Adrienne Rich

American poet, essayist and feminist

Adrienne Rich (16 May 1929 - 27 March 2012) was an American feminist, poet, teacher, and writer.

The danger lies in forgetting what we had.

QuotesEdit

  • A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.
    • Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), no. 3
  • I have to say that what I know I know through making poems.
    • "Poetry and Experience" (1964)
  • instead of poems about experiences I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it. In my earlier poems I told you, as precisely and eloquently as I knew how, about something in the more recent poems something is happening, something has happened to me and, if I have been a good parent to the poem, something will happen to you who read it.
    • "Poetry and Experience" (1964)
  • Women's Studies can amount simply to compensatory history; too often they fail to challenge the intellectual and political structures that must be challenged if women as a group are ever to come into collective, nonexclusionary freedom.
    • Blood, Bread and Poetry (1986), ch. 1
  • To become a token woman—whether you win the Nobel Prize or merely get tenure at the cost of denying your sisters—is to become something less than a man … since men are loyal at least to their own world-view, their laws of brotherhood and self-interest.
    • As quoted in Ms. magazine (September 1979), p. 44
  • No woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness.
    • Blood, Bread and Poetry (1986), ch. 1
  • my personal world view at sixteen, as at twenty-six, was itself being created by political conditions. I was not a man; I was white in a white-supremacist society; I was being educated from the perspective of a particular class; my father was an "assimilated" Jew in an anti-Semitic world, my mother a white southern Protestant; there were particular historical currents on which my consciousness would come together, piece by piece. My personal world view was shaped in part by the poetry I had read, a poetry written almost entirely by white Anglo-Saxon men, a few women, Celts and Frenchmen notwithstanding. Thus, no poetry in the Spanish language or from Africa or China or the Middle East. My personal world view, which like so many young people I carried as a conviction of my own uniqueness, was not original with me, but was, rather, my untutored and half-conscious rendering of the facts of blood and bread, the social and political forces of my time and place.
    • Blood, Bread and Poetry (1986)
  • It's exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and plainful.
    • On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979)
  • poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know.
    • On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979)
  • The danger lies in forgetting what we had. The flow between generations becomes a trickle, grandchildren tape-recording grandparents' memories on special occasions perhaps—no casual storytelling jogged by daily life, there being no shared daily life what with migrations, exiles, diasporas, rendings, the search for work. Or there is a shared daily life riddled with holes of silence.
    • What Is Found There (1993), ch. 11
  • False history gets made all day, any day,
    the truth of the new is never on the news
    False history gets written every day...
    The lesbian archaeologist watches herself
    sifting her own life out from the shards she's piecing,
    asking the clay all questions but her own.
    • Turning the Wheel (1981), section 2
  • I'm both a poet and one of the "everybodies" of my country. I live with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion and social antagonism huddling together on the faultline of an empire. I hope never to idealise poetry — it has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed necessity, for both Neruda and César Valléjo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. And there are colonised poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced.
  • Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What's pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images — is it the constriction of literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism — a stunted language? Or is it the great muscle of metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom — that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the "free" market. This on-going future, written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented.
    There is always that in poetry which will not be grasped, which cannot be described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our late-night arguments. There is always (I am quoting the poet/translator Américo Ferrari|) "an unspeakable where, perhaps, the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides".
    • "Legislators of the world" in The Guardian (18 November 2006)
  • it’s not even an ad hominem thing about President Clinton, although I find him cowardly and spineless. I am concerned about what it means when we have two parties which are so close together in their collaboration with the wealthiest interests in the country and who are so alike in their disregard for the majority of people in this country. And I feel as if the relative creative freedom of artists and intellectuals ultimately depends on the conditions everywhere and the conditions of human labor everywhere. We’re all working. We’re all trying to do our work. And the circumstances, the conditions under which working people exist in the society are not something that can be separated and left aside from the position of the artist. I just don’t see how you can do that.
  • I think that I just drew a lot of nourishment from the poets that I then was aware of and able to be aware of, poets like William Blake, like Emily Dickinson, like Whitman, people whose—and then later, somewhat later, Yeats, who taught me in fact that poetry could be political and still be incredibly beautiful. And on and on, because one is always reading, one is always extending one’s range into the world of poetry translated from other languages, poetry from other centuries. All of that has been very important to me.

Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity (1982)Edit

  • Why, I asked myself sometime last year, does this question of Jewish identity float so impalpably, so ungraspably around me, a cloud I can't quite see the outlines of, which feels to me to be without definition?
  • I feel the tension as I think, make notes: If you really look at the one reality, the other will waver and disperse. Trying in one week to read Angela Davis and Lucy Davidowicz; trying to hold throughout to a feminist, a lesbian, perspective-what does this mean?
  • It was only in college, when I read a poem by Karl Shapiro beginning "To hate the Negro and avoid the Jew/ is the curriculum," that it flashed on me that there was an untold side to my father's story of his student years.
  • At different times in my life I have wanted to push away one or the other burden of inheritance, to say merely I am a woman; I am a lesbian. If I call myself a Jewish lesbian, do I thereby try to shed some of my southern gentile white woman's culpability? If I call myself only through my mother, is it because I pass more easily through a world where being a lesbian often seems like outsiderhood enough?
  • According to Nazi logic, my two Jewish grandparents would have made me a Mischling, first-degree-nonexempt from the Final Solution.
  • The social world in which I grew up was christian virtually without needing to say so-christian imagery, music, language, symbols, assumptions everywhere. It was also a genteel, white, middle-class world in which "common" was a term of deep opprobrium. "Common" white people might speak of "niggers"; we were taught never to use that word-we said "Negroes" (even as we accepted segregation, the eating taboo, the assumption that Black people were simply of a separate species).
  • "Ideals" and "manners" included not hurting someone's feelings by calling her or him a Negro or a Jew-naming the hated identity. This is the mental framework of the 1930s and 1940s in which I was raised.
  • Money, when Jews wanted it, had it or lent it to others, seemed to take on a peculiar nastiness; Jews and money had some peculiar and unspeakable relation.
  • These were the 1940s, and we were told a great deal about the Battle of Britain, the noble French Resistance fighters, the brave, starving Dutch-but I did not learn of the resistance of the Warsaw ghetto until I left home.
  • Anti-Semitism was so intrinsic as not to have a name.
  • But it came to me that every one of those piles of corpses, mountains of shoes and clothing had contained, simply, individuals, who had believed, as I now believed of myself, that they were intended to live out a life of some kind of meaning, that the world possessed some kind of sense and order, yet this had happened to them.
  • I had never been taught about resistance, only about passing. I had no language for anti-Semitism itself.
  • To be able to ask even the child's astonished question Why do they hate us so? means knowing how to say "we."
  • I was admittedly young and trying to educate myself, but I was also doing something that is dangerous: I was flirting with identity.
  • We my sister, mother, and I were constantly urged to speak quietly in public, to dress without ostentation, to repress all vividness or spontaneity, to assimilate with a world which might see us as too flamboyant.
  • There was always within this sense of Jewish identity a strong class discrimination. Jews might be "fascinating" as individuals but came with huge unruly families who "poured chicken soup over everyone's head" (in the phrase of a white southern male poet). Anti-Semitism could thus be justified by the bad behavior of certain Jews, and if you did not effectively deny family and community, there would always be a remote cousin claiming kinship with you who was the "wrong kind" of Jew.
  • what isn't named is often more permeating than what is
  • Like many women I knew in the fifties living under a then-unquestoined heterosexual imperative, I married in part because I knew no better way to disconnect from my first family.
  • The experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.
  • I lived in Cambridge, not Brooklyn; but there, too, restless, educated women sat on benches with baby strollers, half-stunned, not by Jewish cultural expectations, but by the middle-class American social expectations of the 1950s.
  • In the permissive liberalism of academic Cambridge, you could raise your children to be as vaguely or distinctly Jewish as you would, but Christian myth and calendar organized the year. My sons grew up knowing far more about the existence and concrete meaning of Jewish culture than I had. But I don't recall sitting down with them and telling them that millions of people like themselves, many of them children, had been rounded up and murdered in Europe in their parents' lifetime. Nor was I able to tell them that they came in part out of the rich, thousand-year-old Ashkenazic culture of eastern Europe, which the Holocaust destroyed; or that they came from a people whose traditions, religious and secular, included a hatred of oppression and an imperative to pursue justice and care for the stranger-an anti-racist, a socialist, and even sometimes a feminist vision. I could not tell them these things because these things were still too indistinct in my own mind.
