Review: Collected Poems 1950-2012

Welcome opportunity for Rich pickings


By Adrienne Rich
W W Norton, £33

As a child, Adrienne Rich dutifully copied out poems by Blake and Keats under the unerring eye of her distinguished Jewish father, pathologist Arnold Rice Rich. Her southern, Protestant mother, Helen sacrificed her career as a concert pianist and composer to nurture her family.

In 1950, W H Auden chose 21-year-old Rich's first collection of poetry, A Change of World as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. The poems, he observed, were: "neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs."

A life-time later, (marriage, motherhood, separation, husband's suicide, coming out as a lesbian and writing mesmerically), in 1997, Rich rejected the National Medal for the Arts, the highest artistic honour the USA could confer. She explained; "There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art - in my own case the art of poetry -means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage."

Charting her remarkable 60- year long career (she died in 2012), this meticulously produced volume is an apt testament to this great poet's lifetime's achievement in creating an aesthetic which "break(s) official silences" and voices: "the struggle for the self-determination of all women."

What is there to enrich a Jewish reader? To begin with, little known translations from Yiddish. In 1960, writing Readings of History, Rich gazes into a mirror and acknowledges a self,

"Split at the root, neither Gentile nor Jew,/ Yankee nor Rebel, born/ in the face of two ancient cults,/ I'm a good reader of histories." And then she asks sharply: "And you, /Morris Cohen, dear to me as a brother,/ when you sit at night/ tracing your way through your volumes/ of Josephus, or any/ of the old Judaic chronicles,/ do you find yourself there, a simpler,/ more eloquent Jew?/ or do you read/ to shut out the tick-tock of self,/ the questions and their routine answers?"

Poignantly, Rich remembers her dead Jewish grandmother, Hattie Rice Rich: "shopping/ endlessly for your son's whims" and "sobbing/ your one brief memorable scene of rebellion:/you didn't want to go back South that year…/ you had money of your own but you were homeless…"

In Sources (1981), confronting the Holocaust, she notes:

"The Jews I've felt rooted among/ are those who were turned to smoke".

What follows explores and complicates Jewish experience in poetry that is at once uncompromising, beautiful and illuminating: typical of this essential volume.

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