Adrienne Rich on ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’


At Work

Photograph by Robert Giard.

Adrienne Rich needs no introduction. One of the twentieth century’s most exhaustively celebrated poets and essayists, she counts among her many honors a National Book Award, a Book Critics Circle Award, and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. Robert Hass has ascribed to her work the qualities of salt and darkness, praising its “relentless need to confront difficulty.” But Rich’s latest collection, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, ranges from dismay to joy, the outraged to the erotic. Over e-mail, Rich shared her thoughts on poetry and power, the search for a more nuanced wartime aesthetic, and the meaning of the “woman citizen.”

Let’s start with the title, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve.

The book has an epigraph from Webster’s Dictionary: definitions of the verb “to serve.” It’s an interesting range of meanings, from the idea of obedient servitude to the authoritative (from law, the military, a prison sentence), to the meeting of another’s needs, to being of use. The title poem begins with an erotic moment registered in a world of torture and violence. It turns, midway, from the sensual and “poetic” to an official grammar, parsing violent policies as you might diagram a sentence in a classroom.

The poem was inflected, you could say, by interviews I was hearing on Amy Goodman’s program, Democracy Now!—about Guantánamo, waterboarding, official U.S. denials of torture, the “renditioning” of presumed terrorists to countries where they would inevitably be tortured. The line “Tonight I think no poetry will serve” suggests that no poetry can serve to mitigate such acts, they nullify language itself. One begins to write of the sensual body, but other bodies “elsewhere” are terribly present.

Do you see the poems in this book as being different from your earlier work? Where are the continuities, the ruptures?

I don’t see this book, really, in that way. My writing—and thinking—has been charting its way over many decades, formed in many ways. My third book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963) was, certainly, a break from previous work in its move from older prescriptive formats (as distinct, by the way, from actual form). That was in my early thirties.

As long as I can remember I have cared about the timbre, the phrasing of a poetic line. Ever since Snapshots, I’ve worked close to the pull and release of voices. Sometimes they’re conversational, sometimes they’re more like the dialogues or choruses of Greek tragedy, addressing conditions of urgency in a communal order or disorder. The voices may be individual, but they’re searching for a shared moral reality.

The music, the sound of words working together, has always mattered to me. But it’s not necessarily easy listening. It can be fractured, dissonant music, in the sense of Charles Mingus or Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” The poem “Reading the Iliad (As If) for the First Time” opens with the words, “Lurid, garish, gash.” I want the sense of physicality, flesh and blood, body language. I want the words to act physically on the reader or hearer.

Our ears, like it or not, take in so much in a day. Maybe some North American ears have trouble with poetry because of the noise from an aggressively voiced ruling ethos—its terminology of war, success, national security, winning and losing, ownership, merchandising, canned information, canned laughter. Poetry can be direct, it can be colloquial, it can be abrupt or angry, but it’s not that vacuous noise; it wants to unseat that kind of language, play other kinds of sound tracks.

Going back to the question: I can see, in my eighties, that my work has been a search for the means—the instruments—to make art from insistent concerns and desires that I couldn’t necessarily reach for in any other way. I wanted an awareness of the world as history, to put it largely—as made by human needs and minds and labors—and affections (and also by human cruelty and avariciousness). I started out in the early days of the cold war. As young people, we were indoctrinated with the fear of communism and the atom bomb—which, of course, our own government had already used. The first poem in my first book (“Storm Warnings” in A Change of World [1951]) reflects that anxiety—anxiety and sense of powerlessness. Relations of power, as I began to decipher them, have infused a great deal of my work over time—both poetry and prose. But poetry was where I could confront, perhaps transform, what I was experiencing and learning about the world.

There’s a poem from the mid-1950s in Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, “From Morning Glory to Petersburg”—titles from an encyclopedia volume—that suggests the effort to ask, as a conscious strategy, how do you make livable meaning out of separate bits of classified information? How to live with “facts” you can’t integrate? Well, one way was to integrate them is through poetry.

This collection seems more overtly political than some of your previous work. At the same time, it is deeply personal, especially when it explores the costs of speech and the creative act for the poet. Do the personal and the political go together for you? Have they always?

I’m not quite sure why you see Tonight No Poetry Will Serve as more overtly political than my other books. The split in our language between “political” and “personal” has, I think, been a trap. When I was younger I was undoubtedly caught in that trap—like many women, many poets—as a mode of conceiving experience.