  • The emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the sixties I remember as lifting me out of a sense of personal frustration and hopelessness. Reading James Baldwin's early essays in the fifties had stirred me with a sense that apparently "given" situations like racism could be analyzed and described and that this could lead to action, to change. Racism had been so utter and implicit a fact of my childhood and adolescence, had felt so central among the silences, negations, cruelties, fears, superstitions of my early life, that somewhere among my feelings must have been the hope that if Black people could become free of the immense political and social burdens they were forced to bear, I, too, could become free of all the ghosts and shadows of my childhood, named and unnamed. When "the movement" began, it felt extremely personal to me. And it was often Jews who spoke up for the justice of the cause, Jewish students and civil rights lawyers who travelled South; it was two young Jews who were found murdered with a young Black man in Mississippi: Schwerner, Goodman, Chaney.
  • The struggle for Black civil rights had such clarity about it for me: I knew that segregation was wrong, that unequal opportunity was wrong, I knew that segregation in particular was more than a set of social and legal rules-it meant that even "decent" white people lived in a network of lies and arrogance and moral collusion.
  • Most of the political work I was doing it the late 1960s was on racial issues, in particular as a teacher in the City University during the struggle for open admissions.
  • I didn't understand then that I was living between two strains of Jewish social identity: the Jew as radical visionary and activist who understands oppression firsthand, and the Jew as part of America's devouring plan in which the persecuted, called to assimilation, learn that the price is to engage in persecution.
  • there was intense racism among Jews as well as white gentiles in the City University, part of the bitter history of Jews and Blacks which James Baldwin had described much earlier, in his 1948 essay "The Harlem Ghetto"; ³ part of the divide-and-conquer script still being rehearsed by those of us who have the least to gain from it.
  • By the time I left my marriage, after seventeen years and three children, I had become identified with the Women's Liberation movement. It was an astonishing time to be a woman of my age. In the 1950s, seeking a way to grasp the pain I seemed to be feeling most of the time, to set it in some larger context, I had read all kinds of things; but it was James Baldwin and Simone de Beauvoir who had described the world-though differently in terms that made the most sense to me. By the end of the sixties there were two political movements-one already meeting severe repression, one just emerging-which addressed those descriptions of the world. And there was, of course, a third movement, or a movement-within-a-movement: the early lesbian manifestoes, the new visibility and activism of lesbians everywhere.
  • Reading The Second Sex in the 1950s isolation of an academic housewife had felt less dangerous than reading "The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm" or "Woman-identified Woman" in a world where I was in constant debate and discussion with women over every aspect of our lives that we could as yet name. De Beauvoir had placed "The Lesbian" on the margins, and there was little in her book to suggest the power of woman bonding.
  • The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs, and her first full-fledged act was to fall in love with a Jewish woman.
  • The earliest feminist papers on Jewish identity that I read were critiques of the patriarchal and misogynist elements in Judaism, or of the caricaturing of Jewish women in literature by Jewish men. I remember hearing Judith Plaskow give a paper called "Can a Woman Be a Jew?" (Her conclusion was "Yes, but...") I was soon after in correspondence with a former student who had emigrated to Israel, was a passionate feminist, and wrote to me at length of the legal and social constraints on women there, the stirrings of contemporary Israeli feminism, and the contradictions she felt in her daily life. With the new politics, activism, literature of a tumultous feminist movement around me, a movement which claimed universality though it had not yet acknowledged its own racial, class, and ethnic perspectives or its fears of the differences among women, I pushed aside for one last time thinking further about myself as a Jewish woman. I saw Judaism simply as another strand of patriarchy. If asked to choose, I might have said (as my father had said in other language): I am a woman, not a Jew. (But, I always added mentally, if Jews had to wear yellow stars again, I, too, would wear one-as if I would have the choice to wear it or not.)
  • Sometimes I feel I have seen too long from too many disconnected angles: white, Jewish, anti-Semite, racist, anti-racist, once-married, lesbian, middle-class, feminist, exmatriate southerner, split at the root-that I will never bring them whole.
  • sometimes I feel inadequate to make any statement as a Jew; I feel the history of denial within me like an injury, a scar. For assimilation has affected my perceptions; those early lapses in meaning, those blanks, are with me still. My ignorance can be dangerous to me and to others. Yet we can't wait for the undamaged to make our connections for us; we can't wait to speak until we are perfectly clear and righteous. There is no purity and, in our lifetimes, no end to this process.
  • I know that in the rest of my life, the next half century or so, every aspect of my identity will have to be engaged. The middle-class white girl taught to trade obedience for privilege. The Jewish lesbian raised to be a heterosexual gentile. The woman who first heard oppression named and analyzed in the Black Civil Rights struggle. The woman with three sons, the feminist who hates male violence. The woman limping with a cane, the woman who has stopped bleeding are also accountable. The poet who knows that beautiful language can lie, that the oppressor's language sometimes sounds beautiful. The woman trying, as part of her resistance, to clean up her act.

Interview (1991)Edit

Adrienne Rich's poetry and prose (1993)

  • ultimately language alone cannot liberate us
  • I've written a great deal about that whole issue of dead language, the oppressor's language, a language that is no longer useful, and the need to try to find a new language, a common language, if you will. It's the question of associations with words and of the history of words, and how they come down to us and how we go on with them. But I'm beginning to think and talk a lot more again about that which goes along with language and poetry-which is music, the vibration of a voice. I see that intonation, that vocal quality, as something that is very personal, out of the self, and then combines with the many traditions, the many histories that we've been exposed to, that we come out of.
  • I think visual images are one of the great sources for refreshment.
  • There really isn't any way to control how (our work is) used. And I think it's probably a waste of energy to try.
  • It feels to me that I need to know more than I ever did in order to be a poet, that I need to be conscious of what is happening on this planet in ways that I never used to think about. And it's not that that takes the place of the work of the imagination, but that each of us has an imagination that has itself been created by a set of circumstances, some very nourishing, some very negative in terms of becoming blinders-the lacunae, the cartoon-imagery.
  • in the sixties, the public reading or recitation of poetry became a part of political movements, and it's never ceased to be, I think.
  • in the women's movement, writers have so often been seen and cited as spokespeople and as leaders. My feeling is that it is the activists who move the rest of us, and that one may explain, describe, praise, deplore or whatever what is actually happening in the way of action-and that's very important, so I'm not selling the word short either when I say this-but, you don't make a political movement simply out of words.
  • this is an ignorance that is damaging both to women and to men. Ignorance of the history of more than half the human species. And therefore the history of the entire species is distorted. In some ways we have come a long way; in other ways, I think, not at all. And then outside of the sphere of the kind of education where you would expect to find a certain liberal stance toward feminism, the issue becomes what women have any education available to them at all. Thinking on a global level, how early do women leave school, if they've gone to school at all? The illiteracy rate among women overall is rapidly on the increase. And so it's not just a question of, do we know our history, but do we know how to read, how to write? Do we know that there is such a thing as history, that we can be part of it, makers of it?
  • We don't shed racism or sexism because we're in a liberation movement unless we struggle hard to try to create bridges, to find out where our common base is, to become educated in each other's realities, to search for and document the mistakes of the past so we can stop making them. I'm thinking particularly of the history of the nineteenth-century white suffrage movement, the early North American feminist movement, its visions, and its racist stances, despite its roots in the Abolitionist movement.
  • I grew up in a social and familial world in which there was a great deal of splitting. I've written an essay called "Split at the Root" which actually speaks about my own family roots: Jewish and Gentile. But it was also a world very split by segregation. Baltimore in the thirties and forties was a deeply segregated city. There weren't back-of-the-bus rules, but Black people did not shop in the same department stores as white people, there was the interracial eating taboo, and so on. That kind of thing a child grows up acutely aware of, even if it's never talked about, and of course there was a great deal of pressure not to talk about it. It was a given. And it was a given that, needless to say, white people were extremely tense about. But we learned not to ask questions about it or to discuss it. We did not go to school with Black children. The Black people that I grew up knowing all worked for white people as domestic workers. So that left a profound impact, in the sense that it was a situation which, I think from a very young age, I felt was so-uncomfortable is hardly the word-almost intolerable. There was so much that wasn't explained, there were codes of behavior that you couldn't question but that you couldn't figure out.
  • When the Civil Rights movement came long in the late fifties, early sixties, and I began to hear Black voices describing and analyzing what were the concrete issues for Black people, like segregation, like racism, it came to me as a great relief. It was like finding language for something that I'd needed a language for all along. That was the first place where I heard a language to name oppression. And it was an enormous relief, even as it threw up a lot of questions for me as to where I stood with all this.
  • Where connections are being made always feels to me like the point of intensest life.
  • I was thinking a lot about something that wasn't being talked about at the time very much. I was thinking about where sexuality belonged in all this. What is the connection between Vietnam and the lovers' bed? If this insane violence is being waged against a very small country by this large and powerful country in which I live, what does that have to do with sexuality and with what's going on between men and women, which I felt also as a struggle even then?
  • you see your parents first of all as these great looming figures who have no past, no context. They're just there and over and against you. Or they're not there, which is another kind of looming presence-looming absence. But I've been learning to see my father and to think about his life more and more and more in the context of the social and political world, if you will, that he grew up in, to think about the things that brought him to where he was when I knew him, especially the meaning of his Jewishness.
  • Well, it very much depends on how you look at the contours of the landscape. An astonishing number of feminist institutions were founded in the seventies. And a lot of movement was going on in existing institutions like universities. But the kind of political retrenchment that began, I think, before Reagan was elected, and in fact led up to his election, inevitably was accompanied by the reassertion of old conservative values about women, and about sexuality. And those attitudes have come down hard.
    • “Do you think there has been a regression during the past ten years from the progress made by the women's movement? Has its momentum slowed, and, if so, will the movement pick up its pace again to what it was in the 1970s? Is there now a sense of exhaustion?”
  • People have to put bread on the table and they're trying to do political work as well.
  • Some people are tired and burnt-out, but I see new women and men-coming along all the time. And that is very refreshing and very inspiring. It's not as though the same cast of characters that was there in the early seventies still has to be doing it all now. The cast of characters has grown; some have left, some have taken time out and returned, others have come in, many with new understandings, with new contributions.
  • One of the things that has been growing in the women's movement in this country-and again, in a society like this it can't, it doesn't happen easily, and it doesn't happen overnight-is the consciousness that we aren't a homogeneous movement, that we are a multi-ethnic movement, that women's experiences across the board are different, even though we share common female experiences. There's been a tremendous enrichment through those understandings, and through the visibility, the leadership, of women of color, and the work of Jewish feminists; that has certainly been part of the last few years.
  • An enormous amount is happening globally-different kinds of struggle in different countries, in different societies. When you look at South Africa, there's enormous leadership by women. Black women in South Africa are maintaining and creating a structure. In that violence-ridden society, in the midst of revolution, they are creating childcare centers, soup kitchens, planting gardens, keeping things going on that human level. Now I don't think that's just women doing the service work of the world; those women are also leaders of their communities. We could talk about feminism in the Philippines, in Latin America, in the Caribbean, not a monolithic global movement but many movements, all over the world, contending within and against many different cultures. The United States movement is only a small part of the picture.
  • All movements have a tendency to in-group language, and that language can become a language of abstraction, a language of stereotype.
  • at the time I started writing, that was already set up as a problem. If you were going to be writing a truly new poetry, could you use the old forms?
  • I guess what I'm searching for always is a way of staying linked to the past, pulling out of it whatever you can use, and continuing to move on.
  • One of the most sensual and sensuous women poets I can think of is Audre Lorde. She thinks in images that are most certainly lesbian images. But also images from Afro-Caribbean culture and from African mythology and experience. And that's a very powerful combination. Because that also has not been available in most poetry in English.
  • What would be the cost of not doing it? I feel as though it's for my survival, first and foremost. This is how I cope, this is how I survive. I have learned from my peers that this way of creating can be a way of surviving. I didn't invent that.
    • “Costs-in a word. So much of your work has been a struggle to speak honestly and openly, whether about poetry itself or about social issues, about racism, about lesbianism. What are the costs of doing so, as a poet, as a person?"
  • For a very long time, poems were a way of talking about what I couldn't talk about any other way. And why is it that you're not able to talk about certain things? It's because they are the points of danger, you feel that in the social fabric, you feel there are people who don't want you to raise this question, or if you're a child-to ask this question. That is the threatening place, and of course it becomes a place of great fascination too. I was equipped from a very young age to use language in this way because of how I was brought up, and by whom I was brought up, and the fact that poetry was available to me as a choice, when it might not have been for another seven or ten years if I'd been another child.
  • language is this medium that we hand back and forth between us in all human relationships all the time, it doesn't really have a privileged place. It's this coinage in which we keep trying to get a hold of each other or make ourselves clear. So, the fact that poetry was available to me for that is very important.
  • Experience is always larger than language. And there's always the next poem, yes. Not necessarily because I feel I've falsified something, but because I wrote it as I knew it then, and I'm going to know it differently in six months. Or I'm going to know something else. Or I'm going to need to know something else, and the only way I can get to it is by writing that poem.
  • we teachers used to talk a lot about who fails the teacher or the student-when you have a classroom situation which is rigged entirely against the student, or in which the teacher is too ignorant to teach. Not ignorant of grammar, but ignorant of the students, ignorant of their culture. So, I was thinking very much about our failures, the map of our failures, we who consider ourselves so possessed of language, so articulate.
  • I feel there are a lot of places that I still need to go-I'm just getting the outlines of certain things.

