Friday, April 6, 2012


When I learned of Adrienne Rich's death on March 28, I went on an Adrienne Rich reading tear. What a courageous poet and woman she was. But here's something I think she got 100% wrong:

In her acceptance speech for the National Book Award, she said,

“Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard.”

For me, poetry is all of those things. And Adrienne, I wish I could tell you this: your poems have been those things for me. Like this one:

Diving into the Wreck
by Adrienne Rich

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
complete poem here 

I am loving all the poetic goodness filling the world so far this month! Don't forget to see the progress of our Progressive Poem, now showing at Mary Lee's A Year of Reading. And yay for the amazing and generous and talented Robyn who's hosting Poetry Friday Roundup at her blog Read. Write. Howl.  


  1. Diving into the Wreck was one of those poems that made me want to write ones, and showed me a way. Poetry can be a map, too.

    I'm so glad you've taken the time to celebrate Rich's life this way. I haven't found it possible, but maybe in summer, on the porch...

  2. Hi Irene, this was also one of the Adrienne Rich poems I marked - and thought about sharing for Poetry Friday the day I learned about her death. Thank you for beating me to it and sharing it so beautifully.

  3. And poetry is a piñata. Either that, or the stick we bust it open with. But for sure, it is a shower of unexpected goodies raining down on us.

  4. I, too, was moved to contribute a Rich poem for today's poetry Friday. She was such a complext poet, wasn't 't she...always giving you so much to think about.

  5. Thank you, Irene, for this perspective - and as always, your gut-level honesty! A meaningful tribute. Hope your trip this week was great.

  6. Thanks for this! I've read this poem a couple of times this week, and it's really a wonderful one.

  7. I think that Rich meant that poetry isn't designed to work only at the surface level, the way a lotion or a massage or aromatherapy would, and that it wasn't meant only to soothe us. She was so political I bet she wanted poetry to have some muscle, too. Hmmm... once she got through with saying what poetry wasn't, I wonder what she said it was? I'm going to go look that speech up - thanks for the thought-provoking post, Irene.

    1. I think you are right, Julie, and I appreciate your comment. I think her point was that poetry should illuminate. But what's wrong with a little healing lotion, a little blueprint? I think poetry can be many things. As poets we don't need to burden ourselves with this missive to illuminate/be political/whatever... of course if that's what you want to do (and sometimes I do), go for it! Ultimately it's a personal thing and poetry is valuable on all sorts of levels.


Your thoughts?