Adrienne Rich: She knew me before I knew myself

Adrienne Rich is making a rare appearance in the UK this week. The novelist Kirsty Gunn explains her passion for a poet who is spookily prescient and wise
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The Independent Culture

What a treat: the American poet Adrienne Rich is making a rare appearance in London next week, reading at the South Bank Centre. I phoned and booked tickets straight away. Yet, when I was first introduced to her work as a teenager in the late 1970s, I thought she had nothing to tell me.

What could a feminist poet give me, I thought, that I didn't already take for granted? I talked about that, I remember, all those years ago. About how redundant it seemed, to go over that old subject again, that a female writer would ghetto-ise herself in that way, call herself a "feminist writer" instead of just a writer. In that classic post-feminist way I asked: what did feminism have to do anyway, really, with being female? That was a long time ago.

In the intervening years I've come to inhabit the world Adrienne Rich was writing about. The world of home and children, of husbands and lovers and the raging differences that exist between the sexes and the comfort and companionship of other women. It's happened slowly, by degrees; for the most part I've not even realised the assimilation was taking place... But some 30 years after the teenager had put down the poems, the woman picked them up again.

I remember exactly the time in my life when I came back to the poems of Adrienne Rich. It was two months after the birth of my second daughter and I was living in a strange city. My husband was out working hard at building up a publishing company and away a lot, and I was feeling the distance from my literary peers and friends, looking after two small children while I was trying to write. I read her collection Diving into the Wreck and it blew the top of my head off.

Here was this poet who I'd dismissed as having nothing new to tell telling me everything in a way that was completely new. This distinctive American voice that in the past had talked on and on in a way that had been uninteresting to me about a job not done, a task left uncompleted, could now not have been more relevant and meaningful. Feminism, I had come to realise, had not fulfilled its promises at all in the way I expected. "You're wondering if I'm lonely," she wrote in "Song", "OK then, yes, I'm lonely...".

I had come to live in that domestic place she writes about in her earlier work, leaving the world without for the world within - and yet here was this poet making it a vivid and inspiring place to be. Here was a sensibility that was circumscribed by gender but was not accepting or complacent but was, rather, questioning, open-ended, blazing with introspection and possible danger. "Tonight if the battery charges, I want to take the car out on sheet ice," she wrote in "Reforming the Crystal". "My desire for you is not trivial...".

How that writing lights up, shows a way. It is dangerous, Rich is saying to be a woman in the world, and to be alert to that world. We are dangerous to men when we see ourselves this way, we are dangerous to ourselves. But through that experimentation with danger comes strength, and new ways forward. I went back and read every Rich poem I could lay my hands on, I devoured them like food, one after another while the baby slept on my knee and my toddler played off to one side in the room. Every poem had a beat to it, a pulse, a necessity and every word, every subject, mine. Rich has said that poems are like dreams: they contain ideas you didn't know you had. Well then, I was in her dream. "I don't know / How late it is. I'm writing... I long to create something / That can't be used to keep us passive..." (from "Essential Resources").

None of this had been apparent to me as a 17-year-old of course, and how could it be? I was aching for the world to begin, to live boldly and creatively. How could I know then that it would be the uncertainties of life, the flux and ebb and flow of the intimate, the domestic that would become my context, my text? How could I know that the world within, the private, could contain such singing freedoms and independence? Adrienne Rich knew though, all along, and in writing about it this inner self, this "invisibility", it's as though she re-creates language in her own words. Looking at her work objectively, I can see that reading Rich is not like reading conventional poetry: the poems are not "poetic" that way. Rather, she makes a leash of words, to connect her to the ideas, connect the reader also.

In her latest work - from which she will be reading - The School Among the Ruins, this technique shows itself almost as a school for poetry: It's as though by reading the poems we educate ourselves to come to learn how to read them. "We are asking for books / No, not - but a list of books / to be given to young people / Well, to young poets / to guide them in their work" ("Ritual Acts").

How she has guided me. Quite simply Adrienne Rich has taught me how to find the words. That the world can be commanded - by the simple act of finding the right words and acting on them. That language can be our own, as vividly alive as we choose to be.

For a woman enclosed as I was then, when my second daughter was a tiny baby, reading Adrienne Rich gave me a way of seeing that the walls of my home had infinite horizons. That I could do anything with the knowledge I had - of my own experience, intellect - if only I would claim it. In the world we can be lonely, Adrienne Rich says, as anyone who has honestly looked deep into themselves is lonely. But what loneliness, and how that solitary voice can sing.

Adrienne Rich reads in the Purcell Room at the South Bank Centre, July 7th at 7.30 pm. Kirsty Gunn's next book '44 things: A year of writing life at home' is published by Atlantic in March