Swarthmore College Commencement (June 1, 1992)Edit

  • Those of us who came into activism in the sixties and before, who have continued as engaged citizens through the seventies into the nineties-as welfare rights organizers, as feminists, as members of a critical and oppositional press, as community organizers, as lesbian and gay activists, as anti-racism educators, as new and challenging voices in the labor movement, as builders of battered women's shelters and rape crisis centers, as coalition builders among racial and ethnic communities, as creators of socially responsive art-we did not intend for you or any young people to face at your coming-of-age so manipulated and demoralized a society, at once so fearful and so complacement, as this one. But it's not commiseration I feel for you, standing here, but hope. You have had not just educational privilege of a high order, but the privilege of having a time of youth, when you could try on different selves, without fear of being locked into any one of them. Most people your age in this country don't have a time of youth. And for those young men and women, who will not stand today or any day soon in academic robes under a threatening or a clear blue sky, who were early locked by racism and poverty into manhoods and womanhoods they had no time to choose, I also feel, not despair, but hope.
  • I believe in the potential, both tapped and blocked, within each one of you. I believe that the responses to the Simi Valley verdict where hundreds of white youth have joined in demonstrations and uprisings in city after city, where citizens of conscience, whatever their, our origins, are being compelled to consider their, our place in all this-I believe that the civil and moral unrest now moving through the inner nervous system of our country, has a chance of catalyzing one of the great shifts in our history. A chance of building not into some hierarchic, monolithic movement, but into many streams of movement, always in touch with and interrogating each other: African American, Arab American, Asian American, Jewish, Latino, white, lesbian, gay and straight: women and men, old and young. My hope, for you and for us all, is that you refuse docility and shallowness and lend your gifts and intelligence to a rising democracy movement here in the United States, sharing power with sisters and brothers at whose expense that power was acquired: learning what can only be taught by those who are not here today.
  • Dear and cherished graduates: Remember the youth of your generation. Remember all the youths-and the parents who are not here today nor at any commencement in the land. Remember that our true democracy cannot come to birth without their participation. Nor without yours.

Interview (1996)Edit

In The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets by Bill Moyers

  • I think we're at a very interesting watershed, because I have been seeing and noting a tremendous renaissance of poetry in the United States over the past ten to twenty years nourished by the voices of many groups which had been largely silenced before that-by the voices of women, the voices of people of color, the voices of gay men and lesbians, the voices of working-class, white Americans. There is a seething, burgeoning poetry out there, but it's many poetries, and it's coming from many cultures and many communities.
  • I feel enormous joy and exhilaration. This is so different from the poetry world into which I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. That was a world dominated by a few major figures, mostly from a certain class and of course male: Pound, Williams, Eliot, Stevens. I was saying to a young man, a poet working here, "Your generation doesn't have to look at the field of poetry as a hierarchy. You can draw from this enormously rich cluster of poetries, and you can enrich yourself from so many kinds that this is a wholly different situation than we had in the 1940s and 1950s."
    • What do you think when you look around this festival and you see Japanese American poets, Chinese American poets, Puerto Rican poets, poets from the white working class?
  • It is more than troubled. I mean, it may be sliding out of our grasp. It goes without saying that this has never been a full democracy. It has always been a selective democracy, offering a few people the full enjoyment of a democratic society, but it has always been repressive toward certain groups, and I don't think that it is less so now. I think we're seeing a failure of the democratic dream and a cynicism toward that dream, so that the dream becomes mere rhetoric in the mouths of politicians and corporations.
  • I believe that poetry asks us to consider the quality of life. Poetry reflects on the quality of life, on us as we are in process on this earth, in our lives, in our relationships, in our communities. It embodies what makes it possible for us to continue as human under the barrage of brute violence, numbing indifference, trivialization, and shallowness that we endure, not to speak of what has come to seem in public life like a total loss on the part of politicians of any desire even to appear consistent, or to appear to adhere to principle.
  • Something has to die in order for us to begin to know our truths. Perhaps we have to lose our national fantasies.
  • when I say "radical" I mean at the root, real. Real social transformation, real change has to come out of a love of life and a love for the world, not hatred of the world. Increasingly what I fear and what I see is a movement of people on the right who are moving from a hatred of human beings, a hatred of the other, a hatred of life. That's why I say there is nothing wrong with personal happiness if you can take it and use it as a key, a measure, a standard.
  • I think there are many different kinds of dread for many different kinds of people. I think that more and more people feel uncared for, feel that their lives are not only unvalued but meaningless, feel that though they may care for their lives, no one else will, feel that the only way that they can protect their survival and interests is by the gun. I'm afraid that many people feel an enormous desperation which plays into the propaganda of hate.
  • A sense of community seems to arise out of the word. Well, that's true. I believe that. I think that's one of the reasons that communities of poetry, and I don't just mean communities of poets, but everywhere in this country communities of poetry-of people reading poetry, listening to poetry, coming together around poetry-are becoming so widespread. It's as if this gathering around the word occurs in response to worsening conditions.
  • I was thinking of our society, stripped of so much of what was hoped for and promised and given nothing in exchange but material commodities, or the hope of obtaining material commodities. And for me, that is being truly stripped.
  • I write for whoever might read. I recently saw a very interesting distinction made by the African Canadian writer Marlene Nourbese Philip. She speaks of the difference between community, audience, and market...The distinction between community, audience, and market is a really important distinction for an artist of any kind. There is a community of those whose work and whose lives you respect and love and cherish, a community that gives you the strength to create, to push boundaries, to take risks, a community that perhaps challenges you to do all that.
  • I have survived many things through poetry. In short, it's helped me to live my life, and from a very young age.
  • from a very young age poetry was always a sustenance for me. It was a way of going deeper into things, it was never escapism. It was a way, as a very young child, of finding out about life...(it told me) many things. And they contradicted each other, of course, but it was a way of reflecting on and maybe testing out emotions and feelings that I had no words for myself.
  • I think it was Blake's "The Tyger." I was given poems to copy, that was how my father taught me to do handwriting. "The Tyger" was one of them and it was so musical and mysterious. The wonderful image sank very deep very early.
    • Do you remember the first poem that touched you deeply, that awakened you somehow?
  • I think politics can seem a burden when we feel alone and powerless against enormous and impersonal forces out there in the public realm. The late years of the Vietnam War when a lot of poets were giving antiwar readings was a very crucial time for me. In the 1960s, when poetry was very much part of public life, I began trying to make connections for myself between the havoc being wreaked by my government on a small country thousands of miles away, which I and so many of my friend were protesting, and the relations between human beings within my country, especially the relations between women and men. That kind of synthesis really wasn't happening yet in the public sphere, but I was trying to make that synthesis in my poetry-which was the only way I knew how to do it.
  • I have to say again that the kinds of support and the kinds of challenge that I receive from the lives of others around me-poets, non-poets, other kinds of artists, and activists-carries me. I don't feel like a solitary person in my lonely room at all, even though I have to spend hours alone in a room to do what I do. I believe that a poem isn't completed until there's a reader at the other end of it. It can't just be produced, it also has to be received. And so, yes, I feel that the poems are being completed in so many different ways by so many different minds and consciousnesses.
    • "What do you get from those people listening to you here? What happens between you and the audience at a reading?"
  • I intend to go on making poetry. I intend to go on trying to be part of what I think of as an underground stream-of voices resisting the voices that tell us we are nothing, that we are worthless, or that we all hate each other, or should hate each other. I think that there is a real culture of resistance here-of artists' and of other kinds of voices-that will continue, however bad things get in this country. I want to make myself part of that and do my work as well as I can. I want to love those I love as well as I can, and I want to love life as well as I can.
  • I have been exceptionally privileged to be able to think of myself as a creative person. There is so much creativity I believe in every infant born and yet so few of us get to develop it, so few of us even get to think about having an audience for our words. So, with the kind of audience that I now have, I want to speak responsibly and for that I need teachers.
  • Perhaps the teacher learns that intelligence is not limited to those who are fluent in standard English.
  • A series of poems by a lot of poets have been up in the New York subway. The head of the Transit Authority is a lover of poetry and he decided he wanted "poetry in motion." I was very happy to see that. The same thing has been done in the bus system in San Diego, California, and I think it should be happening everywhere. I think the question of "how do we get people to read poetry?" might be to some extent resolved if people saw more poetry out in the world, places where they go, in just the ordinary public places where everybody has to stand on line, or hang from the strap, waiting, because people would be reading poetry. They would find themselves reading it and absorbing it.
  • I hope many people who saw that poem ("Delta") in the subway thought, "Yes-you can't wrap me up in the story of my life. I am more complicated than you can know."

