Arts & Culture

Distinguished poet visits alma mater

5 min read

Adrienne Rich, one of America’s most lauded poets and a major literary voice of the 20th century, returned to the place where it all began on a recent dreary Monday afternoon (April 28).

Though the weather was bleak, a raw spring day gray with steady rain, the atmosphere inside the Radcliffe Gymnasium was warm and welcoming. Despite the hall’s vaulted ceilings and capacity crowd, the large auditorium seemed almost intimate.

The Baltimore native took a seat on stage in a cushioned armchair; a bronze floor lamp cast a soft light over her right shoulder. She looked as though she could have been at home in her living room, save for the hundreds of men and women who filled the upper and lower sections of the hall and waited eagerly for her to speak. She didn’t disappoint. The audience hushed on cue as she began to read a selection of her poems.

Rich, a Radcliffe alumna, wrote her first book of poems, “A Change of World” (Yale University Press, 1951), while at the school. The year she graduated, 1951, she won the celebrated Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for her effort. The award, and her raw talent, championed by poet W.H. Auden who wrote an introduction to the work, set her on a path towards literary fame. Rich’s distinguished 57-year career has included numerous works of poetry and prose, as well as many of the art’s highest awards and accolades.

Her early writing is set in a structured style with familiar rhyming schemes, yet its tone foreshadows her charged works to come. Her poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” from “A Change of World,” describes a woman, in part constrained in a man’s world.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Rich’s strong connection to feminism became evident in her work. As she became more committed to women’s liberation, social justice, the anti-war movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, her personal writing style turned from the traditional to a more experimental method that incorporated free verse, prose, and even ghazal, an ancient Persian form of poetry.

Rich’s diminutive frame belies a formidable character. In 2003, out of opposition to the war in Iraq, she declined to attend a White House symposium on poetry. In 1997, she refused the National Medal of the Arts, writing in a letter to Jane Alexander, then chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which oversaw the award, that she couldn’t accept the honor “because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. … There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art — in my own case the art of poetry — means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

When Rich was awarded the National Book Award for her collection of poems “Diving Into the Wreck” in 1974, she refused to accept it on her own, instead accepting it with fellow poets and nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde in the name of silenced women everywhere.

On Monday, current fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Elizabeth Alexander introduced Rich, who was the featured speaker at the institute’s annual Maurine and Robert Rothschild Lecture.

Alexander called Rich her “North Star,” lauded her work for its “fierce intellect and uncompromised beauty,” and said the phrase “speak truth to power” is “blazingly evident” in many of Rich’s poems.

Before the event began, a frail-looking Rich made her way to the stage with the help of a walker. Dressed all in black, a deep burgundy scarf around her neck, she told the crowd she had been suffering from the flu.

“I come to you from a sort of ghost land. … At times I felt I was going back and forth across the River Styx, with a return ticket; but sometimes I wasn’t so sure.”

Yet the poet’s voice was clear and strong as she read a number of poems, beginning with “The Art of Translation,” which she said is in part about translating poetry and prose. Translation, Rich noted, is a demanding art in itself, one that everyone should appreciate “because none of us speaks or reads all the languages we need to hear from and the cultures we need to hear from.” In addition, Rich said, nuancing her definition of translation, the poem “also concerns poetry itself as an act of translation and perhaps language itself as an act of translation from the inchoate mind into words and communication.”

Rich also read a selection of poems from her book “Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth” (W.W. Norton, 2007). She said the work is in part dedicated to a former Harvard professor, F.O. Matthiessen, whom she called “one of the two best teachers I ever had of poetry.”

“Matthiessen was a teacher who implicitly if not explicitly made the connections between poetry and public life and believed in those connections,” said Rich. “I think that was transmitted to me at a very young age, even though I could not have given words to the concept at the time.”

Rich, who turns 80 next year, made it clear to the audience that the written word represents, for her, the very essence of living.

“People sometimes ask me, am I still writing poetry, well, am I still breathing,” she said, with a hint of indignation. “It’s the life jet, as Sylvia Plath said.”