Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible and Life among the Ruins

I. Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible*

In late November of 2003, I sat on the floor in a crowded luncheon just a few feet and slightly behind Adrienne Rich, speaking and reading her poetry at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, held that year in San Francisco.

Appropriately, Rich was reading from her upcoming collection, The School among the Ruins, and talking about teaching, teachers, and education. I was struck by many things that day, and eventually I wrote a poem to capture the moment (see below).

As a poet, teacher, reader, and human, I have been deeply and permanently moved and changed by the poetry and essays of Rich, from the genius of “Diving into the Wreck” and “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” to the reconsideration of Emily Dickinson in “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” (see On Lies, Secrets, and Silence) to her remarkable and soaring Arts of the Possible, that includes one of the most cited passages in my scholarly works:

Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (p. 162)

For Rich, the human condition is a fact of what is spoken and unspoken:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. (p. 150)

When I discovered that Rich had passed, I recognized that while she would no longer speak again to us, she would never be unspoken. With her work, Rich remains the artist of the possible.

Woman as Poet: Possibilities

The life and writing of Rich are testaments to and challenges against the hegemonies of gender, marriage, sexuality, and human agency. She lived many lives in her one life, a fact common for women trapped in the expectations of gender that often create burdens that are nearly impossible to carry.

Her early life included marriage and three sons, and then she lived a much different life after separating from her husband, a life often characterized by a sort of radical feminism that celebrated her lesbianism. Her life as a poet/writer paralleled this personal transformation, with Rich acknowledging that her early success as a poet was built on her embracing modernist traditions, leading to her “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” being both, according to her, a rejection (somewhat unconsciously) and model of those traditions. The poet Rich, however, became a radical as well, resulting in canon czars such as Harold Bloom marginalizing Rich as merely political—missing entirely Rich’s powerful argument that political is all that poetry and a poet can be: “I take it that poetry—if it is poetry—is liberatory at its core” (Arts of the Possible, p. 116).

Rich’s poetry and her critical work on Dickinson were central parts of my teaching during my nearly two decades as an ELA high school teacher. In fact, one of the most important and influential units I eventually included in the quarter we explored poetry included Rich’s work paired with the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Along with these poets, we viewed the film Pleasantville, framing the lives and poetry of Rich (1929-2012), Plath (1932-1963), and Sexton (1928-1974) against the Betty Parker (Joan Allen) character in the film, the TV mother trapped in the norms of 1950s American.

This unit asked students to consider the suicides of Plath and Sexton against the life and poetic transformations of Rich; we also discussed how the film portrayed Betty Parker, both as a model of the norms of 1950s America and the real person trapped under her make up and the oppressive roles of wife and mother (dramatizing the poetry of Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”: “The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band/ Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand”).

And for the words Rich brought to my classroom and my life, I am forever in her debt. She validated things I had dared to think but feared to speak. She reminds me daily of the humility that should be at my core, a paradoxical radical humility, a commitment to human dignity and agency that are both threatened by the mere fact of my being a man in a world and society that allows the norm of manhood to oppress and silence.

It is deeply sad to lose Adrienne Rich, and profoundly uplifting to know all that remains forever from her words and her life:

The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities….

It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you. It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

The possibility of life between us. (Arts of the Possible, pp. 39-40)

It cannot be coincidence that just a few days before Rich’s death I sat in my office talking with one of my students; I pulled four books of Rich’s from the shelf and recommended her to the student.

The morning after Rich’s passing that student walked into my office with a New York Times article on Rich.

No, this could not be a coincidence, and yes, it must be the bittersweet symmetry of the universe that reminded me during my moments of sadness of the possibilities.

II. Life among the Ruins

Adrienne Rich’s The School Among the Ruins ** confronts the intersection of school and violence, poems written in the time designated as the turn of a century:

Rich cited another catalyst for ‘The School Among the Ruins’ in an e-mail interview from her Santa Cruz home — the school, in Brooklyn, where her son teaches.

“I knew his love for the school, for those children,” she said.

[The volume is s]et during a nonspecific wartime in which children and their teachers are hostages to horror.

We are now faced again with the incomprehensible intersection of children, teachers, schools, and unspeakable violence. It is ours to honor those taken from us by seeking the rational among the irrational.

Seeking the Rational among the Irrational

Let us commit ourselves to a vigilance, to protecting this moment against the petty, against the call to heap irrational upon irrational, against allowing the needed confrontations and discussions to become too narrow.

We must confront our culture of violence and the fetish with guns within that culture of violence, and not just gun control.

We must confront health care access and mental health care access, and not just mental illness.

We must confront our negative national discourse about teachers and schools—that misrepresents the sacred duties of those teachers and schools that are now memorialized in the names of innocent lives lost in an elementary school.

We must admit that we have been too quick to police children, and too slow to protect, cherish, and serve those children—particularly some children, too often “other people’s children.”

To allow the gaze of blame to be focused too narrowly absolves the larger root causes to remain, to thrive, to perpetuate further the ruins.

Words matter, yes, but actions speak louder than words.

How children matter, whose children matter—our commitments daily send messages.

The world we have created is the world we want, or at least the world we allow; as Kingsolver notes:

In the United States, where people like to think that anyone can grow up to be President, we parents are left very much on our own when it comes to the little Presidents-in-training. Our social programs for children are the hands-down worst in the industrialized world, but apparently that is just what we want.

In a poem of mine, I end with the following: “the world was exactly as they expected/ exactly as they knew it to be/ and mostly not as it could have been/ or should have been.”

To build that world out of the ruins requires action, action built on principles, to build monuments of peace and love against violence and destruction.

“What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye

“…Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on…”


Adrienne Rich @

Adrienne Rich @ Poetry Foundation

Anne Sexton: A Biography, Diane Wood Middlebrook

Anne Sexton @ Poetry Foundation

Sylvia Plath: A Biography, Linda Wagner-Martin

Sylvia Plath @ Poetry Foundation


“upon hearing adrienne rich speak and read her poetry”

P. L. Thomas, 2003

i cannot shake the rush
of my own grandmother—
hair cropped short—
rush over me whenever
i see adrienne rich—

this time—in person—
i felt the hunger to cry
as i watched her—
cane in hand—shuffle on stage
like but not my grandmother—

my chest and eyes welled
again and again from her words—
speaking about teaching
the frailty of teaching
in America—America—

because she knows—
if “knows” means “tastes in the air”
if “knows” means “feels with her blood”—
because she knows
what no one can teach

this mother of us teachers
who lives that which cannot be taught—
the doubling over in pain
from other people’s suffering
that is surely not of this America—

and if i told her
“adrienne, my lives have split
me into pieces, pieces”
she might cry right there
her eyes welled as mine

because it is that knowing
that makes us cry
at the slightest suffering
of any anyone who hurts
and struggles against this whip

called “living”

* Reposted pieces from 2012—Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible (March 29, 2012) and Life among the Ruins (December 16, 2012)

** The title of this blog is intended as an allusion to Rich’s work.


3 thoughts on “Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible and Life among the Ruins

  1. i also had the pleasure of hearing her read…i came to her writing as i came out….out from a marriage and children, out into a new world where i didn’t quite get the rules….it is years later now, and i appreciate her for many reasons…mostly as someone who loved teachers, which i am, and who i also love…thank you for this piece or writing, this homage, this raw sharing of who YOU are….in this case, who you are in relation to her…. ~~kathie

  2. Pingback: Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time” | the becoming radical

  3. Pingback: Illinois School Bans Discussions of Michael Brown’s Death | Alternet | the becoming radical

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