Knowing Limits: Adrienne Rich in Rhyme.
If this story has been hard to question, it is because Rich often told it herself. In the essay "When We Dead Awaken," she criticized her early poems for failing to contend with the messiness of life: "I know that my style was formed first by male poets: by the men I was reading as an undergraduate--Frost, Dylan Thomas, Donne, Auden, MacNiece [sic], Stevens, Yeats.... In those years formalism was part of the strategy--like asbestos gloves, it allowed me to handle materials I couldn't pick up bare-handed" (1972: 21). She can now handle these materials directly, the sentences imply, having thrown off the formalist gloves, a view Rich (1995: xix) would later reiterate in her foreword to Collected Early Poems: "Many of [these poems| seem to me now a last-ditch effort to block, with assimilation and technique, the undervoice of my own poetry."
But the poems themselves do not quite affirm the narrative made of them. Rich's poetic work, that is, never reflects any simple opposition between imitative fixed forms and liberated free verse. For one thing, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie feature as widely as W. B. Yeats as models for her first two volumes, so the idea of formalism as necessarily patriarchal does not hold much sway there. When we do get to Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, moreover, Rich seems fully conscious that writing in free verse will not itself be sufficient to overcome the poems of her male predecessors: she will have to talk back to the men themselves who made their mark in open forms. The title poem "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," for instance, describes an aging belle who calls to mind the subject of both T. S. Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" (and her affinity for Chopin) and Ezra Pound's (1990: 57) "Portrait d'une Femme" ("Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea," full of "ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things"):
Your mind now, moldering like wedding-cake, useless experience, rich with suspicion, rumor, fantasy, crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge of mere fact. In the prime of your life. (CEP 145)
Here, Rich takes up her predecessors' work in order to take it apart, the poem performing a dissection of the cruelty with which she feels the women were depicted in those earlier works. The "knife-edge" glinting in the penultimate line thus belongs as much to Eliot and Pound as to mere fact, and, through imitation, it is turned back onto its makers.
Critics have argued that in Rich's early poems stylistic "conservatism" went hand in hand with a suppression of radical politics. For Claire Keyes (1986: 17), for instance, "the sensibility reflected in [these poems] is conservative not radical, tradition-bound rather than making its own traditions, feminine rather than female." And yet, these volumes rarely offer a simplistic correspondence between form and politics. As "The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room" amply demonstrates, fixed forms can be used to express any number of different political sensibilities. There, a wealthy uncle troubled by the mob gathering in the square outside his home tries to reassure his readers--and himself--but the mob's energy isn't easily contained, despite the stylistic formality:
These are follies that subside. Let us consider, none the less, Certain frailties of glass Which, it cannot be denied, Lead in times like these to fear For crystal vase and chandelier. (CEP 17)
The uncle's attempt to calmly consider the frailties of his world buckles under clauses ("none the less," "it cannot be denied") that interrupt and extend his sentence. The most telling detail comes in the stanza's off rhyme, which sends "let us" clinking uneasily against "less," signaling a fear for "crystal vase and chandelier" that the speaker concedes but also tries to control. Then, in the final stanza, Rich breaks decorum entirely:
Let us only bear in mind How these treasures handed down From a calmer age passed on Are in the keeping of our kind. We stand between the dead glass-blowers And murmurings of missile-throwers.
"We" stands ineffectually at the head of the sentence, leaving "the dead glass-blowers" and the "murmurings of missile-throwers" to collide head-on at the end of their lines. Where the rhyming couplet form had previously indicated an effort to maintain a delicate social decorum, now it dramatizes a conflict, between a conservative view of history and the political turmoil of the present.
Of course, rhyme has long been used for political ends that are far from conservative. It is essential to Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," for example, where the speaker spends much of the poem describing the war dead in gruesome detail ("the white eyes writhing in his face," "the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs" (1995: 55). Then, in the final stanza, he turns to an unnamed addressee to say that if they could see the battlefield carnage, they would not with such high zest tell "to children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Duke et decorum est / Pro patria mori." The sudden shift from the horrific reality of war to the elegance of a Latin quotation, in which war is packaged and sold, expresses outrage at those in power who purvey the central "Lie." The contrast between the harsh physical reality of the war and the language used to package and sell the war (dropped without further commentary) clinches the hypocrisy of the higher orders that play with the soldiers' lives. The rhyme (pointedly) yokes "glory" and "mori" together, making desire for fame itself a morbid pursuit.
