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
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.