SEPTEMBER 6, 2021
WHILE ED PAVLIĆ’S recently published study of Adrienne Rich’s poetry runs about 200 pages, their 12-year weekly correspondence lasting until Rich’s death in 2012 amounts to much more.
The two first met when Rich selected Pavlić’s Paraph of Bone & Other Kinds of Blue for the 2001 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. They became friends and informal writing colleagues, exchanging poems and letters multiple times a week and occasionally meeting in person. Though it would be natural for an English professor like Pavlić to have immersed himself in Rich’s compelling catalog during these years, he told me that he preferred instead just to live in the moment of ongoing organic connection. As a result, Pavlić likely enjoyed as intimate a window into Rich’s late-stage poetic process as anyone else in her life.
In Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes, Pavlić focuses more on this later work, which has received far less critical attention than her renowned poetry from the 1960 to the ’80s. Pavlić traces what he calls a series of relational solitudes, a perhaps paradoxical term that represents a tension between Rich’s early training in the introspective lyric tradition, and a later consuming focus on relationships and the intertwining, often excruciating connections in American life between private intimacies and political oppressions. Pavlić analyzes how Rich affirms that the interpersonal can save us, but the undercurrents of these political forces threaten to injure and even destroy our bonds, especially when we fail to build them across class, race, gender, sexual, and ethnic identities.
In our wide-ranging conversation, Pavlić accented Rich’s optimistic vision, embodied in the title of her 1978 volume, The Dream of a Common Language. As Pavlić states here, Rich affirmed that “the energy of living relation can be a powerful model for opposing political cynicism and imagining emancipated political circumstances.”
Pavlić is a professor of English and African American studies at the University of Georgia and the author of 11 books that include critical studies, fiction, and poetry, most recently Let It Be Broke.
We spoke in April by Zoom between San Francisco and Athens, Georgia.
ERIK GLEIBERMANN: You emphasize how Rich did not look to aloneness in the lyrical tradition as a source of poetic truth. Early in her career, especially in the 1960s, she moved away from identifying with introspection, seeing it as isolating and linked to a damaging patriarchal separation from the world. Can you say something about how she evolved during this early period?
ED PAVLIĆ: I was trying to take the idea, partly from Wordsworth, of the lyric as an inward-looking device, a space apart from the things in the world that constrain us, believing there is a freedom there. But for Rich, that place of being alone itself becomes a constraint. After college, she was soon married and had children and that experience began to suggest to her that the space of being alone in unbroken spans of time to think was a masculine space, something that men had carved out only for themselves. Clearly no woman with children in the world of the 1950s could come up with that. She had already established a writing practice at this point. In her third book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, she starts to reckon with this, asking what if we begin to write poems not from some universal abstracted space, which turns out to be a kind of middle-class, landowning, man’s project, but of the life of a working woman. Some of these early poems look back at the masculine in images of her husband and even of her sons who were young children at the time. In “The Ghost of a Chance,” from 1962, she’s looking back from what would become feminist consciousness at a man trapped in that masculine place, where the relations are inverted. We think of a woman put upon by the duties of wife and motherhood in relation to a man who is orchestrating these relations or on whose behalf the world is orchestrating them. But here you see the woman looking on and pulling for the man to get himself out of that place of seclusion. And he can’t. He’s swept back into it. In the first three books of Rich’s career, we see poem after poem, year after year, of the search for a sense of reciprocal relation that is thwarted. It’s not until her poetic persona is able to make it through several stages of breakdown that she finally in the mid-’70s is able to come up with images where relation is reciprocal and a whole new sense of personal and collective power emerges.
Reading Outward highlighted for me how much of a poetic master Rich is in depicting the complex relationship between personal intimacies and larger social forces, especially as they relate to systems of power and oppression. I wouldn’t want to reduce that relationship to the old feminist truism the personal is political, but do you think that’s a helpful lens for examining her poetic vision?
