Even revolutionaries grow old. Now seventy, Adrienne Rich, the poet laureate of radical feminism, sees the future mostly in terms of her own past. “Looking backward / into this future” becomes the defining gesture of her new book, Midnight Salvage, the seventeenth collection in her long, distinguished career. As the title suggests, Midnight Salvage is a dark work, an unsparing analysis of the author’s own legacy of revolutionary advocacy.Rich, who has lived in Santa Cruz for the past fifteen years, enjoys–and also perhaps suffers from–a unique status in American poetry. While she is not our only major living poet, her reputation vastly overflows the poetry world’s small pond. Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, and Gwendolyn Brooks may safely be called major literary figures, but Rich alone ranks as a major cultural figure. No other living poet–not even best-selling Robert Bly–has made such a profound impression on American intellectual life.Rich’s preeminence, however, has come at a price. Around 1970, midway through her engagement with feminism, Rich‘s poetry changed. It grew or diminished–depending on the reader’s point of view–by becoming more overtly ideological. She still wrote about her own life, but now she portrayed it as an exemplary general story of contemporary women. The author’s “I” gradually became the collective and often partisan “we.”Many readers never forgave her transformation from lyric poet to feminist prophet. But Rich’s radical redefinition of herself attracted many new readers outside the coteries of contemporary poetry. She became our most controversial poet and also perhaps our most influential one, though ironically her impact was rarely seen on other poets. The writers who prized early Rich have mostly left late Rich to the academic theorists.Midnight Salvage will change no one’s mind about Rich. Her partisans will praise the depth and ardor of her meditations on social and psychological revolution. Her detractors will find ample evidence of decline in the book’s often disjointed poems and grim intellectuality. (Rich is too busy denouncing human folly ever to stop and enjoy it.)
What no one will fault is the poet’s intensity. If ever a writer fulfilled Walter Pater’s ideal of burning always with a “hard, gemlike flame,” it is Rich. She is a human acetylene torch intent on searing through oppression and convention. This wild intensity, however, often proves her artistic downfall. So keenly focused on the austere agenda of political transformation, she too often neglects the amoral pleasures of the imagination. On the barricades one communicates mostly by shouting.
The new book consists mostly of long sequences–loosely connected groups of short poems centered on a common subject. Significantly, Rich is at her best writing about someone other than herself. She is especially good at portraying the spiritual and psychological inner lives of revolutionary icons. The strongest new work ponders the life of surrealist poet René Char who fought with the French Resistance. Another arresting poem reflects on Tina Modotti, the Mexican photographer and activist, who becomes a heroic alter ego for the poet.
The great blind spot of old revolutionaries is the generation gap. They cannot quite grasp the passions of their own fiery youth no longer burn brightly for today’s young. At key moments in Midnight Salvage Rich falls into a sentimental political retrospection. The book’s final seventeen-page sequence, “A Long Conversation,” for example, contains whole paragraphs quoted from “The Communist Manifesto.” Once so disdainful of nostalgia, Rich now seems possessed by it.
There are still moments of lyric power in Midnight Salvage but not enough to save the book from didacticism and self-indulgence. Ironically, the writer Rich now most closely resembles is Ezra Pound, a political poet of wildly different creed. In his late Cantos, Pound, an experimental genius turned fascist, fell into earnest incoherence lit by occasional flashes of poetic brilliance. Like Pound, Rich is a major poet overburdened by the role of prophet. She remains an intellectual force, but she has almost vanished as a credible poet, and I for one lament the loss.
Review of Adrienne Rich’s Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998, first published in San Francisco Magazine (January 1999).