Forward to Arts of the Possible (2000)Edit

  • one period's necessary strategies can mutate into the monsters of a later time.
  • Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.-both leaders with large constituencies-had been murdered just as each was unscrolling a map on which race and class intersected in a shared landscape.
  • I still believe what I wrote in 1971: A change in the of sexual identity is essential if we are not to see the old political order reassert itself in every new revolution.
  • But Sisyphus is not, finally, a useful image. You don't roll some unitary boulder of language or justice uphill; you try with others to assist in cutting and laying many stones, designing a foundation. One of the stonecutter-architects I met was Muriel Rukeyser, whose work I had begun reading in depth in the 1980s. Through her prose Rukeyser had engaged me intellectually; her poetry, however, in its range and daring, held me first and last. "Her Vision" is a tribute to the mentorship of her work. Another was Raya Dunayevskaya, who wrote vividly and trenchantly of the concrete revolutionary lives of women, and whose fusion of Marx's humanism with contemporary feminisms expanded my sense of the possibilities of both.
  • I believe in the necessity for a poetic language untethered from the compromised language of state and media.
  • A new century, even a new technology, doesn't of itself produce newness. It is live human beings, looking in all directions, who will do this.
  • At times in the past decade and a half I have felt like a stranger in my own country. I seem not to speak the official language. I believe many others feel like this, not just as poets or intellectuals but as citizens-accountable yet excluded from power. I began as an American optimist, albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War. In both these cases it was necessary to look hard truths in the face in order to change horrible realities. I believed, with many others, that my country's historical aquifers were flowing in that direction of democratic change. I became an American skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity, which is part of all human history, but in the light of my nation's leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world. Perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing.