She was able to work out how our failings in personal relationships can become almost alibis for political dysfunction. We can become cynical about political possibilities because of things we haven’t been truthful about in our personal lives. In the beginning of Dream of a Common Language from 1978 is a poem with women mountain climbers who learn from each other that their relationships create a power that is more than the some of its parts. She knows the energy of living relation can be a powerful model for opposing political cynicism and imagining emancipated political circumstances far beyond our arm’s reach. But dysfunction in one can easily become a mirror for dysfunction in the other.
Is she saying that is the threat that we are always living under?
The political disasters in our world and their power relations can become invitations to replay these things as if we are stage characters. And in Rich’s work there are powerfully contrary dynamics. She used poetry to mobilize against those forces. That is what happens in successive phases later in her career.
One theme you emphasize is how Rich strives to build connections across identities, in her case, as a white Jewish lesbian with Southern roots. In “Sources,” she writes of Americans who “have kept beyond violence the knowledge / arranged in patterns like kente-cloth // unexpected as in batik / recurrent as bitter herbs in unleavened bread // of being a connective link / in a long, continuous way.” Her vision strikes me as distinctly American, that morally we need to confront our fraught differences, especially around race. How do you see that kind of vision emerging in her work over time?
Again, two people become more than the sum of their parts. As a couple, they are not just two individuals together, but an organic and composite compound with capabilities beyond them as individuals. Rich finds those connections first in explicitly feminist and lesbian terms, in an erotic and politicized coming together. She spends two whole books exploring those relationships in various ways, historical, present-day, and futuristic, Dream of a Common Language and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. Her next book in 1986 is Your Native Land, Your Life. The first poem, which is very long, is “Sources.” She asks the question several times, “From where does your strength come?” What are the sources of your power? She goes beyond the eroticized and politicized connections between women to an Americanized subjectivity asking what are the sources of power available to an American consciousness? I call this social solitude, where an American considers themselves in terms that link them to pieces of American history that they don’t imagine come from their historically inherited home turf. In this passage, we read, as a consciously white and Jewish American, she is reimagining the inheritance of the sources of her power as sharing the trajectory of African American history and what held together Black families and communities. The country has in its history every nameable kind of crime, but these connections have happened nonetheless in the name of resistance to crime. As she put it in another poem, these tendrils are occurring in neighborhoods not familiar to me. We have to make acquaintance in neighborhoods near and far. There’s also Native consciousness and a relationship to nature and the continent — rivers, plateaus, forests. They are a language, and if I am going to make a home in this land that means anything, the stranger also has to teach me. She also asks questions about the literary and cultural history of the Puritans and New England because she is living there at this time. She asks what was it like for women to live. We all know how politically, culturally, sexually, and racially problematic a lot of that Puritan culture was. Rich says they are thieves and conquerors. But she is also able to imagine some living relation to the animating power of the Puritan world. “Sources” is working in those terms.
It’s like Rich is saying that if you’re a white American, you have to have a relationship to Black America and to Native America, and you have to have a relationship to the Puritans because that is part of the story and if you don’t engage it, you are not reaching across all the bridges we have to reach across.
Rich is aware that these relationships have already happened. They are already in you. My flesh is your flesh. This is what it means to survive, and if you don’t achieve these kinds of relationships, you will die a certain kind of death. In poetic terms, she is stating this almost as an ultimatum.
Rich writes about language itself as both encoding oppression and allowing intimacy. A number of times you reference “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” which ends, “I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language.” The title of one of her best-known volumes is The Dream of a Common Language. How do you see the tension between the oppressor’s language and “common language” in her work?
Rich was very aware of the ambiguous capacity of language, the capacity of language to free and to entrap, to connect and to separate, even in its grammar and levels of diction. Language is no open field or tabula rasa. It’s a thoroughly politicized terrain. In “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” just before the line you quote, she says, “The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning.” She made clear the obstructive force of language. But in Outward, I’ve looked at probably over 200 images of connection and relations — dreaming together, swimming together. Her poems are a verbal choreography of human togetherness. There’s a moment in “The Usonian Journals 2000” from her 2004 book The School Among the Ruins where she imagines a dissident cell operating against oppression in the world and she’s writing in the voice of a person in the organization who says of language, “because of its capacity to / to ostracize the speechless // because of its capacity / to nourish self-deception // because of its capacity / for rebirth and subversion.”
