Little poetry is read and much less is written about it. So it comes as a rare interview to hear Adrienne Rich on what poetry is, should be. “I’m very much interested in the place of biography in poetry and in fiction, but I’m also interested in the place of fiction in poetry, and I think that there’s a tendency, at present, to read poems as autobiographical statements, documents, narratives — and to miss therefore a great deal that’s going on in them. If you ascribe each event to some actual event, if you ascribe each image, each relationship to some literal occasion, it seems to me that you run the risk of missing not only the poetry, but the fuller, richer, deeper aspects of the poems, which come not necessarily from the poet’s biography, but from what the poet has seen, heard, drawn into herself or himself from other lives,” says the poetess.
And yet, myths work both ways. At one level, myths empower, build fraternities. At another level, when they become the “ideal” they can also disempower. “…I think that it is perhaps that tendency that we have to try to correct the mythologies that we feel have harmed us, the mythologies that deny the strengths and the powers that women have passed onto women, that mothers have passed onto daughters. And these are very real, and we know that they are very real. But at the same time, there are other stories, and I feel as though there needs to be a corrective to the corrective, if you will. We tried in the early years of the feminist movement to look under and behind the myths, the legends that always depicted the stepmother as cruel, the bad mother, the myths in popular psychology of the evil mother, the evil mother-daughter bond. We tried to correct those, and in so doing, I think we unearthed a great deal that was real and important and useful. To idealise, to sentimentalise, to mythologise that — those powers, those strengths, those teachers — takes us into yet another place where I think we are disempowered.”
The poetess continues, “I’m one of the lesbians who came out through the women’s movement. And I don’t mean I wouldn’t have come out without a women’s movement, but it’s very hard to imagine the world without the women’s liberation movement at this point. However, in my own history, that was the point. It was a time of tremendous intensity among women — women of all kinds. There was a kind of intensity around the politics that was very profound and passionate. It was very moving and very exciting to see women taking their strength and taking hold of each other’s strength and bringing out the power in each other....”
Again, read her idea of disempowerment of women through idealisation with the following comment: “Male poets, even those who are ‘rational’, tend to sentimentalise love. The appearance of the woman in male poetry as occupying a certain place…women living the fullness of their lives are not really seen in poems…”
Rich said poetry is not biography and yet is she looking for facts in poetry? “Essentially poetry, if it is poetry, does not lend itself to simple readings, to oversimplifications — though people may try to read it that way. It seems to me that the essential nature of a poem is that there is ambivalence and ambiguity quivering underneath...and that there is tension, there is contradiction.”
The master stroke of the poetess comes when she talks of her collection of poems titled “Time’s Power”. “A long-lived relationship is about so many things. It is such a dense and complex process — always a process — and it’s not to be summed up. It’s not to be turned into some kind of vignette… We see it in that inevitability of time’s power, if you will.”
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.