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Adrienne Rich: Poet, Politician and the Feminist of Wild Patience

May 21, 1989|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer

SANTA CRUZ — A "wild patience" has taken the women's movement this far, to borrow the title phrase from one of Adrienne Rich's poetry collections, a mix of enthusiasm and endurance that has allowed women to pile one little gain upon another. That patience kept the feminist movement alive and functioning at the grass roots level during the eight Reagan years, the poet says, and now it is emerging more publicly again.

Where feminism has been and where it is going are inescapable themes for one of America's pre-eminent poets. Rich, who lives in Santa Cruz when she is not off giving readings or teaching one term each year at Stanford University, may be feeling particularly reflective about feminism and its role in her poetry and her life these days. She turned 60 this month. And W. W. Norton has published a new collection of her poetry, "Time's Power," this month.

The most visible sign that the movement remains strong was the turnout of 300,000--or more--people in Washington last month in support of women's right to abortion. The march "attracted a huge amount of media attention because abortion arouses emotion," she said. But she added that the public needs to be aware that much more is going on as women work to secure reproductive rights--that is, everything from better prenatal care to reduction of unnecessary Caesarean section births.

Another sign of vitality, Rich said recently, is "the ever-increasing leadership of women of color." Women are giving vast attention to combatting racism in society, she said, and many met just last month on the campus of the University of Iowa to talk about what unites and what oppresses them. This focus is necessary, Rich explains, so that women can work together trying to resolve issues ranging from the quality of their children's educations to the seriousness with which their own views are taken.

"As a white woman, my world is informed the more conscious I am made . . . of the realities of other women different from myself." Speaking of these issues means speaking of politics. There are those poetry critics who still find Rich's work too political, as if, Rich interjects, one can separate politics from life. "What you see when you look out of your window is political and what you notice that you choose to put down on the page" is political.

"Some of the worst political poetry I know is written by white poets who go to places like the Caribbean on a two-week vacation and write poems about the beautiful bougainvillea and the palm trees and the beautiful women and choose not to see, choose not to write about or even consider the poverty and misery of those countries . . . . It would pass for being nonpolitical but I say it's political because that kind of poem not only excludes but distorts reality so frighteningly."

Too many Americans think art and politics don't mix. "You have art off on one side being serene and decorative and inspiring and graceful and many other things, and then you have politics, which is low-down and dirty and also which is inevitably deforming to art. This is not the view in a great many cultures."

People believe "poetry will lose its density and its complexity and its richness if it is informed by politics." In contrast, Rich thinks her own poetry has actually moved away from simplistic viewpoints through her involvement in politics.

Feminism, Rich argues, provides new working situations "where your ideas are not only tolerated and . . . allowed to be spoken but are carried on and picked up and amplified and where you're being stimulated by others who are like-minded but have different perspectives on the same reality. That is such a charge. It can be incredibly depressing to feel that you are the only person in a situation who is thinking these thoughts and that you are going to have to be, let's say, the Jew in the room or the lesbian in the room or the feminist in the room and they (the men) will listen to you with tolerance and go on doing business as usual.

"Politics enriches one's world view; it does not limit one's world view. When I say politics in this case, I am talking of the politics of opposition, the politics of empowering the disempowered."

Rich, one sees from her conversation and her writing, has "a dream of a common language." If her poetry has a single motivating impulse, it is "the drive to connect, to make communication with others, to extend a hand outward hoping that another hand will reach it, to make bridges. That making of connections is very important. It's crucial in my politics and it's crucial in my poetry."

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