Diving Into the Wreck: Reviewing the Reviewer

02/25/2013 05:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2013

The Nation Magazine's current poetry critic, Ange Mlinko, attempted recently to revise the reputation of the late poet Adrienne Rich (and her Later Poems: Selected & New, from W.W. Norton, 2012) in a wandering self-congratulatory gesture at literary analysis. Readers of this review ("Diagram This," February 18, 2013) may find it difficult to tell if Mlinko wishes to gingerly embrace Rich -- or kill her off with a Big Thinky Gun. Her review slips into a wobbly ballet of approach-avoidance, trotting out a few shaky critical strategies in an attempt to categorize Rich's late and early work. She is chiefly drawn to indeterminacy, a currently popular (particularly in academia) poetic "style" (borrowing from hard and soft sciences) that serves further as Mlinko's critical measuring tool. Indeterminacy and "play" inspire and flatteringly mirror a generation of poets whom Mlinko identifies as resistant to Rich, citing her influence on them as "weak" and hailing their playfully smug lack of syntactical coherency as superior to Rich's "earnestness" and "directness." (This comparison leads Mlinko further to hope that Rich's last work may someday be "edited down" to a "core" that possibly could survive in the playfully indeterminate future of literature.)

One thing is clear: A poet with ambitions like the ambitions of Adrienne Rich, will inevitably antagonize devotees of aesthetic strategies like "formal disjunction" and "equivocation" (even as Rich's poems are described repeatedly as "fragmented.) The half-developed ideas that abound in Mlinko's review indicate that she has read some Rich and a few other "greats" and has thought a bit and knows that strategic Wikipedia-ish quoting can cover gaps in knowledge or a bad intellectual limp. ("I also thought of Wallace Stevens' distinction...", "I thought of Keats writing..") In the spirit of these harkenings, she seeks to lump Blake, Shelley and Yeats together as "enduring political poets" (?) though she pauses to acknowledge, grandly, that these poets have "compensating visionary virtues." Whew, thanks -- "Horseman, pass by"!

This broad use of the term "political" reveals a "presentist" bent, that species of self-regard that can only view the Past in terms of the Now, a fixed immediacy that allows us to imagine that our own subjective sensibilities and our fleeting and entirely topical definitions of words like "political" might effectively define both poetic interpretations of events within the remove of history -- and the private sources of inspiration and rhetorical impulse.

As for "compensating visionary virtues" (those virtuous visionaries, always "compensating!"), enough said. Rejection of "political rhetoric" (an agreed-upon pejorative in our literary present, but one often without defining characteristics) typically ends up as an excuse to impose prevelant "intellectual" fashions on poems -- then on the ages of poetry. If "political" is meant to be understood, ultimately, as a lack of vitality or musicality, a deadness in language - then we might mount the argument differently -- aesthetically. Certainly our assured sense of the self-explanatory would alter.

Yet for Mlinko to say of Rich (after quoting Charles Bernstein's "parody" of "the genre") that she required a "check" on "the notion that any sincere, truthful poem is an effective poem," that this sort of poem usually ends up "speaking only to virtuous people persuaded of their own virtue" -- is to have arrived tone-deaf at the concert -- and to have missed examples of the most profound and moving uses of poetic rhetoric. To wit: "I write it out in verse/MacDonagh and MacBride/and Connolly and Pearse/Now and in time to be/Wherever green is worn/Are changed, changed utterly/A terrible beauty is born." (I thought then of Yeats writing... "Easter, 1916"!)

Then there is Mlinko's assertion that "Rich belonged to a tradition that collapsed that distinction between art and the world, imagination and reality. The fact that such poetry attracts large, committed audiences is not lost on either its proponents or its detractors. Even so, most poets are not willing to give up their perogative to be uncommitted: ambiguous, ambivalent, negatively capable and, yes, playful."

O those devil-may-care playful trickster poets -- lazily stretching in their negatively capable workout clothes! So different than the rest of us, worker-drone poets, dully collapsing the distinction between art and the world and imagination and reality! Does Mlinko really believe that poets like Rich (or Yeats, as just quoted) never offered themselves up to the aleatory in composing a poem -- as ANY POET does who imagines the world, or worlds, familiar and strange... even (as implied) while dreaming of attracting those "large committed audiences"? Excuse me, is she talking about a Springsteen concert or "open mic" at the bookstore?

Inevitably, Rich's personal history appears beneath this same blurred lens. In a hint at a causal relationship between the suicide of Alfred Conrad, her husband, and later sexual preference in Rich's life -- we read the following: "in the aftermath of the catastrophe, Rich came out as a lesbian." Setting aside the universally acknowledged impossibility of knowing anything about a marriage from the outside, or from years away in a tabloid future, let us glance at excerpts from a poem of Rich's from roughly the time of Conrad's suicide and then another from a later period -- just to entertain briefly what might be generously called a "tactless" implication -- from a poem called "Moving in Winter":

Their life, collapsed like unplayed cards,
is carried piecemeal through the snow;
Headboard and footboard now, the bed
where she has lain desiring him...