In “Images for Godard” from 1970, she says philosophically, “the moment of change is the only poem” and two of her collections are titled A Change of World and The Will to Change. How do you view the theme of change and growth in her work and her sense of self?
“Images of Godard” is from The Will to Change and obviously indebted to the films from the 1960s of Jean-Luc Godard, but I think Rich is taking aim at a version of poetic craft that thought that poetry should inscribe things into permanence and take things that are a little sketchy about us and then reformat them into heroic busts that are then set on marble platforms, that poetry should be a stabilizing force. But Rich is saying poems at their best put us in motion and catch us as we’re becoming something else, at awkward moments where we’re leaning into what we are going to become. Her poems from this period are shot through with images of motion and incompleteness and momentum and velocity. And the ’60s were, of course, a time of incredible protean velocity. But for Rich, the whole arc is a story of change.
Rich’s prose and poetry can be read like two distinct channels exploring the same concerns in complementary ways. How did you work with the prose in relation to the poetry in your analysis?
She wrote something like 18 books of poetry and seven or eight volumes of essays. She was a brilliant essay writer. But as she told me many times, for her, the action of poetry was distinct from the way she moved in essay form. Poetry was beyond the conscious structures that she could set down in paragraphs. For her, poems were the essential action. When I decided to write this book, I wanted to learn from the poems because of the way she had described them to me as the most essential. I had an urge to move with her through the periods of her life. Outward became my effort to tell some imagined reader what I was able to learn.
This focus on Rich as a relational poet reaching across identities seems mirrored in your own personal story with her. You maintained a weekly correspondence over 12 years, and in your dialogue bridged several personal identities. How did those differences shape and perhaps stimulate your conversation over the years?
At one point, Adrienne told me she had a therapist and the therapist stopped her once and said, “You have a thirst for relation.” And so did I. We had that in common. Our writing letters back and forth, which was our main mode of communication, and meeting up with each other when we could, the thousands of hours we spent, showed me she really meant it. It wasn’t just some theory of hers. And while identity categories do matter, maybe they also don’t matter. In her poetry from the time when we began talking in 2000 to when she died in 2012, there are people all over those poems doing all kinds of things in all kinds of combinations, but you really can’t recognize in the 21st-century poems, whether they are straight or gay, Black or white, Native or not, even sometimes American or not. You know this one can shuck an oyster, this one is a nurse who knows how to turn a body in a bed, this one knows a prescription for something to cure an infection. But the identities are not conspicuous in the ways that we’re taught to read identity.
In your introduction, you say that you consciously didn’t study her work in any academic way during those years as friends, outside of reading the poems she shared with you. So, what was it like to finally dive into her body of work after she died? Did your personal relationship inform your analysis of her work?
I did not research her life before we met. And it would have felt weird to be talking with her while I was studying her life. We did talk about her life previous to our knowing each other, of course, and mostly what we wrote to each other about was the next thing we were trying to do in life. When I met her, I was married and had two kids who were one and three. She could see my family life from a powerful point of view. She had been a young mother in a new marriage with young children, living life in a pressurized way. But she would say Ed, this isn’t therapy. You should get a real tough therapist. She was a real believer in therapy. After she was gone, it no longer felt weird to go back and study her life. It felt like time to meet her in previous moments, from the time even before I was alive. When I did that, I wasn’t trying to prevent the personal relationship from affecting what I saw on the page. The thing about Adrienne’s poems is that in very shifty and always changing ways, they are always about her and something beyond her. So, when there was something about a poem that really was about her and I knew from knowing her that it was, then I could include that in an interpretation. But I probably did that only four or five times in the book. She told me her poems are like living extensions of how she grew through the world.