been taught to admire, but have unforgettable douceur.

And then in 1963 Rich published Snapshots of a Daughter in Law. From then on her poems throb with a more self-conscious, personal note. They are louder poems, their rhythms no less disciplined but less familiar. Their messages - though still forced through the hoops of precise metaphors - spill over into our own consciences.

We stand in the porch,

two archaic figures: a woman and a man.

The old masters, the old sources,

haven't a clue what we're about,

shivering here in the half-dark


Our minds hover in a famous impasse

and cling together. . .

The wall of the house is bleeding. Firethorn]

The moon, cracked every-which-way,

pushes steadily on.

Here, Rich manages to express a real lack of faith in archetypes and pathetic fallacies, and a crying desire for the same. The balance is fragile. Rich has recognised the beauty of all that she is turning her back on - from traditional sexual relationships to traditional metre - and yet sets her face firmly forwards. We trot beside her, admiring her courage, living through the journey with her.

When Rich began to 'go through politics', the changes were sometimes less attractive. She walks a tightrope, and sometimes her verse falls off the edge, into the traps of manifesto or prescription. Rich sees the poetry reading circuit not as the fringe activities of a marginal trade, but as a way of living poetry in a world dedicated to spectacle and falsity. And the new style's characteristics - vernacular diction, repetition, lack of punctuation, a push towards argument rather than suggestion - all sprang from the spoken poem.

What makes Adrienne Rich still a great poet? Her development has been fascinating, as though she walked backwards to an angry adolescence in her sixties, after the sad maturity she had in her twenties. We trust the necessity for her looseness and fury, in a way we might not trust a writer who had never been otherwise.

American criticism of her work tends to see her as a great poet either because of or despite her political messages. But she is a great poet in a way that is otherwise from the politics. One poem in a recent collection, Your Native Land, Your Life, asks 'With whom do you believe your lot is cast? / From where does your strength come? I think somehow, somewhere / every poem of mine must repeat those questions / Which are not the same.' Indeed, they are not.

As What is Found There shows, with shining idealism, Rich casts her lot with people cut off from full happiness and ease. She has stopped seeing herself as the inheritor of the traditions of European men. She has defined herself as Jewish, lesbian, activist. She writes of - and brings to life - the sufferings of immigrants, the homeless, as well as the mass of Americans duped by the rottenness of popular culture. She embodies the vigorously ethical, public artistic tradition that the anti-PC movement tries to mock into the ground.

But her poetic strength comes from her recognition of the knot that still binds, say, the broken couple to the moon; the traveller to the fountain; herself to the maples, the sun, a leaf, bears, a thumbtack. Rich sings those links into being, she brings us right up close to the shimmer and dance of the physical life that surrounds us. As she says, 'A poem . . . is not a philosophical or psychological blueprint; it's an instrument for embodied experience . . . After that rearousal of desire, the task of acting on that truth, or making love, or meeting other needs, is ours.'

When she balances that gorgeous strength with her straightfoward ethics, each draws strength from the other. No one is more aware of the need for that synthesis than she is. Ten years ago she wrote:

When my dreams showed signs

of becoming

politically correct

no unruly images

escaping beyond borders

when walking in the street I found my

themes cut out for me

knew what I would not report

for fear of enemies' usage

then I began to wonder . . .

The almost-full moon rises

timelessly speaking of change

out of the Bronx, the Harlem River

the drowned town of the Quabbin

the pilfered burial mounds

the toxic swamps, the testing-grounds

and I start to speak again.

And we are grateful that she has.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map