There are the poets that make a difference in our lives, and the ones who change our lives. When that happens, we revere them; they become part of us. It's just that simple - and profound.
To reach this pinnacle, the heights where poetry actually changes our lives, requires more than beauty in words, metaphors, images, or the flow of a line. It takes courage. Poetry can inspire. There are verses that make me gasp in awe. But poetry that makes one 'see' the world differently, opens up new paths, new spaces in the psyche and the heart, anchors one differently in the world - that is rare and wonderful.
I am a terrible poet, but I have learned so much about writing from my attempts - and from reading poetry, lots of poetry. Poets have taught me about the stunning efficiency of words, about metaphor, the turn of a phrase, the resonance of an image, a line you read once and never forget. A line like this, from Rich's poem, 'Hunger:'
Until we find each other, we are alone.
Here she is, writing about writing poetry with poetry:
This horrible patience which is part of the work
This patience which waits for language for meaning for the least sign
This encumbered plodding state doggedly dragging
the IV up and down the corridor
with the plastic sack of bloodstained urine
Only so you can start living again
waking to take the temperatures of the soul
when the black irises lean at dawn
from the mouth of the bedside pitcher
This condition in which you swear I will
submit to whatever poetry is
I accept no limits Horrible patience.
* from 'Midnight Salvage,' and the book by the same name, Poems 1995-1998
It is what I am trying so hard to learn in my writing, finally - to submit to whatever the writing is and to accept no limits. This is the path poets like Rich charted for us. We do them no greater honor than to live and express ourselves as truthfully, as 'out,' as searingly, as beautifully, as they did, with tender care for the word or phrase, with profound respect for language itself, something we take so for granted as if it was not just about the most remarkable thing that evolution has ever brought about.
When my deepest held relationship was ending some years ago now, and I was struggling to articulate what was my own unique pain in that separation, my encounter with these lines:
Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live
I want to see raised dripping and brought into the sun.
* from 'Twenty-One Love Poems,' in The Dream of a Common Language.
In my work for social justice, this verse:
The decision to feed the world
is the real decision. No revolution
has chosen it. For that choice requires
that women shall be free.
I choke on the taste of bread in North America
but the taste of hunger in North America
is poisoning me.
* from the poem, 'Hunger,' in The Dream...
In encounters like these, poets worm their way into our hearts and souls. How would my life be different if I had not encountered Rich, and Alicia Ostriker, William Stafford, Jane Hirschfield, Mary Oliver, Mike Burwell, Muriel Rukeyser, Patiann Rogers, Linda Hogan, David Whyte, Wendell Berry, Denise Levertov, Lucille Clifton... shall I go on? But I would not want to imagine my life without them - or without those friends writing poetry and loving poetry and getting poetry out into the world.
So this is my own little tribute to Adrienne Rich. With her death, at least for a while, more people will read her, new people encountering her for the first time. This is good; this is the best meaning for death, when work like this gets a good long extended life.
When the industrial world comes to a crashing halt, we will still have our poetry. Our technology will not save us, nor our greed, nor all our possessions and credit cards. But poetry just might.