On the virtue of impurity
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.”