Language that Burns: Remembering Adrienne Rich

There are poets, and then there are poets. The first category is large and consists of all those who write poems. The second category is tiny and consists of those few in every generation who write poems as if the act is a matter of life and death, a personal striving that transcends the personal by virtue of its urgency and vision. The world lost one of these rare poets in 2000, when the Welsh master R.S. Thomas died. The world lost another of these rare poets on March 29th of this year, when the American Adrienne Rich succumbed to a long struggle with arthritis.

As far as I know, no connection has ever been made between Thomas, the fierce Anglican minister and Welsh nationalist, and Rich, the equally fierce gay and civil rights activist, but the similarities are instructive. Both poets wrote with a searing, questioning honesty about their most intimate relationships; both regularly and, against the grain, addressed the societies in which they lived; and both, at a certain point, re-invented their poetic project in ways that alienated their enthusiastic first readers. But beyond all that, Thomas and Rich shared one essential quality: the understanding that a poem is not interior decoration, nor a hobby to be pursued in one’s spare time, nor even a means of achieving worldly success, but rather an ancient human endeavour in which the personal ego is ultimately irrelevant. In short, both poets wrote themselves deeply into and out of their poems at the same time. Such a skill is reserved for very few.

Many decades ago, when I was a young man haunting the used bookstores of Vancouver, I came across two well-thumbed, paperback volumes of Adrienne Rich’s poetry from the 1960s: Necessities of Life and Leaflets. They were a revelation. Not because they were written by a woman (though that did matter eventually), but because their intensity and directness exploded off the page:

Subtlety stalks in your eyes,
Your tongue knows what it knows.
I want your secrets — I will have them out.
Seasick, I drop into the sea.

from “The Demon Lover”

Tim Bowling is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose. His novel The Tinsmith appeared in 2012 and he will publish a work of selected poems next year.