On the virtue of im­pu­rity

Pasatiempo - - On the virtue of impurity - Jen­nifer Levin For The New Mex­i­can

po­ets with their pe­cu­liar keen­ness and am­biva­lence. ... But even in read­ing these women I was look­ing in them for the same things I had found in the po­etry of men, be­cause I wanted women po­ets to be equals of men, and to be equal was still con­fused with sound­ing the same.”

Rich stud­ied po­etry at Rad­cliffe Col­lege and be­gan her ca­reer as a strict for­mal­ist, but her aes­thet­ics are fluid, chang­ing and evolv­ing, driven by the de­mands of the con­tent as well as the poet’s sense of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Her ear­lier work is denser in lan­guage and con­sid­ered more declar­a­tive; in later work she pushes the bound­aries of line, voice, and speaker. In her most re­cent book, 2007’s Tele­phone Ring­ing in the Labyrinth, her lan­guage is so com­pressed that it seems to bounce in­ward and off it­self, sud­den light il­lu­mi­nat­ing a dark core.

Though some crit­ics in­sist that Rich’s po­etry suf­fers un­der the weight of her pol­i­tics, nei­ther the read­ing pub­lic nor the many peo­ple who have given her awards have taken note. Among other hon­ors, Rich is the re­cip­i­ent of the Yale Younger Po­ets prize, a Guggen­heim fel­low­ship, a Na­tional Book Award, and a Life­time Achieve­ment Award from The Lan­nan Foun­da­tion. (She speaks in Santa Fe with poet Carolyn Forché, edi­tor of Against For­get­ting: Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Po­etry of Wit­ness on Wed­nes­day, June 16, as part of Lan­nan’s Read­ings and Con­ver­sa­tions Se­ries.) And in 1997, Rich re­fused the Na­tional Medal of Arts from the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts on the grounds that the award was “in­com­pat­i­ble with the cyn­i­cal pol­i­tics” of the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“In the end,” Rich wrote in her let­ter of re­fusal, “I don’t think we can sep­a­rate art from over­all hu­man dig­nity and hope. My con­cern for my coun­try is in­ex­tri­ca­ble from my con­cerns as an artist.”

It re­quires a clear mind and steely will to live by the strength of your con­vic­tions, decade af­ter decade. In a Los An­ge­les Times es­say fur­ther ex­plain­ing her re­fusal, Rich was as pre­scient about pol­i­tics and world events as she was about fem­i­nism at the start of the move­ment’s sec­ond wave. Though she wrote this in 1997, she knew ex­actly where we would find our­selves.

“Both ma­jor par­ties have dis­played a crude affin­ity for the in­ter­ests of cor­po­rate power while de­sert­ing the ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple, es­pe­cially the most vul­ner­a­ble. Like so many oth­ers, I’ve watched the dis­man­tling of our pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, the steep rise in our in­car­cer­a­tion rates, the de­mo­niza­tion of our young black men, the ac­cu­sa­tions against our teenage moth­ers, the sell­ing of health care — pub­lic and pri­vate — to the high­est bid­ders ... the scape­goat­ing of im­mi­grants, the de­nial of dig­nity and min­i­mal se­cu­rity to our work­ing and poor peo­ple.”

Adri­enne Rich

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