A Review: Adrienne Rich’s Tonight No Poetry Will Serve

Adrienne Rich is one of my favorite poets, though I did not discover her until my second year of college (shocking, I know!).  I found her a little late in the game, I admit, but I have done my upmost to catch up since then, and I have bought/borrowed/read 15 of her publications so far (that includes both her poetry and her essay collections).  She is not only a magnificent poet but a staunch supporter of all the arts, and an important activist for anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements.  I admire her greatly not only as a writer but as a person.  Therefore, I would like to offer up a very quick review of her newest volume of poetry, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve.

To give just a little background: Adrienne Rich (b. 1929) had her first volume of poetry, A Change of World, published in 1951 when it was picked by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award.  She married Alfred Conrad in 1953 and had three sons.  In the ‘60s she joined anti-war, civil rights, and feminist activism.  During this time, she grew increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage.  She and her husband split in 1970, and in October of that year, her husband shot and killed himself.  A year later, Rich came out as a lesbian, and became one of America’s most vocal and prolific feminist activists and writers.

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve (2011), Adrienne Rich’s 29th publication to date, is a stark, passionate-yet-controlled exploration of a society that has been, for better or worse, irrevocably changed in the 21st century.  The subject matter of this collection ranges far and wide, from her continued urgent focus on women’s issues to her reflections on war, from her relationship with language and poetry, to the complications of identity.  It encompasses, as the book jacket states: “partings and reconciliations, solidarities and ruptures, trust and betrayal, exposure and withdrawal.”  What it occasionally lacks in the musicality of Rich’s early works (which I occasionally miss, rightly or wrongly), it makes up for with its sharp, intense tone and its unblinking, unapologetic, honest, analyzing gaze.  The poetry retains the bite that Adrienne Rich has become known for.  And her poetry is, as ever, highly political – charged and daring in a way that few poets are (or were when she began, in any case, more poets dare to be political now than they ever used to).  Even after 29 publications and more than 50 years of writing, her commitment, intensity, and daring have never yet wavered.  And I believe they never will.

Below are two poems from Tonight No Poetry Will Serve:

“Tonight No Poetry Will Serve”:

Saw you walking barefoot

taking a long look

at the new moon’s eyelid

/

later spread

sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair

asleep but not oblivious

of the unslept unsleeping

elsewhere

/

Tonight I think

no poetry

will serve

/

Syntax of rendition:

/

verb pilots the plane

adverb modifies action

/

verb force-feeds noun

submerges the subject

noun is choking

verb    disgraced    goes on doing

/

now diagram the sentence

*****

“The Ballade of the Poverties”:

There’s the poverty of the cockroach kingdom and the rusted toilet bowl

The poverty of to steal food for the first time

The poverty of to mouth a penis for a paycheck

The poverty of sweet charity ladling

Soup for the poor who must always be there for that

There’s the poverty of theory poverty of the swollen belly shamed

Poverty of the diploma mill the ballot that goes nowhere

Princes of predation let me tell you

There are poverties and there are poverties

/

There’s the poverty of cheap luggage bursted open at immigration

The poverty of the turned head, the averted eyes

The poverty of bored sex of tormented sex

The poverty of the bounced check the poverty of the dumpster dive

The poverty of the pawned horn the poverty of the smashed reading glasses

The poverty pushing the sheeted gurney the poverty cleaning up the puke

The poverty of the pavement artist the poverty passed-out on pavement

Princes of finance you who have not lain there

There are poverties and there are poverties

/

There is the poverty of hand-to-mouth and door-to-door

And the poverty of stories patched-up to sell there

There’s the poverty of the child thumbing the Interstate

And the poverty of the bride enlisting for war

There’s the poverty of prescriptions who can afford

And the poverty of how would you ever end it

There is the poverty of stones fisted in pocket

And the poverty of the village bulldozed to rubble

Princes of weaponry who have not ever tasted war

There are poverties and there are poverties

/

There’s the poverty of wages wired for the funeral you

Can’t get to the poverty of the salary cut

There’s the poverty of human labor offered silently on the curb

The poverty of the no-contact prison visit

There’s the poverty of yard sale scrapings spread

And rejected the poverty of eviction, wedding bed out on street

Prince let me tell you who will never learn through words

There are poverties and there are poverties

/

You who travel by private jet like a housefly

Buzzing with the other flies of plundered poverties

Princes and courtiers who will never learn through words

Here’s a mirror you can look into: take it: it’s yours.

*****

It used to be that poetry was considered an inappropriate place to discuss something as practical and important politics, and vice-versa that politics was an unworthy topic for something as beautiful and important as poetry.  In the last few decades this stance of changed considerably, and now quite a few poets are willing, able, and even eager to take on the subject of politics in their poetry.  But when Adrienne Rich first got started, it was a daring, even crazy thing to do, at least for a woman poet.

How do you feel about the convergence of politics and poetry?  And, more specifically, how do you feel about Adrienne Rich’s poetry – either what you’ve read here, or what you’ve read elsewhere?

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2 thoughts on “A Review: Adrienne Rich’s Tonight No Poetry Will Serve

  1. I think you already know this, but Adrienne Rich is my favorite poet! Of all time! I use “The Fact of a Doorframe” as my bible. Her writing shaped me so much when I found her book on a shelf in the NYU bookstore. I mimicked her writing all senior year, and wrote at least 10 papers on her in college, the largest being my semester paper on Rich’s book about motherhood, “Of Woman Born.” She is never afraid to write about the “monstrous” in life and for that I admire her and hope to be as outspoken as her. Great recommend! What I wouldn’t give for an interview with her!

  2. I agree! I would love to do an interview with her. That would be amazing. She’s so brilliant and so brave. “Of Woman Born” is a great book too.

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