Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Wild Patience Continues to Take Me Far

Today is the birthday of Adrienne Rich. While I have always loved her poetry, her prose has often meant more to me.

In looking at her books of prose, I'm struck by the fact that I did more underlining in earlier books than later books. More underlining, more stars in the margin, more notes. In general, I've become a reader who underlines less. Is it because there's not as much that's new to me as I read books now? I remember underlining in a frenzy of breathlessness, because one cannot always go running down the hallway of one's dorm, banging on doors and saying, "You have GOT to read this." Underlining was a more sane way to interact with text.

Now, as I read, it's much more rare that I experience that head-splitting, wow-somebody-gets-this, kind of moment. Am I only reading books I already agree with? Am I reading less deeply than I once did? Do I need to move on to different subject matter? Often when I read books that have scientific subjects, I do the same kind of underlining that I did as an undergraduate.

I seem to have always stumbled across Rich's prose at the precise moment I needed it. I read On Lies, Secrets, and Silence in the waning days of my undergraduate years, and her thoughts on feminism and education sustained me throughout graduate school. Rereading the bits that I underlined long ago, this morning I found myself still inspired and comforted by her ideas: "I know that the rest of my life will be spent working for transformations I shall not live to see realized. I feel daily, hourly impatience and am pledged to the active and tenacious patience that a lifetime commitment requires: the can be no resignation in the face of backlash, setback, or temporary defeat; there can be no limits on what we allow ourselves to imagine" (page 270).

Her essays are infused with this demand that we use our precious imaginations to envision a life that can be better for all of us: a better worklife, a better motherhood, a better educational setting, a better artistic environment.

I bought What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics at the fabulous (and sadly no longer existent) Bluestocking Books in Columbia, South Carolina. I was enswamped in my first fulltime teaching job at a community college, which involved countless papers written by graduates of some of the worst secondary schools in the country. I tried to do my own writing in the little scraps of time that I wrestled away from other duties, and I spent a lot of time fighting off despair.

This book is full of inspiration and the reminder that creating art is important: "You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it. That is not generally taught in school. At most, as if your livelihood depended on it: the next step, the next job, grant, scholarship, professional advancement, fame; no questions asked as to further meanings. And let's face it, the lesson of the schools for a vast number of children--hence of readers--is This is not for you (page 32, emphasis Rich's).

There, embodied in that fierce quote was inspiration for my writing and reassurance that my teaching was important, even if it didn't feel that way. It makes sense that she could pull this off, since she spent some time working with disadvantaged students in New York's City College. In her writings, I see her creating feminist scholarship (her essay about Jane Eyre is still solid), feminist pedagogy, and feminist calls to artistic arms.

This quote, sadly, still applies to us today: "All art is political in terms of who was allowed to make it, what brought it into being, why and how it entered the canon, and why we are still discussing it" (page 95, Blood, Bread, and Poetry, emphasis Rich's).

I wish I could say that society has advanced enough that her fierce feminist stance is no longer warranted. I cannot say that. I'm happy to have her voice beside me as we continue the struggle for a more inclusive world.

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