The Universal Appeal of Adrienne Rich

When a friend of mine gave me a copy of the poetry collection Your Native Land, Your Life, I hadn’t heard of Adrienne Rich. But this friend, whose taste in literature mirrored mine, told me that Rich was one of her favorite poets. A literate person like me, my friend said, needed to own a copy of this amazing book.

At that time, I talked often about my desire to become a writer, but through a paralyzing mix of laziness and distrust in my abilities, I did more talking than writing. I was convinced that nothing I wrote was any good, and I wasn’t sure I was suited for the writing life. My friend, who I treated to more than a few should-I-or-shouldn’t-I soliloquies over the years, never offered an opinion on my paralysis. But in her inscription on the inside front cover of the book, she wrote, “Check out page 88.”

The poem on page 88 of my Norton paperback contains these lines:

 

Dear Adrienne:

                                     I’m calling you up tonight
as I might call up a friend         as I might call up a ghost
to ask what you intend to do
with the rest of your life.      Sometimes you act
as if you have all the time there is.
I worry about you when I see this.[…]

I hope you’ve got something in mind.
I hope you have some idea
about the rest of your life.

                                                            In sisterhood,

                                                                                                 Adrienne

 

It would be too simplistic to suggest that this poem alone convinced me to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, that I read Rich’s words and all of my reservations magically disappeared. But in tandem with other forces, Rich’s poem delivered with bracing immediacy a message I needed to hear: that time, from an individual’s perspective, is finite, and that one can’t fritter away one’s tiny allotment on fear and uncertainty. That’s a lesson that takes time to learn, but I learned it faster than I would have otherwise thanks to Adrienne Rich. When I sit down to work, I often think of this poem and remember its lessons. That, I should think, would be gratifying to any writer: to know that his or her words had a positive and enduring influence on unseen readers. I can’t imagine a greater legacy. If Adrienne Rich stood for anything, she stood, in many important ways, for empowerment.

It would be a shame if potential readers avoided Rich’s work because they think a champion of feminist and lesbian issues had nothing to say to them. Although feminist topics were her focus for much of her career, her themes are universal. Consider this excerpt from “Upper Broadway,” a poem from the collection The Dream of a Common Language. The poem is about a woman struggling toward self-confidence. The gender is specific, but these closing lines could apply to just about anyone:

 

I look at my hands and see   they are still unfinished
I look at the vine and see the leafbud
inching towards life

I look at my face in the glass    and see
a halfborn woman

 

Readers will be able to make similar connections in all of her work. With luck, they’ll find in these poems words to live by, just as I did.

 

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