Adrienne Rich: 'Some Kind of Hetaira'

ADRIENNE Rich won the competition for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1951 when she was only a senior at Radcliffe. W.H. Auden wrote the introduction to her first book of poems, which was published in the Series. Comparing the poems with the poetess, Auden judged them "neatly and modestly dressed, they speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs; that, for a first volume is a good deal."

Many years and seven volumes later, both the poems and the poetess have changed. Then, the poetry was clearly based on the Cambridge undergraduate experience, intertwined with memories of childhood and adolescence, heavily under the influence of Yeats and Robert Frost, smelling of the New England environment, and with a narrative voice often speaking in the first person masculine. Now the poetry is fully mature, redolent of intense joys and great suffering, aflame with radical and sexual politics, crying the lessons of a militant feminism. Now the poetess, still neatly and modestly dressed but in blue-jeans, has grown through the experiences of marriage and motherhood, and has sought her new mentors in historic female figures, Near Eastern cultures, and the victims of public and private injustices.

The "new age" she prophesied in the poetry of her early twenties (A Change of World) has arrived, she agrees, but not in the apocalyptic way she then predicted. "I was echoing ideas from poets like Yeats, as you can tell. They were second-hand, I learned them through my education. I didn't get away from that for quite some time. My second book (The Diamond Cutters) was still very much formed by models. It was the kind of book one had to write in order to get on, to continue and grow. But those poems were just exercises, they weren't me or what I was thinking and dealing with at the time. I couldn't and didn't write much while I was having my children" (three boys, now ages 14, 16 and 18).

Adrienne felt she was not able to make her poetry correspond meaningfully with her life then. "There were a lot of experiences coming at me, and I tried to break out of the strict forms I had been using. I sensed my need for a new voice, but this was a slow, unconscious process. I wanted to write the kind of poetry that my experiences demanded." These experiences were marriage, motherhood, and "the necessity to redefine myself. I couldn't be the 'good student' any more, the precocious younger poet. I was becoming a woman and was confronted with the conflict between being a woman, a wife, a mother, and what I wanted to do with my life as far as my writing was concerned. And in those years there were few guides or signposts who could show me how to resolve this conflict."

The problem resolved itself once Adrienne realized that it did not have to exist. "It should be the most natural thing in the world being both, a poet and a woman. Poetry has to do with the deepest part of our natures, with the powers that women really have. The conflict has been more whether you should live only for others, or only for yourself; it's hard to make the choice or find a balance." She had always known that she was going to write, Adrienne says, and could not conceive of doing anything else. "But like most women of my generation, I assumed that I was going to get married. There was a very strong pressure on all of us either to get married, or to go to graduate school. I got married when I was twenty-four."

IN MUCH of her earlier work, Adrienne uses analogies to painters and painting, hanging a Matisse on the wall of a dream, or transforming a kitchen into a Dutch still-life. "Yes, I know I did that type of thing at one time, but I don't any more. I even tell my students (she is currently Hurst Professor of Creative Literature at Brandeis University) to avoid writing that kind of poetry, poetry about painting. Film is much more important to me now than painting. Such really beautiful things can happen in film, you know. Did you ever see Bertucelli's 'Ramparts of Clay'?" This is a film about a strike in a small Tunisian desert village. "You have? That one scene, where the heroine is drawing water from the well, and she keeps turning and turning the handle for what seems like an eternity... That image says so much about the girl's life."

Stylistically Adrienne has woven painting and film into her poetry, constructing an extremely visual literary art, full of sharp images and striking scenes. Thematically she deals repeatedly with death, with the passing of time, and, like the Emily Dickinson she admires so much, with the religious dimensions of everyday life. "You can't be a poet and not have any religious feeling," she explains. "I don't care for institutionalized religion, but I'm very interested now in the history of religion; the changes in ancient civilizations from worshipping goddesses to the worship of male gods, the evolution of patriarchal religion, such as Otto Ranke has traced."

Adrienne readily concedes the frequent appearance of death in her poetry. "Actually, in re-reading Necessities of Life (1962-1965), I was struck by the awareness that it's almost entirely about death, something I never noted when I was writing the poems. In some ways, I thought I was dying then--essential portions of me were dying and I wanted to explore this. That was a period of my life, too, when I really saw for the first time that we all die ultimately, that we are dying all along, while we're living. But I'm not afraid, I'm more fascinated than afraid--I love growing older. Physical aging hasn't troubled me, either. I feel that the process of aging has given me more scope, breadth and power. Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved birthdays; each year gives me a sense of accruing more and more. I don't mean that I'm particularly anxious to die! I'm just extremely curious to see what is going to happen during the next twenty years. I think it's going to be a hard but amazing time."

PERHAPS THE most momentous event in Adrienne's life over the past several years has been her involvement in the Women's Movement and her role as a spokeswoman for that movement, which she has assumed both in her articles and reviews and in much of her poetry. Reflecting on the Movement past and present, Adrienne finds that she has seen "immense changes, even in men. I'm talking about individuals, about small changes that are big for private lives." She believes that "the liberation of women can and will occur, it's an irreversible process... When I was floundering around in the fifties, not knowing who I was or why, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex came like a flash of recognition. Even then, though, I didn't quite make the connection between what she was writing about and myself. I was just then becoming politically conscious, and it was years before I made the connection between women and politics, myself and the world."

