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

'sixties.

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
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn