The muse of desire


When Adrienne Rich sits down to write, she doesn’t consciously write “political” poetry. Instead, said Rich, speaking to a Kelly Writers House crowd on April 19, she is simply writing in a society that seems to impress its politics on her. “The ebb and flowing of certain types of politics feel very immediate to me,” she said. “I really don’t set out to write poetry of witness or conscience.”

Also a renowned essayist and cultural critic, Rich, 76, is the third and final Writers House Fellow to visit the house for the 2004-5 school year. The author has published more than 16 books of poetry—notably “Diving into the Wreck” in 1972, which won her the National Book Award—as well as numerous essays about identity, sexuality and feminism.

Rich answered questions from Faculty Director Al Filreis and from the audience, including one about how to convey the importance of poetry to college freshmen. “Poetry needs to be embedded in other things” said Rich. “Poetry can allude to or illuminate some historical moment,” and not exist simply as a “set-apart thing.” A poem is an exchange of energy between the writer and the reader, she said.

A Vietnam protestor in the 1960s and self-proclaimed radical feminist, Rich has incorporated events such as the Iraq war and the 2000 Florida recount in recent poems. “We, in a sense, prefer to think of ourselves still as exceptional, unique, the saviors of the world—especially after World War II—and in some ways, impeccable,” she said of the U.S. “We have our own peculiar form of nationalism.”

When asked about her sprituality, Rich said she considers herself a “secular Jew,” and has questioned over the years if the sacred is above or within her. Rich also spoke about sexuality and desire as it has informed her work—she noted that when she was 16 years old, she was so influenced by the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, that she made herself write a sonnet every day that summer. “Behind all art is some element of desire,” she said, be it love of life, existence or another human being. “Even the darkest, most grief-stricken and most embittered art has that element somewhere.”

Originally published on April 28, 2005