This essay will argue that rhyme served as a major instrument for Rich in thinking about society, politics, and history. It does this in two ways: on the one hand, by bringing together words that have no substantive relation outside the bounds of a poem, a writer can suggest new relations between them. W. K. Wimsatt (1944: 323-24) argued precisely this when he wrote of rhyme's "counterlogical" forging of connections between words that otherwise have no etymological relation. This associative potential proved especially important for Rich when writing about the challenges of existing outside the norms of society, as well as the importance of historical memory. At the same time, she also exploits rhyme for its dissociative potential. If the repetition of sound can draw connections between words, that is, it can also highlight the semantic, etymological, or grammatical differences between them--most readily in near rhyme but also in identical rhymes. As Jurij Lotman (1971: 123) has noted, "Poetic speech, as opposed to colloquial speech, knows no absolute semantic repetition; the same lexical or semantic unit occupies a new structural position when it is repeated and consequently acquires a new meaning." For Rich, such a dissociative quality played an important role in poems about the social and political tensions lying beneath the surface of postwar consensus culture.
Reflecting a more capacious relation to form than many of her critics have claimed, Rich's rhymed poems thus established a set of rules she could play with and against, so that her rhymes are notable for their flexibility and nuance of thought. Her turn to free verse was in practice not a radical break from that earlier work but a continuation of it in other forms. This essay seeks to reestablish the importance of Rich's formalist poems to her thinking on history, society, and politics.
Self, Community, and Exclusion
Many of Rich's early poems deal with the tensions between marginalized selves and the structures of the dominant culture, exploring sometimes hidden divisions. One important way they do this is by playing with pronouns as end rhymes. In the first stanza of "A View of the Terrace," from A Change of World, for example, the speaker, with her lover, observes a tea party on the terrace, only to feel how differently they would have been received by the gathering:
Under the green umbrellas Drinking golden tea, There sit the porcelain people Who care for you but little And not at all for me. (CEP 12)
Rich tempts us, when reaching the fourth line, to complete "Who care for you" with "Who care for you and me." The stanza's neat trimeter rhythms, the clear pauses at the end of each line, not to mention the obvious potential for rhyme set up by the word "tea"--all these features work to persuade us we are being given a singsong pattern in ABCB, where "you" in the fourth line will be cleanly paired off with "me"--"who care for you and me"--and the whole stanza brought to an agreeable end (tea for you, and tea for me). But instead, Rich follows up "you" with a qualification rather than a companion, and so protracts the sentence over an additional line: "but little / And not at all for me." The ending introduces an awkwardness, the extension takes us by surprise, and the implied pauses in the syntax ("but little | And not at all | for me") do not quite match the metrical pattern (mostly iambic, though the pattern is discreet: "but little / And not at all for me").
Rich's awkwardness here reflects the speaker's marginalized position, and comments on the social imbalances she describes. While the beloved would presumably feel at home with the "porcelain people" below, the speaker feels the gap between their respective worlds too strongly and knows she could not accompany her lover without embarrassing them both. There is some vagueness as to whether that gap is a matter of class, or if some other prejudice (perhaps "you" and "me" are both women) might be at play. But in either case, the poem is less interested in the cause of these social tensions than in their effects. The clumsiness of "but little / And not at all for me" conveys the embarrassment that the poet would feel were she and her lover to actually join the group, disrupting the orderly patterns on which such gatherings depend.
For all the poet's rhythmic gaucheries in the last two lines, however, the rhyme scheme is altogether standard: a cinquain in ABCCB. One notable example of this pattern appears in William Wordsworth's (2008: 67) "The Idiot Boy":
Why bustle thus about your door, What means this bustle, Betty Foy? Why are you in this mighty fret? And why on horseback have you set Him whom you love, your Idiot Boy?"
"A View of the Terrace" does not break the rules of poetic form, then, and in fact follows them quite dutifully. Just as a cinquain can be made to suffer bulky syntax and clumsy rhythms, and still be recognizable as a cinquain, it can be made awkward for the exact purpose of thinking self-reflectively about failure, in poetry or in life, and achieve success on those terms. Rhyme thus accomplishes two political goals in this poem: it underlines the divisions that polite society would prefer to ignore, and it presents such differences as native characteristics, not as aberrations.