This poem IS its trauma. The regular gait of the four-stress line is rattled by Rich's use of the offbeat, oppositional rhythm of "headboard and footboard now", the iambic heartbeat of loss rendered in formal music, in terrible irony. Hardly a matter of "asbestos gloves," as Rich called form later -- yet this formal music attended Rich for the rest of her writing life. The terseness served as a kind of shorthand for that music. It was always there.

Here is "reality" -- and here "it" is transformed, though the imagination, into poetry. Rich wrote very little about her marriage or "the catastrophe," but, in both instances, she drew the poems, one formal, one not, from her heart.

Here is Rich, nearly 20 years after the death of Conrad, "From a Survivor":

Like everybody else, we thought of ourselves as special

Your body is as vivid to me
as it ever was: even more
Next year it would have been 20 years
and you are wastefully dead
who might have made the leap
we talked, too late, of making

Rich ends the poem with the lines that could serve as her lifelong directive to herself:

Which I live now
not as a leap
but a succession of brief, amazing movements

each one making possible the next

Mlinko observes that Rich's books sold spectacularly well -- yet she notes repeatedly, witheringly, that Rich's primary followers were "feminists" and quotes Cathy Park Hong, (to whom Rich once awarded a prize) as scornful of Rich's readership of "white bourgeois feminists who assumed their plight was universal."

News flash! Their plight is "universal" still! Is it possible to live in contemporary times and have failed to notice that violence against women of all ages and ethnicities is worldwide and endemic? But to be "presentist" is not to be, necessarily, empathetic.

Aside from her odd identification of certain poets as "white and Jewish" (including the name of one who is neither), plus attributing the famous quote about "Ideas" in poetry to Valery instead of (correctly) to Mallarme (Wikipedia strikes again!), AND bloopering the title of Rich's poem sequence "Twenty One Love Poems" as "Twenty One Love Songs" - there appears to be more disturbing "editing" intentions. In a recent letter to the editor (The Nation), the poet Marilyn Hacker and others protested the selective excerpting of Cathy Park Hong's essay on Rich. Mlinko portrays Hong as critically dismissive of Rich - in fact, a "pillar" of her argument against Rich's "directness" rests on this progressive argument in excerpting. Hong's essay, in reality, builds to an endorsement of Rich - and "her reawakening of my fatigued consciousness." The question is asked in the letter to The Nation: "How did Mlinko miss this"?

Rich did not "speak" only to "feminists" -- she spoke to all women -- and to men. How else explain the extraordinary sales figures of her books? How else explain the night she traveled with me to Bedford Hills Women's Prison in New York, in 1977, not long after her essay collection, Of Woman Born, was published? Adrienne Rich was one of the very few writers who accepted my invitation to read their work to inmates. Others were too busy or (if they admitted it) too afraid. I'd founded a prison writing program which brought (mostly young) poets, novelists, playwrights to Riker's Island and throughout prisons in New York state. As Rich climbed the icy prison hill -- moving slowly beside me, leaning on her cane -- I worried about how she would be received. She was going to be reading from and talking about "The Heart of Maternal Darkness," a chapter in Of Woman Born. She would be addressing women inmates, several of them in prison for violence -- against spouses, (who'd been abusive, often) and even against their own children. In a room filled with women who had challenged the law in a variety of ways, her subject retained the power to shock. "Why do women beat or kill their children?", she asked in the reverberating silence. She was not condoning this violence but investigating its sources. She was not speaking to "white bourgeois feminists" -- she was speaking to women of diverse backgrounds, and the majority were African American or Hispanic. They listened, rapt, to this small fierce woman as she spoke for several minutes -- and then, one by one, they began to ask questions and then they began to tell their stories. They didn't talk about nannies or doulahs, as the new young mothers Mlinko describes did -- differently inspired by the same book. They responded to the articulation of a darkness no one had ever explored with them before. Rich described her own journey, in poetry and life, as "exploratory" -- and she was now deep into the uncharted territory within a "sacred" institution, fearless and utterly engaging.

"The Vietnam War precipitated a crisis that shifted the foundations of her style as well as her life," writes Mlinko. Note that "as well as her life" -- having lost a husband, with three children to raise on her own, perhaps might have added the occasional sense of "crisis" to her life? And then the "newfound stridency": Rich could indeed be strident and angry in her poems -- just as she could be lyrical and musical. She was an authentic daughter of Blake, (whom she loved) -- a poet who wrenched her aesthetic at times to accommodate didactic passion. Mlinko denies that Rich had any musicality, dismisses her as forever terse and fragmented, even "halting." But her poems are filled with music -- it rises in the measure of her own voice.

Mlinko has not taken that measure, nor has she seemingly grasped the nature of Rich's exploration, which was lifelong. She made mistakes, but she kept moving.

I feel like them up there
exposed, larger than life
and due to break my neck.
"The Roofwalker"


When my dreams showed signs
of becoming
politically correct...
then I began to wonder.
"North American Time"

In terms of Mlinko's attempt to "re-track" how we view Rich -- it will take more than this review's observations, nearly all condescending, to take out the Great Outlaw Mother. Mlinko's review is a kind of funhouse mirror, wherein a giant is reduced in size near the blown-up posturings of pipsqueaks. "Play" is indeed important -- and Adrienne Rich was herself a player. The difference is, Adrienne Rich was playing for keeps.