Adrienne Rich at The Village Voice Bookshop, July 18th, 2006
July 18th was probably the hottest day in the life of The Village Voice Bookshop. Even a most cumbersome air conditioning appliance, rented for the occasion, did not help. Adrienne Rich had been travelling to Great Britain to receive a Life Achievement Award and, in spite of her difficulty to walk, she graciously had accepted to cross the Channel to read at The Village Voice Bookshop in Paris. Accompanied by the author Michelle Cliff, her companion, Adrienne Rich was introduced by the American poet a Paris resident, Ellen Hinsey. Ellen's introduction is posted here with a short video excerpt of Adrienne's reading.
Ellen Hinsey's Introduction for Adrienne Rich at the Village Voice Bookshop, July 18, 2006
It is a great honor tonight to introduce Adrienne Rich. An almost impossible task, as just one area of her ongoing life's work would take up all the time available—which is to say, either a discussion of her seventeen books of poetry (not including selected editions) or her work as an essayist in numerous volumes, or her groundbreaking early study on motherhood, or her work as an editor, or her dedicated, life-long activism as a lesbian and a feminist. Nor would it be right to speak about just one of these areas, as it is the integrated whole of all these groundbreaking activities that are part of what it has been like for a reader to follow the brilliant, essential, challenging and passionate work of Adrienne Rich.
But it is perhaps the word "reader" that might give us an opening of how to say, in a concise way, a few essential things about the importance and impact of her work. For, beginning with her very first volume, aptly entitled A Change of World, Adrienne Rich's poetry has had as its driving force the desire to reach the other, and to create a dialogue with those near and far about meanings that touched on the most crucial parts of our lives. At times that meant pulling—from the darkness of unlanguaged things—meanings that surrounded us, which were our meanings, and like the most precious gift, her poems returned our own world to us—finally intelligible, heartbreaking, full of challenges, but also full of hope. Sometimes the poems stretched and challenged us to imagine with her new and unexpected realms. But throughout, Adrienne Rich's work has been the very definition of poetry that is in dialogue with the other—which so movingly fulfils the contract of the I-thou. In this, through her writing, she shares with the French philosopher Simone Weil the belief that one of the profoundest acts of human compassion is to ask another human being the simple question, "What are you going through?" and to listen to the answer with one's entire self.
But the bridging of the intimate self and the other is only one of the things that her work has so passionately explored. Here in Europe, we have the advantage of not having to add the word "political" before the word "poet", because it is understood that the intimate realm of the "self and other", and the "collective realm of the self and other"—which is society—are both areas implicitly explored by great poets. And along with speaking to, often in extraordinarily uncanny ways, our inner experiences as women, Adrienne Rich's work has also explored the way in which poetry can address the civic experience—which is also an intrinsically passionate part of our lives, even if there are those who would prefer us to leave that realm to those who "know better"—and we are once again witnessing the danger of that. But, whether addressing the intimate life, or the agora—the collective meeting place—her work has never ceased to be of a generosity that has few equals in 20th century American poetry.
I would like to end this brief introduction with an anecdote and a short quote. While I was writing this introduction, my closest girlfriend in the United States called me. Even though I was in mid-sentence, I knew that the timing was right, because, in fact, it was she who had thirty years ago given me as a gift Adrienne Rich's volume Poems: Selected and New in 1975. When I told her what I was doing, there was a long silence on the line—a silence filled with the millions of things that were not going to fit into a long-distance call. Years of sharing poems, discussions about our lives, as women, feminists, about our sexuality, our hopes for the future and for society, and above all the way in which those seemingly "simple" things called "poems" found in a book we read together had exploded and changed our lives. If I mention this story, it is because I'm sure that everyone in this room has their own version of it—Adrienne's poems read, passed, discussed, carried in notebooks and wallets, returning even in dreams. And for each one here, I'm sure his or her version of this story is equally precious.
I'd like to end then with an excerpt from short poem by Adrienne Rich from the 1995 book Dark Fields of the Republic that I feel speaks to all these things:
And now as you read these poems
—You whose eyes and hands I love
—You whose mouth and eyes I love
—You whose words and minds I love—
don't think I was trying to state a case
or construct a scenery
I tried to listen to
The public voice of our time
Tried to survey our public space
As best I could
—Tried to remember and stay
Faithful to the details note
Precisely how the air moved
And where the clock's hands stood
And who was in charge of definitions
And who stood by receiving them
When the name of compassion
Was changed to guilt
When to feel with a human stranger
Was declared obsolete.
We are immensely lucky, especially in these dark times, that to "feel with a human stranger" is not obsolete in the work of Adrienne Rich, and that we have the great opportunity to hear her read tonight.