Margaret Dickie (1997: 188) has criticized Rich's early poems for being themselves quick to condemn the society they accuse of prejudice. They, too, "categorize the people they see"; their "judgments dare very little and reveal only their speakers' equivocal position" (189). There is some truth to the idea that in wishing to defend her position on the margins, the poet was tempted to think of herself as superior to the people at the center--turning the problem rather than working beyond it. Rich seems to have been aware of this and, in her second book, offers a more complex view of the tensions between self and society, without any of the self-certainty that risked overwhelming "A View of the Terrace.
"Lovers Are Like Children" offers a case in point. Written in rhyming triplets, it opens with a painting by Marc Chagall that depicts two lovers "mounting into blue" (CEP 123). To the speaker, this "discovery by two"
Is like the time when young and left alone, We touched the secret fringe of being one, Back of the playground full of Everyone.
The rhymes cannily enact the tensions among the individual, the couple, and their community. On reading the first line, we might assume that "alone" refers to the speaker. It is only in the following line that "alone" is revealed to include a "we": the solitude in question belongs to the two children, isolated from their playmates. The poet goes on to recall a moment when the two almost became "one," so that the plurality of the opening pronoun "we" finds itself (nearly) resolved in the unity of the pronoun at the end of the line. Their union soon comes under pressure, though, as "one" gets crowded out by a capitalized "Everyone," looming ominously at the end of the third line. What might have been a simple opposition between the individual and the couple, or the couple and society, is complicated by overlapping tensions between different forms of unity.
Rich returns to this rhyme in the poem's final lines, where, after comparing love to the confusions and mysteries of childhood, she sees it as
An exploration difficult and great As when one day beside the schoolyard gate, Straggling behind to glean a sunlit stone, One first perceived and knew itself as one. Now add this pebble to that early one.
The three instances of "one" at the end of this stanza, two of which are line-ending, all carry different meanings, and these meanings are further troubled by the ambiguities of the stanza as a whole.
In the concluding tercet, the second line uses two senses of "one": the indefinite pronoun (to indicate that the experience is universal), and then the adjective (to express the unity of this self-perceiving individual). In the third line, the "one" presents a puzzle. We might read it as going back to the "sunlit stone" the child was "straggling" to get, or it could refer to the "one" that begins the preceding line. In a poem about pairs and individuals, perhaps the most likely reading is that the final "one" refers to the lover grafted onto the bounded unit of the single self--though that would also leave us with still more questions: what effect does the addition of a pebble have on "that early one"? Will the couple make a new unit that can be truly thought of as "one," or will each remain distinct? What's clear is that the addition of a pebble disrupts the poem's cumulative logic.
The ambiguities of Rich's ending also reinforce both the tensions between the poem's various uses of "one" and the tensions within the word itself. As a pronoun, "one" can refer both to a singular entity and a universal phenomenon; the memory described is the poet's own, but it is also something she believes everyone has experienced. Yet the universality of that phenomenon (everyone discovering themselves in childhood) must then be squared both with the sense of "one" at the end of the second line, as an individual, bounded unit, and with the social unity of "Everyone," which she finds coercive. How does the universal applicability of a "one" differ from the social cohesion of an "Everyone"? The poem prompts us to think about these issues, but does not resolve them. "Lovers Are Like Children" is a far more daring poem than "A View of the Terrace" precisely because, going beyond a simple critique of an exclusionary society, it offers a complex inquiry into self, society, and community.
Poems of Exile
The best of Rich's early poems, Helen Vendler (1980: 246) writes, focus on "homelessness, with its accompanying ache of filial nostalgia," a condition Rich often poses as one of exile, both literally (to examine the interior life of the traveler, expatriate, and immigrant) and figuratively (as a metaphor for social alienation itself). Near rhyme is crucial in such poems.
