Adrienne Rich: Anger & Appetite

When I was in college and beyond, Adrienne Rich’s poetry was important to me. I responded to her anger. “The Will to Change” and “Diving into the Wreck” both had strong impacts on me, and made me think about gender, hypocrisy, and social injustice in new ways.

Of course, in those years, I was often berated as not being a “real feminist” because I have sex with men. For too many years, heterosexual women were told we “can’t” be feminists. Which is, of course, crap, and so much progress in gender equality was derailed because of the insistence that only lesbians could be feminists. We’re all paying for that now, which the right wing nutbags currently in power trying to bring us back to before the American Revolution, as far as human rights go.

But no matter what anyone else tried to tell me what I could or could not be (basically, I ignored them, did my own thing, and didn’t waste time at their meetings), I responded to her anger, to her words, to the images, and they made me think about daily experience in a new way, and helped me make decisions. The poetry helped me stand up for myself, instead of just taking it “not to make waves.”

Even before I read Adrienne Rich’s poetry, I had experience standing up for myself. In late teen/early college years, I was an office temp in and around classes. One Major Corporation (which now no longer exists, thank goodness), was filled with men who’d drink during lunch and then come back, drunk, and harass the secretaries (we were secretaries then, not “administrative assistants). They would breathe their alcohol breaths on us (I often wished I smoked, so I could flick a lighter and they’d go up), and handle the women at their desks.

I wasn’t having any. I finally, one day, decked the guy who was bothering me and walked out.

The temp agency took the side of the corporation. “That’s just how these executives behave” was their response, and that they didn’t want to lose the client.

I quit the agency, and worked for other temp agencies who actually looked after their workers. Had I been more savvy about labor laws, I would have filed with the Department of Labor, although at the time (late 1970s/early 1980s), it wouldn’t have done much good.

But when I read Adrienne Rich’s poetry, I knew I’d done the right thing.

I hadn’t read her in years. Somewhere, packed in the boxes of books still in my basement, I have those early volumes of poetry that helped me so much. But I’d taken some books out of the library, some of her later work. One, poetry, TONIGHT, NO POETRY WILL SERVE. The other, prose, A HUMAN EYE, a collection of her essays.

There’s still a great deal about social justice, thank goodness: “Ballade of Poverties”, “Emergency Clinic”, “Scenes of Negotiation.”

But my favorite is “Re-Reading the Iliad (As If) for the First Time”. When I was in middle school, we spent six to eight weeks on The Iliad. I loathed it. I remember throwing my copy out of the third floor window of the apartment. I don’t even remember why I hated it so much — I think I thought it was sexist. I didn’t like the characters. Whatever. I hated it. I re-read both the Odyssey and the Iliad a few years ago, when I took a class in Greek and Roman Mythology out of U Penn. I understood why I didn’t like it (still didn’t), but it didn’t evoke such a violent reaction!

The poem, though, made me remember how I felt in middle school, that first reading, and made me laugh as I remembered how strong my reaction was.

My favorite essay in A HUMAN EYE was “Dialogue and Dissonance: The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.” I’d reviewed one of her books of poetry for NEW PAGES years ago, and admired it. The essay, which discusses how their letters showed the way their relationship built and then declined, makes me want to read the book.

Literary discussion is a lost art. We post questions or snippets of ideas on social media; too often, when we get together, we talk about agents and contracts and marketing instead of the work. Far too many writers try to get connections on social media to do their work FOR them, everything from research to naming characters. (Aside: quickest way to turn me off your work is to ask people to name your characters on social media. That’s an intimate act between writer and character, and random people shouldn’t be involved. Another pet peeve is when I say I’m looking for a particular kind of book, trying to feed a hunger, and self-published authors start hawking their own–which are usually poorly written and not edited or copyedited). I’ve always longed for someone with whom to have actual literary correspondence, so I live vicariously through volumes of letters of those who have. The essay, once again, whetted my appetite.

Isn’t that what good writing is all about? Making the reader see differently? Whetting the appetite. That’s why I love good writing.

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