Poet Adrienne Rich, who died Tuesday at the age of 82 (see our complete obituary), was also known as an essayist. Rich moved from Massachusetts to Santa Cruz in 1984, later saying, "I don't think it's a bad thing in your life to have your whole orientation completely switched geographically." She became an occasional contributor to the L.A. Times, writing essays and criticism for the paper.
She started off explosively In 1997, when she explained her decision not to accept the National Medal of Arts; it was not about a looming vote about NEA funding, she wrote. "My 'no' came directly out of my work as a poet and essayist and citizen drawn to the interfold of personal and public experience." In her 1,800-word piece, Rich went on to conclude:
In a society tyrannized by the accumulation of wealth as Eastern Europe was tyrannized by its own false gods of concentrated power, recognized artists have, perhaps, a new opportunity to work out our connectedness, as artists, with other people who are beleaguered, suffering, disenfranchised --precariously employed workers, trashed elders, throwaway youth, the "unsuccessful" and the art they too are nonetheless making and seeking.
I wish I didn't feel the necessity to say here that none of this is about imposing ideology or style or content on artists; it is about the inseparability of art from acute social crisis in this century and the one now coming up.
We have a short-lived model in our history for the place of art in relation to government. During the Depression of the 1930s, under New Deal legislation, thousands of creative and performing artists were paid modest stipends to work in the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Art Project. Their creativity, in the form of novels, murals, plays, performances, public monuments, the providing of music and theater to new audiences, seeded the art and the consciousness of succeeding decades. By 1939, this funding was discontinued.
Federal funding for the arts, like the philanthropy of private arts patrons, can be given and taken away. In the long run, art needs to grow organically out of a social compost nourishing to everyone, a literate citizenry, a free, universal, public education complex with art as an integral element, a society without throwaway people, honoring both human individuality and the search for a decent, sustainable common life. In such conditions, art would still be a voice of hunger, desire, discontent, passion, reminding us that the democratic project is never-ending.
For that to happen, what else would have to change? I hope the discussion will continue.
That discussion surfaced in her 2004 review of "The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985" as she wrote, "Tracing the writer's development (and steadfastness) through the history he recounted of those years sharpened my sense of what's missing from the desperate, hysterical public non-conversations in which we're presently mired." She continued:
He, more than any American writer I can think of, had to make his way through the contradictions of early literary success, later iconization, vilification and incomprehension, particularly as a black writer, that fell onto his shoulders. Determined to remain a serious writer and not become a mere celebrity or spokesman, he lived for long periods, and died, outside the United States. He became a participant in the history of the civil rights movement somewhat reluctantly, seeing himself as a writer, not an activist, yet he knew he could and must bear witness to that history as it was being made, with respect and critical astuteness.
The artist, Baldwin wrote in a 1959 review of a collection of Langston Hughes poems, needs to be "within the experience and outside it at the same time." His own awareness of this difficult position (If I am, in spite of all, an American, what does this mean, for me and for America?) was, I think, a supreme artistic strength, giving him prescience, narrative power and an early and vivid anticipation of the real internal trouble toward which this nation, in its blur of wealth and fantasies, has been heading.
In March of 2001, Rich looked back at her prose pieces collected in the April 2001 book "Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations." In our pages she wrote:
For more than 50 years I have been writing, tearing, up, revising poems, studying poets from every culture and century available to me. I have been a poet of the oppositional imagination, meaning that I don't think my only argument is with myself. My work is for people who want to imagine and claim wider horizons and carry on about them into the night, rather than rehearse the landlocked details of personal quandaries or the price for which the house next door just sold.
At times in the past decade and a half I have felt like a stranger in my own country. I seem not to speak the official language. I believe many others feel like this, not just as poets or intellectuals but as citizens -- accountable yet excluded from power. I began as an American optimist, albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War. In both these cases it was necessary to look hard truths in the face in order to change horrible realities. I believed, with many others, that my country's historical aquifers were flowing in that direction of democratic change. I became an American skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity, which is part of all human history, but in the light of my nation's leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world. Perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing.
Poet Adrienne Rich, 82, has died
Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska dies at 88
Juan Felipe Herrera is appointed California Poet Laureate
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Adrienne Rich accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2006 National Book Awards. Credit: Stuart Ramson / Associated Press