In "By No Means Native," for example, the jarring music of near rhyme helps address the linguistic difficulties encountered by exiles who must learn a new language. The poem begins with the lines
"Yonder," they told him, "things are not the same." He found it understated when he came. His tongue, in hopes to find itself at home, Caught up the twist of every idiom. (CEP 13)
Even as the first couplet offers a perfect rhyme, it comments on disjunction: things are indeed not the "same," as that word turns into "came" in the following line. The rhyme also highlights another tension in the couplet--between the forward-looking nature of the admonishment ("things are not the same" where you are going) and the backward-looking that follows ("when he came"); the sense of being caught in between. This sets up the bolder linguistic disjunction of the second couplet, which attempts to address the tortuousness of speaking in a foreign language. The exile has "caught up" every idiom, but each phrase has also proved to be a contorted "twist," a challenge to the tongue. Thus, at the stanza's end, the word "idiom" hits with pointed awkwardness on a near rhyme with "home." Of course, Rich's near rhyme also expresses a naturalizing impulse, much like that in "A View of the Terrace": in the context of the world of poetic rhyming, the rhyme on "home" and "idiom" remains perfectly correct, so a musical pairing that would be considered ill-fitting in everyday conversation reveals itself perfectly native within the realm of poetry. But Rich sees the loss that a perfect naturalization would entail, and insists on the challenges posed by a new language:
He learned the accent and the turn of phrase, Studied like Latin texts the local ways. He tasted till his palate knew their shape The country's proudest bean, its master grape. He never talked of fields remembered green, Or seasons in his land of origin. (13)
The account of the exile's self-education is delivered in graceful pairs of perfect rhyme--until the final couplet shifts from what he has learned to what he has learned not to discuss, and "green" collides uneasily with "origin." A full rhyme would have smoothed over his loss, treating it as just another part of his education; near rhyme insists on that loss and registers, in the discord of its music, the difficulty of suppressing the memories that bring him sustenance. In other words, the function of rhyme here is to emphasize difference at a time when the pressures of conformity threaten to overwhelm it.
The poem comes to a resolution of sorts when it imagines the exile learning to be one of those "who pick their fruit no matter where it grows, / And learn to like it sweet or like it sour / Depending on the orchard or the hour" (14). To accept a state of permanent exile and adapt to any situation seems to be the only solution to his problem. But in the final lines, near rhyme again helps complicate that solution:
By no means a native, yet somewhat in love With things a native is enamored of-- Except the sense of being held and owned By one ancestral patch of local ground.
For Langdell (2004: 22) the lines offer a genuine resolution for the exile's predicament: "The perfect rhythm, meter, and half rhyme of the poem's final couplet counterbalance the odd compromises of the tourist or exile." It seems to me, though, that the near rhyme actually prevents the final couplet from offering a simple resolution. Much as in the first stanza, near rhyme here serves as a point of emphasis, drawing our attention to the latent discord in the poem. The specific challenge posed by this couplet has to do with how we should understand the importance of the one thing the exile could not achieve. Either the native's sense of ownership amounts to a minor and undesirable feature the exile can happily do without, or it constitutes the one essential sentiment that puts the entirety of his happiness at risk. The dash either brackets off a detail that, while not entirely negligible, is of relatively little importance; or it dramatically introduces a fact intended to change our whole impression of the exile's new life. Similarly, being "held and owned" can be read either as coercive and unpleasant (natives are passively subject to their patria; not so with the exile) or as warm and enviable (natives have a sense of belonging the exile abandoned when he left home). And the words "one" and "patch" in the second couplet line can denote either narrowness or intimacy.
Through such ambiguities, Rich poses the desirability of integration for the exile as an open question. And it is partly by means of rhyme, in its range from full to near, that she reflects on the promise and dangers of assimilation, the loneliness that comes from being different, but also the freedom that difference offers from the pressures of belonging. Importantly, even perfect rhyme does more than merely suggest the conformity the exile escapes by failing to integrate. While lines such as "He learned the accent and the turn of phrase, / Studied like Latin texts the local ways" have a cleanness that can grate, they also suggest an authentic pleasure in the exile's success.
Rich returned to the question of being a stranger in her second book, turning from third person to first in order to describe her own experience as a traveler in England. "The Wild Sky" begins with a view from the window of her train of the landscape she sees as a repository of history, "softened in a water-colour light / by Constable," rendering the English countryside as "gentle," "intimate," and "complaisant" (CEP 78). Though here time "has worn the edge of wildness" from the air, this landscape also calls to the poet's mind her own less accommodating land:
And I remember that unblunted light Poured out all day from a prodigious height-- My country, where the blue is miles too high For minds of men to graze the leaning sky.
