‘Inventing New Ways to Be’

Selected Poems, 1950–2012

by Adrienne Rich, edited by Albert Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, and Brett C. Millier
Norton, 421 pp., $17.95 (paper)
Nancy Crampton
Adrienne Rich, New York City, 1973

Although Adrienne Rich (1929–2012) never considered herself an epic poet, it’s hard to think of a more apposite definition of her vast and varied oeuvre than the phrase with which Ezra Pound summed up his concept of the modernist epic (speaking, in his case, of The Cantos): “a poem containing history.” Scholars looking to chart the development of America in the six decades spanned by Rich’s career will discover in her work an intermeshing of poetry and history more extensive and searching than that to be found in any of her contemporaries. Her first collection, chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize of 1951, was presciently titled A Change of World, and the twenty volumes that followed all reveal her astonishing power not only to capture the shifting spirit of the times but to anticipate the dilemmas of the future. Indeed the short eponymous poem of that first volume now reads like an eerie prophecy of our most pressing catastrophe:

Fashions are changing in the sphere.
Oceans are asking wave by wave
What new shapes will be worn next year;
And the mountains, stooped and grave,
Are wondering silently range by range
What if they prove too old for the change.

The trenchant final couplet of this elegantly phrased twelve-line poem goes on to insist, as if in proleptic defiance of all those who still deny the facts of climate change: “They say the season for doubt has passed:/The changes coming are due to last.”

In the light of Rich’s subsequent career, the terms that Auden used to praise her early work in his introduction to A Change of World came to seem almost comically misguided: her poems, he suggests, are “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.” Yet Auden’s somewhat patronizing précis of the virtues of Rich’s debut volume captures some of the cultural assumptions that initially shaped her, as both a poet and a person, and against which she would in time so spectacularly rebel.

As she herself tells it, in autobiographical poems like “Sources” or “After Dark” and in prose pieces such as “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity,” the pressure to conform dominated her upbringing in Baltimore. Her father, Arnold Rich, whose own father was a Jewish immigrant from Austria-Hungary, was a renowned pathologist at Johns Hopkins and committed to the highest ideals of culture. He was also, as Rich tells it, something of a control freak: “He prowled and pounced over my school papers, insisting I use ‘grown-up’ sources; he criticized my poems for faulty technique and gave me books on rhyme and meter and form. His investment in my intellect and talent was egotistical, tyrannical,…

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