Interview (2011)Edit

  • The poem was inflected, you could say, by interviews I was hearing on Amy Goodman’s program, Democracy Now!—about Guantánamo, waterboarding, official U.S. denials of torture, the “renditioning” of presumed terrorists to countries where they would inevitably be tortured. The line “Tonight I think no poetry will serve” suggests that no poetry can serve to mitigate such acts, they nullify language itself. One begins to write of the sensual body, but other bodies “elsewhere” are terribly present.
  • The music, the sound of words working together, has always mattered to me.
  • Our ears, like it or not, take in so much in a day. Maybe some North American ears have trouble with poetry because of the noise from an aggressively voiced ruling ethos—its terminology of war, success, national security, winning and losing, ownership, merchandising, canned information, canned laughter. Poetry can be direct, it can be colloquial, it can be abrupt or angry, but it’s not that vacuous noise; it wants to unseat that kind of language, play other kinds of sound tracks.
  • I started out in the early days of the cold war. As young people, we were indoctrinated with the fear of communism and the atom bomb—which, of course, our own government had already used.
  • Relations of power, as I began to decipher them, have infused a great deal of my work over time—both poetry and prose. But poetry was where I could confront, perhaps transform, what I was experiencing and learning about the world.
  • There’s a poem from the mid-1950s in Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, “From Morning Glory to Petersburg”—titles from an encyclopedia volume—that suggests the effort to ask, as a conscious strategy, how do you make livable meaning out of separate bits of classified information? How to live with “facts” you can’t integrate? Well, one way was to integrate them is through poetry.
  • The split in our language between “political” and “personal” has, I think, been a trap.
  • to be “against war” has come to seem too easy a stance. War exists in a texture of possession and deprivation, economic and religious dogmas, racism, colonialist exploitation, nationalism, unequal power. Who decides to make war? Who is destroyed in it? Who creates the rhetoric of “terror” and “democracy”?
  • I don’t know that poetry itself has any universal or unique obligations. It’s a great ongoing human activity of making, over different times, under different circumstances. For a poet, in this time we call “ours,” in this whirlpool of disinformation and manufactured distraction? Not to fake it, not to practice a false innocence, not pull the shades down on what’s happening next door or across town. Not to settle for shallow formulas or lazy nihilism or stifling self-reference. Nothing “obliges” us to behave as honorable human beings except each others’ possible examples of honesty and generosity and courage and lucidity, suggesting a greater social compact.
    • "What are the obligations of poetry? Have they changed in your lifetime?"
  • New York City today is vastly changed from what it was between 1966 and 1978. It’s owned now by wealth and tourism.

Interview (2001)Edit

  • I define “politics” in this sense as the on-going collective struggle for liberation and for the power to create—not only works of art, but also just and nonviolent social institutions. There is no way I can see that the poet can stand outside all that.
  • when you ask, “Do you write political poetry?” I say yes, I have done so since the mid-sixties and the artists’ protests against the Vietnam War. As a very young poet, I had been brought up on that dogma that politics was bad for poetry. What I search for continuously in my art is adequate language, language I hope can stand beyond any particular occasion. What I’m finding is that in our increasingly dysfunctional U.S. society, marvelous poetry is being written—out of and amid the dysfunction.
  • I began as a formalist because that was the poetic tradition—Anglo-European—that I first knew. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were there of course, but Dickinson’s work was edited into a prim textual conformity until 1960 when the poems in their original form exploded my ideas of poetry. Also, my own life pushed me beyond the conventions of formalism—along with reading my direct contemporaries who were exploring open forms, like Denise Levertov, W.S. Merwin, and Galway Kinnell. All this was in the Sixties when the most intense life was lived around politics—the Black Civil Rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, very large moral questions were in the air, along with a great deal of hope, and the revolutions in Africa and Central America were part of that consciousness. That period has been trashed by the Right as mere posturing, violence and drug abuse. But it was in many ways both a practical and a visionary time.
  • I think poets should work in the non-literary, non-academic world, get to know more than a workshop or a university.
  • Through the ‘70s and ‘80s I was becoming aware of my country’s role in destabilizing the emergent socialist and democratic governments throughout the Americas.
  • I am a citizen of a country that has just undergone a thieved election, a country deeply and dangerously divided between rich and poor, but also between rich and middle class. What I believe in and what my government represents are not the same thing.
  • One of the insidious rhetorical devices of the U.S. Right has been to claim (for example) that empathy with others is merely “liberal guilt” or “political correctness,” that compassion is merely sentimental or even hypocritical. I see it as an entirely cynical view that underscores the profit motive as the only real basis for human relationships.
  • I am always interested in the ways of scoring the sound of the poem, especially a poem with long lines. Spaces within a line, double colons, slashes, are indications of pause, of breath, of urgency, they are not metrically exact as in a musical notation but they serve (I hope) to make the reader think about the sound of the poem—just as traffic symbols, when driving, make us almost unconsciously aware of a steep hill, an intersection, an icy bridge etc. Poets have used such indicators long before modernism—Dickinson’s dashes and capitals are one example. Contemporary composers have also expanded on classical notation with new, self-invented markings. You want to find a way that is not random or chaotic but allows for various renderings of a line, a punctuation of the imagination.
  • women cannot become liberated one by one. But individual revolt is not simply futile.
  • I’ve known great happiness in my life along with great darkness, and a question that has repeatedly entered my poetry has been, how do we use the direct experience of happiness that may be given us, whether of love and sexuality or creativity or the sense of connectedness with other beings, human and otherwise? The philosopher Hannah Arendt writes about the concept of “public happiness”—the sense of being a participant, a citizen, of sharing the power to create collectively. She says that’s what the framers of the U.S. constitution really intended in saying that “men” are endowed with the inalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness.” The idea becomes more tantalizing in a society where most citizens feel individually and collectively disempowered—as just now in the U.S. But the issue of happiness turns up also in the poetry of Charles Olson, and in my poem, “Camino Real,” I have a dialogue with both Olson and Oppen, in which I say, “Why measure? It’s itself the measure.” It occurs to me now that Whitman was not simply inventing an ideal United States; he was trying to show what public happiness would feel like, along with public grief and mourning as in his Civil War poems.
  • Dark Fields of the Republic and Midnight Salvage were written during the final decade of the twentieth century and against the grain of their society. The economic and technological expansion, with the terrible human and environmental prices paid, were (and are) accelerating, while at the same time language itself, the medium of my art, was deteriorating. We had become the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
  • For myself it is an ever-present challenge to draw lines of connection between personal feelings and their social dimensions, “the body’s pain and the pain on the streets” to recognize that an economic system can impact on human sensibility—Marx’s idea that exploitative relations of production end by affecting all human relations, the most private and intimate included. These are finally not just ideas, they become our feelings. And it’s in feelings that poetry is rooted.