Though the "prodigious height" of American skies is set against the modern horizons of England, it is significant that Rich introduces her native landscape with an "and" rather than a "but." By intimating a continuity, Rich sets up a more pointed interior drama:
Men there are beanstalk climbers, all day long Haunted by stilts they clattered on when young. Giants no longer, now at mortal size They stare into that upward wilderness. The vertical reminds them what they are, And I remember I am native there.
Nick Halpern (2003: 193) observes that this poem "awakens an appetite for symmetry and then, in particular, fails to satisfy it," and we can add that that asymmetry depends largely on Rich's careful play with rhyme. As the boys grow into men and take stock of their place in the universe, the slight gap between "long" and "young" widens, as the distance in sound between "size" and "wilderness" renders the distance between the men and the sky as unbridgeable. The stanza then concludes with a potent off rhyme that works two ways. On the one hand, the final couplet unites the traveler and her compatriots back home, as the distance that reminds the American men of "what they are" also reminds the poet that she, too, belongs "there." On the other, the off rhyme also sounds the distance between the poet and those she has left behind, so while they share a sense of disjunction (between earth and sky, home and abroad), that does not constitute a solid ground for community. If "The Wild Sky" extends "By No Means Native" by considering the challenges of feeling at home anywhere--not just abroad but in one's native land--by means of off rhyme both poems insist, again, on the persistent tensions between self and place.
Visions of History
Taken as a group, these poems reveal several political functions of rhyme in Rich's early poetry. Her work is "revolutionary," Marianne Whelchel (1984: 57) suggests, in the way it offers "alternatives to currently existing social structures and personal relationships." In this, it performs another political function, emphasizing how the dominant culture works to suppress those alternatives, constructing a conventional history premised on forgetting. Indeed, that forgetting poses a radical threat to the development of a just society is one of the central political ideas of Rich's early work. If rhyme can create a network of associations within a poem, that is, it can also argue for the importance of historical memory.
"Letter from the Land of Sinners" uses rhyme toward that very end. The poem takes the form of a correspondence from an allegorical country that has been "blasted," where no fish swim in the rivers, and no seed will grow. The third stanza (of four) focuses on an act of rebellion some time in the past:
The old lord lived secluded in his park Until the hall was burned Years ago, by his tenants; both have learned Better since then, and now our children run To greet him. Quail and hunter have forgotten The echo of the gun. (CEP 89)
The lord and his tenants are figured as hunter and quail, though since the central event of the stanza is the burning of the lord's hall, perhaps in this miniature allegory it is the tenants who are the hunters. Perhaps past roles have been forgotten, since they made their peace. But rhyme works against the country's desire to forget. "Gun" echoes back to "run" (in uncomfortable proximity to the children) and then, through off rhyme, back further to "learned" and "burned." Such associations disturb the poet's claim that social harmony has been achieved, that "both have learned / Better since then." Still lingering in the park, the ghost of past injustices threatens to pull lord and tenants back into their former strife. It is precisely Rich's point, then, that a peace premised on forgetting can only ever be fragile.
Elsewhere, Rich examines a dangerous nostalgia for a past imagined as a place of individual happiness and social harmony. "Pictures by Vuillard" opens with a grand flourish--"Now we remember all"--and the rest of the first stanza, in describing the lush beauty of Vuillard's paintings, offers them as representations of an ideal past: "We are led back to where we have never been." Introducing a sharp turn, in the second, final stanza, the poet claims that Vuillard's admirers are also "the destined readers of Stendhal" and, as such, they are confronted with the gap between the idealized world of Vuillard's pictures and the imperfections of present-day realities. If, on a first reading, the last four lines might seem to justify the escapism offered by certain forms of art, like Vuillard's, the off rhyme suggests otherwise:
Yet at this moment, in our private view, A breath of common peace, like memory, Rustles the branches of the wild pear-tree-- Air that we should have known, and cannot know. (64)
Especially in a context of the poem's perfect rhymes to this point, the off rhyme of "view" and "know" marks a significant break. This disruption is compounded by the fact that for the final verb to rhyme perfectly, it would have to be conjugated in the past tense, as something that was at one time experienced: "Air that we should have known, and knew." Declining the perfect rhyme, Rich insists that an idealized past never really did exist. No matter how much we may think ourselves entitled to a common peace, it remains a fantasy.
