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.