Interview with NPR (2012)Edit

  • I'm very much interested in the place of biography in poetry and in fiction, but I'm also interested in the place of fiction in poetry, and I think that there's a tendency, at present, to read poems as autobiographical statements, documents, narratives — and to miss therefore a great deal that's going on in them. If you ascribe each event to some actual event, if you ascribe each image, each relationship to some literal occasion, it seems to me that you run the risk of missing not only the poetry, but the fuller, richer, deeper aspects of the poems, which come not necessarily from the poet's biography, but from what the poet has seen, heard, drawn into herself or himself from other lives.
  • We tried in the early years of the feminist movement to look under and behind the myths, the legends that always depicted the stepmother as cruel, the bad mother, the myths in popular psychology of the evil mother, the evil mother-daughter bond. We tried to correct those, and in so doing, I think we unearthed a great deal that was real and important and useful. To idealize, to sentimentalize, to mythologize that — those powers, those strengths, those teachers — takes us into yet another place where I think we are disempowered.
  • Essentially poetry, if it is poetry, does not lend itself to simple readings, to oversimplifications — though people may try to read it that way. It seems to me that the essential nature of a poem is that there is ambivalence and ambiguity quivering underneath.
  • I'm one of the lesbians who came out through the women's movement. And I don't mean I wouldn't have come out without a women's movement, but it's very hard to imagine the world without the women's liberation movement at this point. However, in my own history, that was the point. It was a time of tremendous intensity among women — women of all kinds. Women who had known they were lesbians all their lives, women who were then coming out, women who were then and have remained heterosexual. There was a kind of intensity around the politics that was very profound and passionate. It was very moving and very exciting to see women taking their strength and taking hold of each other's strength and bringing out the power in each other. ... The passion was political, and the politics was passionate. Yes, it was very sexual, and it was also a milieu and a time that was very political.
  • A long-lived relationship is about so many things. It is such a dense and complex process — always a process — and it's not to be summed up. It's not to be turned into some kind of vignette. If we are serious, we also have to recognize that even the longest and richest and densest relationship must end, and we see it around us. We see it in that inevitability of time's power, if you will.

Quotes about Adrienne RichEdit

  • I echo Adrienne Rich’s idea that the personal is political. My poetics is rooted in my personal history, and from there I examine the world around me. I see myself not just as a Chinese-American, but as a global citizen. I care about America but also about what happens in the world.
  • Adrienne Rich believes “the poem must serve” the people. Somehow, I don’t want my poems to be relevant to only a few readers in academia.
  • In 1997, Adrienne Rich famously declined to accept the National Medal of Arts in a protest against the Clinton administration, writing that art, quote, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”
  • Rich was one of the most celebrated poets of the last half-century and a lifelong advocate for women, gay and lesbian rights, peace and racial justice. Rich drew widespread acclaim for her many volumes of poetry and prose, which brought the oppression of women and lesbians into the public spotlight. She was a key figure in the women’s movement and an uncompromising critic of the powerful.
  • Writing about Adrienne Rich's work, connecting it to the work of men who thought critically about the body, in her introduction to Thinking Through the Body, Jane Gallop comments: “Men who do find themselves in some way thinking through the body are more likely to be recognized as serious thinkers and heard. Women have first to prove that we are thinkers, which is easier when we conform to the protocol that deems serious thought separate from an embodied subject in history. Rich is asking women to enter the realms of critical thought and knowledge without becoming disembodied spirit, universal man.”
    • bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994)
  • Despite flaws and contradictions in her analysis, Adrienne Rich's essay "Disloyal to Civilization': Feminism, Racism, and Gynephobia" was groundbreaking in that it ruptured that wall of denial, addressing the issue of race and accountability. White women were more willing to "hear" another white woman talk about racism, yet it is their inability to listen to black women that impedes feminist progress.
    • bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994)
  • I feel I was very lucky, though, because when I came out, which was in 1973, New York was just hopping. It was exploding. It was after Stonewall. Lesbians started getting organized. I belonged to a group of lesbian writers. There were four of us who decided to start Conditions magazine, for example, and before that we had a group called Di Vilde Chayas [the wild animals], which was a group that had Adrienne Rich, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Gloria Greenfield, and Evelyn Beck, who did Nice Jewish Girls.
  • Why weren't other women of Color found to participate in this conference? Why were two phone calls to me considered a consultation? Am I the only possible source of names of Black feminists? And although the Black panelist's paper ends on an important and powerful connection of love between women, what about interracial cooperation between feminists who don't love each other? In academic feminist circles, the answer to these questions is often, "We did not know who to ask." But that is the same evasion of responsibility, the same cop-out, that keeps Black women's art out of women's exhibitions, Black women's work out of most feminist publications except for the occasional "Special Third World Women's Issue," and Black women's texts off your reading lists. But as Adrienne Rich pointed out in a recent talk, white feminists have educated themselves about such an enormous amount over the past ten years, how come you haven't also educated yourselves about Black women and the differences between us-white and Black-when it is key to our survival as a movement?
    • Audre Lorde, "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House"
  • Adrienne Rich was an exquisitely political poet—and a politically exquisite poet...Committed to trade unionism, she served on the board of the National Writers Union, as arguably the most honored of its author members...A huge fan of "Democracy Now," and a frequent contributor to The Nation and other journals of the left, she made political media more lyrical. But she also made literary journals more political.
  • my sense of her, the thing that I most loved, was her integrity. She lived exactly what she said. And this was so rare and so beautiful...I think her legacy for all of us is to continue to believe in the power of art, especially in the power of poetry, and to keep moving and not to be dissuaded, not to be discouraged, but to take heart from a woman who lived for 82 years giving her very best, growing out of every shell that society attempted to force her into to become this really amazing figure of inspiration and hope and love.

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