If, in these early poems, Rich can be said to abide by any historical model, it is that of history as a continuous but mutable line--the present formed by the past but not strictly bound by it. This sets it against a revolutionary model of history, defined by radical breaks. One of the strongest expressions of Rich's historical vision appears, unexpectedly, in "A Walk by the Charles"--unexpectedly, because the poem's chief focus would appear to be on individual mortality rather than broader concerns of community or nation. And yet, the poem's imagery nonetheless evokes those concerns.
In the first of its three stanzas, the poem presents a landscape in which, though it is haunted by mortality, everything seems for a moment "to hold its breath." The oarsmen are "always young" and, though their love is gone, the lovers still stand together. In the second stanza, the poet reminds the oarsmen that they will reach the end of the river, and that the lovers will eventually speak of death. Keeping to her theme, though broadening the purview to a universalizing "we" in the third stanza, the poet muses that no matter our evasions, we must eventually look up to the sky and recognize our mortality. Two rhetorical questions follow: "Why else upon this bank are we so still? / What lends us anchor but the mutable?" (116). It is the rhyme here that does much of the philosophical work. As "still" turns into "mutable," the stillness of contemplation is revealed as itself unfolding in time; the metamorphosis accomplished from one line ending to the next is held in tension with the stability of the couplet structure, the second line both transforming what has come before and fulfilling the predictability of an already known form. If, as Susan Stewart (2009: 30) has it, "lyric process is propelled by the sounded repetition of sameness and difference, of rhymes thrown forward as both moving line and anchor," we can see how, for Rich, rhyme moves things forward even as it establishes the stability of repetition and sameness--the solidity of a pattern. Her rhyme, that is, looks both forward and back, and holds to through it all.
The stanza's final lines clinch the historical analogy. After the poet implores the young lovers to break away from each other and accept their fate, she then turns to the poem's other important figures:
Young oarsmen, who in timeless gesture seem Continuous, united with the tide, Leave off your bending to the oar, and glide Past innocence, beyond these aging bricks, To where the Charles flows in to join the Styx. (CEP 116)
The Charles flowing to the Styx marks a journey into the future (an inevitable death) but also into the past, from present-day America to Ancient Greece. Whichever way the journey runs, Rich maintains stillness and mutability in balance. The oarsmen are "united with the tide"--the flow of time and history--but, while their gestures may be "timeless," this reminds us that they themselves are not, that when they complete their journey, others will take their place. Taken as individuals the rowers "seem" continuous, but taken as representatives of a larger group they are indeed timeless.
Crucially, Rich does not argue for a complete preservation of the past. At the same time, ultimately Rich calls for accepting those turns that lead into the future. The people along the Charles hold their breath, but only for a moment, and then the poet calls on the lovers to let go of one another at last and the oarsmen to surrender and "glide." Nor is that dynamic unique to her early writing. Though often described as revolutionary, Rich's later poetry and prose usually speak not of a sharp opposition between constancy and change but of a complex play between them, as when, in the essay "Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life," she writes that "the dialectic between change and continuity is a painful but deeply instructive one, in personal life as in the life of a people" (1986: 143-44).
While many of Rich's critics have argued that traditional forms curtailed her burgeoning radical sensibility, a close look at her first two volumes thus reveals a more complicated picture. Sometimes rhymes affirm bonds, both between people and between historical periods; other times they help represent the disjunctions that he beneath the surface of her own postwar consensus culture. At its best, rhyme provides Rich with a poetically expressive analog to the social, political, and historical relations Rich wished to explore even in her earlier work.
Rich after Rhyme
Though she turned to free verse in 1963, Rich continued to explore the concerns she had taken up in rhyme. "Prospective Immigrants Please Note" (2016), from Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, for example, recalls "By No Means Native" in addressing a potential immigrant and describing the consequences of deciding whether or not to go through "this door" into a new country. With its predecessor, the poem shares both a deep sympathy for the immigrant and a profound ambivalence about the decision itself. As she advises, "If you go through / there is always the risk / of remembering your name," and where we might have expected the memory of one's origins to comfort, Rich is alert to the "risk" that the persistence of the past might stir homesickness or perhaps provoke bigotry in others. But the poem also considers that, if "you" don't go through the door, "Much will evade you, / at what cost who knows?" Having considered the complexity of the question of going through the door, the poem ends without resolving it: "The door itself / makes no promises. / It is only a door." Rather than simply defending immigration to an American audience who may feel hostile toward new arrivals, then, the poem stays true to the complexities faced by the prospective immigrant.