In 1969 I wrote, “The moment when a feeling enters the body/ is political. This touch is political” (“The Blue Ghazals,” in The Will to Change [1971]). Writing that line was a moment of discovering what I’d already begun doing. Much of my earlier poetry had been moving in that direction, though I couldn’t see it or say it so directly.

In “Waiting for Rain, for Music” there are the lines “Straphanger swaying in a runaway car/ palming a notebook scribbled//in contraband calligraphy against the war/ poetry wages against itself.” What is this war?

I was imagining someone in a subway car, trying perhaps to write a poem “against war” as so many of us have done during and since the Vietnam era (and, historically, way back). But to be “against war” has come to seem too easy a stance. War exists in a texture of possession and deprivation, economic and religious dogmas, racism, colonialist exploitation, nationalism, unequal power. Who decides to make war? Who is destroyed in it? Who creates the rhetoric of “terror” and “democracy”? And so this poet in the subway has to write “in contraband calligraphy” against a poetry that makes “peace” seem all too easy or comfortable, war too morally simple. Poetry without a critical social vision, if you will.

What are the obligations of poetry? Have they changed in your lifetime?

I don’t know that poetry itself has any universal or unique obligations. It’s a great ongoing human activity of making, over different times, under different circumstances. For a poet, in this time we call “ours,” in this whirlpool of disinformation and manufactured distraction? Not to fake it, not to practice a false innocence, not pull the shades down on what’s happening next door or across town. Not to settle for shallow formulas or lazy nihilism or stifling self-reference.

Nothing “obliges” us to behave as honorable human beings except each others’ possible examples of honesty and generosity and courage and lucidity, suggesting a greater social compact.

Could you talk a bit about “Axel Avákar?” At times he seems like the self you’ve created to access your imagination as well as the deeper truths that get into poetry. Why is mutual betrayal so important in the “Axel” poems?

Interesting. I didn’t start out with an idea—I never do. The poem began with a dream in which I was reading down a long scroll-like poem signed “Axel Avákar.” That was “given”; I then began the real work on the poem. I don’t know where the name Axel Avákar came from.

I don’t think “mutual betrayal” is the subtext—rather, two figures, once somehow intimately connected, now separated, one addressing the other, meeting silence or a recorded message. There are missed dialogues, lost opportunities, danger, the question of who can rescue whom. It’s a densely layered scenario; I hope it resists reduction. I wanted a very visual, vocal sequence of places, emotions, situations. If it has a predecessor in my work, it might be “The Demon Lover” in Leaflets (1969).

Did you conceive of any of the poems in Tonight No Poetry Will Serve as direct replies to previous poems? For instance, I wondered about “You, Again” and “Diving into the Wreck.”

Well, no. But “You, Again” has a kind of geneaology of its own. “You” is a personified city—New York as I knew and lived it in the sixties and seventies. I’ve written a lot of poems from and of that place. I suppose “You, Again” has to do with a recurrent longing for return and restoration. But the city today is vastly changed from what it was between 1966 and 1978. It’s owned now by wealth and tourism.

I just reread James Baldwin’s novel, Another Country—a great New York novel set in the fifties. Baldwin sees the possibilities offered, the cruel defeats inflicted, the social and racial transgressions that sometimes make for survival. I recognize that city. And that’s not nostalgia.

You write in “Powers of Recuperation,” “All new learning looks at first like chaos.” Are you hopeful about the future?

Well, that poem begins, “A woman of the citizens’ party” and immediately a voice interrupts: “What’s that?” Implied is a forgotten history of radical citizenship, resistance, a “party” still existing but now banished, clandestine. Its former or future leaders are to be found living under bridges, communicating in codes, preparing another phase of history, a new learning. That woman might be a leader or a message-bearer, one of those who haven’t given up, who move organically with what’s required by new situations, seeming chaos.

The image at the end of the poem is from Dürer’s famous engraving, Melencolia I. It shows a woman, powerful in face and body, introspective, seated among various instruments of science and artisanship. She seems to be imagining—we don’t know what. Melencolia I refers to an old idea of the melancholy of the imaginative spirit—not sadness but a profound study of the world. I’ve had that engraving on my wall since I was in my teens.

So walking through the desolation of a built city, the woman citizen encounters a figurative planner of the “unbuilt place.” My hope is that these metaphorical creations don’t stay metaphorical for too long.