Adrienne notes regretfully that it will take a long time before the position of inequality alotted women in our society will improve. As a prime example of this, she cites the situation at Harvard and Radcliffe. "Radcliffe girls are a well-to-do, well-educated elite group of women. They are expected to be grateful because they're supposedly getting the same juicy 'carrot' as the men at Harvard. But these equal chances, equal opportunities, this ready acceptance--it's all an illusion and a lie. They're not nearly aware of the ways in which they're being taken. Harvard is an intensely patriarchal institution, in every way. I was a faculty wife here, too, years back. Coming back here, I'm very conscious of the way the careers of men are built on bright and brilliant wives who do everything for them. The parties, the contacts, typing their manuscripts, doing their research... So the women fragment their own lives and throw away careers they could have had. It's not just that women aren't being hired at universities. There are also those charmingly exploited women, and husbands' careers built on their backs."

Adrienne was an undergraduate at Radcliffe in the late forties and early fifties, and her memories of and feelings about those years are understandably mixed. "When I was an undergraduate, I was in a constant state of euphoria," she recalls. "It felt so marvelous to be free; I was away from home for the first time. Radcliffe was considered to be one of the more liberal women's colleges then; a sense of excitement pervaded the place. We all felt very liberated--we had our own doorkeys, which was terribly advanced!"

She remembers how unexpected the Yale Prize was; she was only a senior. "It was confusing but in many ways good for me. It meant that somewhere out there people were thinking of me as a poet. When I look back, though, I remember that I could feel that I wasn't really a part of the whole literary and intellectual 'scene' at Harvard, because I was a woman. Women couldn't be on the Advocate then, but I was invited to their parties--and felt like some kind of hetaira in the midst of a bunch of condescending men. I always sensed that I was an outsider in a man's literary world. At that time we had our own literary magazine at Radcliffe, the Signature. But there was always this overshadowing feeling that 'everything' was really going on at Harvard. Professors Kelleher and Levin gave an excellent seminar together then, but women were excluded. Yet no one talked about such discrimination."

Adrienne is not one to discriminate unfairly herself, or to make bitter distinctions between men and women. Instead, she feels that society as a whole is to blame for unhappy conditions. She speaks frequently of "the women in every man." To clarify the meaning of this idea she says, "I'm talking about a part of man that gets denied in his trying to fit a male stereotype. It's a quality that makes a person capable of being tender, of showing emotion, being able to communicate openly, to have respect for other human beings as people rather than objects... Most women do have these qualities. Women gets these qualities through her biological role, although it's not always easy. It wasn't for me."

Even society, says Adrienne, seems split into "masculine" and "feminine" trends. At present, Adrienne sees "masculinity dominating the earth. I relate to this the ruthless use of power and goal orientation, the rape of the earth, violence and destruction on a scale the world has never known before. Our civilization is one-sided, it's a civilization in which women have never had power... Yes, I think that women could be the saviors of humanity. I hope and believe that as women become more powerful (and by that I don't mean 'establishment' or as members of Nixon's cabinet) in themselves, and learn to work with each other, there is a chance that the process will begin to reverse itself. But the amount of resistance is incredible. It won't happen overnight."

Part of Adrienne's criticism of Midge Decter and her The New Chastity, which Adrienne reviewed in The New York Review of Books, was that Decter accepts the American society Adrienne so avidly despises. "I can't participate in that society, the way she does," Adrienne admits. "It's an uncaring society that wastes humanlives. It is based on the privileges of a few and on preserving the wealth of those few. It neglects the very young, the very old and the vulnerable--the poor. I guess I believe in a kind of feminist socialism which would change all this. I don't just want to see women occupying the same roles as men. I want to see relationships and social structures changed, more caring for the interests of others and the social implementation of this.

With her hopes for a feminist socialism and politically radical solutions, Adrienne recognizes that the rise of the Women's Movement and the political mood of the 1960s were closely connected. "Lots of women became involved with the radical Left in the sixties. But many, in becoming politically conscious, also saw that, as women, they were being fucked over. Any period of radicalism draws on women. During the sixties, women learned how to organize, how to work collectively, to speak out at meetings. We started out in demonstrations for the rights of blacks and against the war in Vietnam; women could identify with oppression. In the early sixties all those hard-nosed professors weren't so much against the war as their wives were. Women were the first ones to form groups against the war."

These were the beginnings of the Women's Movement. For the future, Adrienne sees a different but promising state of affairs. "Much of the group effort has dissolved. But, you see, one never felt that the Women's Movement consisted of prominent leaders or spokeswomen. Everyone was equal, all working together and changing in many individual ways. And this will continue to happen. When I think of those innumerable lives, altered in small but important ways, and of changes in conceptions of self, I feel very happy and optimistic."

Adrienne Rich is a person who has taken many small but exquisite steps in fulfilling her own large talent. Often she has had to dive into the "wreck" she refers to in her latest collection of poems (Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972), into a nether world of subconscious fantasies, psychic pain, and a bankrupted society. Out of the ruins, however, she has built a life of poetry, a life as a mother, a teacher, a woman, that has left here reasonably content. Contemplating the meaning of the title that heads up her latest volume, she answers a question with a question. "What do you think it means? Of course it's not any one thing, that wreck. An idea, an image like that works like a pebble thrown into water, rippling out into concentric circles. When you create an image with poetry, you can't do anything about it. Poetry is a metaphor, which doesn't mean that it isn't true or that it's a game. It's a very serious matter. In my own poetry, the personal becomes a metaphor for the public, and the public for the private. One thing reinforces another, and it's all a part of my life."