Though Rich abandons rhyme, she does continue to probe the tensions between self and community, by playing on pronouns, as she did in earlier work, like "Lovers Are Like Children." "In Those Years," from Dark Fields of the Republic (1995), begins by imagining how Rich's generation will one day be remembered:
In those years, people will say, we lost track of the meaning of we, of you we found ourselves reduced to / (CP 755)
This poem responds to the familiar criticism that identity politics promote narrow interests ("I") over both those of society ("we") and altruistic concerns for other members of that society ("you"), a charge the poem tries to preclude with its own use of "we." In one way, then, the poem defends a vision of community defined by personal identities rather than universals. But this does not quite resolve the tensions between "I" and "we," between the individual and the group to which that person belongs by virtue of an individual characteristic, a tension that emerges at the poem's end, where the "dark birds of history" swoop "into our personal weather," a space "where we stood, saying I." Rich's communities are here caught between "we" and "I." Even as she defends the need for the first-person plurals accorded by identity politics, Rich remains ambivalent about these conceptions of identity, and works toward a new "we" as a function of history. Though narrower uses of the word had become necessary at that moment for her generation, she foresees a future when this view of community will seem reductive. Indeed, Rich's commitment to community in so many of her poems is often complicated by an equivalent commitment to difference, solitude, separateness, even individuality. From "Yom Kippur 1984":
I am trying to say that to be with my people is my dearest wish but that I also love strangers that I crave separateness. (CP 635)
This tension animates her work in both rhyme and free verse.
As with her play with pronouns, though Rich abandoned rhyme, she remained attentive to her lines' shape and music, as if mindful of Eliot's (1975: 34-35) argument in "Reflections on Vers Libre": "Freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation." "Diving into the Wreck" (1963), for example, is structured by musical association and dissociations, unfolding through careful patterns of sound. In the final stanza, the first six lines alternate between two and three stressed syllables, until the last two lines first syllabically diminish, and then expand:
We are, I am, you are (3) by cowardice or courage (2) the one who find our way (3) back to this scene (2) carrying a knife, a camera (3) a book of myths (2) in which (1) our names do not appear. (3) (CP 373)
Like "Letter from the Land of Sinners," this is a poem about the danger of erasing or forgetting history, though it is more specifically concerned with the histories that have gone unrecorded. After a pattern of twos and threes, the reduction to a line with a single stressed syllable suggests an absence, an absence not redressed in the final trimeter line where the slight expansion is undercut by its semantic content. And the shift from "are" (the first line-ending word in the stanza) to "appear" (the last) reinforces this effect: whether or not it qualifies as rhyme, the musical association linking those two words manifests the danger of letting affirmations of selfhood slip back into oblivion--into a book where "our names do not appear," and where the sound of "are" itself disappears into "ear." Without such musical and metrical effects, this stanza might be read as a simple affirmation, too sure of its own success. Rich's sound and rhythm keep the risk firmly in play.
Reading Rich's early and late poetry side by side thus encourages us to revise the usual story of her artistic development. Far from a false first step, or a parenthetical moment set off from her "real" work as a writer, Rich's early poems matter both for what they accomplish on their own terms and for how they pave the way for the later work for which she is most lauded. Perhaps it is a fondness for narrative breaks and turns that has diverted attention away from her early creative output and, in doing so, has obscured the view of the wholeness of her work and thinking--of a sensibility remaining true to itself across time. If we look closely, we can see that in her first two books Rich wrote poems as deeply invested in challenging limits as was her work of the 1960s and after. Rich's open verse line was in important ways grounded in poems that found expressive range precisely in and through constraints.
Florian Gargaillo is assistant professor of English at Austin Peay State University. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Modern Language Quarterly, Philological Quarterly, Essays in Criticism, Journal of Modern Literature, and Journal of Commonwealth Literature. He is currently at work on a book about contemporary poetry and the cliches of public speech.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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