LOTS OF SNORTING and spluttering in the letters column of The Nation this week over Ange Mlinko's somewhat chilly assessment of Adrienne Rich's standing with younger poets. Trivial errors aside (Mallarmé, not Valéry, okay, got it), I thought Mlinko was right when I read the piece (well worth a look--February 18 issue) and I still think so.
Rich's reputation had...has, we might as well say, much to do with the wise and courageous decisions she made in the positions she took, the commitments she made, and the causes she honored. The question before us is how that kind of wisdom and that kind of courage weigh with posterity, so far as poets are concerned. Insofar as Mlinko's answer is "not that much," history proves her right over and over again.
Which are you likelier to pick up next, Whitman's "Song of Myself" or Whittier's anti-slavery poems? (I'll except "Letter from a Missionary of the Methodist Episcopal Church South," which I re-read every year.) Is the teacher of a poetry workshop going to have her students look at Dickinson, or at Barrett Browning's poems about child labor reform and the Risorgimento? Millay's poems on Sacco and Vanzetti, or Crane's White Buildings? And then there are all those poems on the Spanish Civil War or the war in Viet Nam, some of them (Louis MacNeice's and Allen Ginsberg's, for me) still moving, but....
Whittier, Barrett Browning, and Millay were wise and courageous, and their choice to speak to the urgencies of their hour commands respect. But the impact of that kind of poem diminishes over time; for all but a very, very few such poems, eventually it completely disappears.
The impact of Rich's poems is bound to recede, absent the authority of her presence. The thought may give pain, but that is simply what happens, no? Would anyone have written testily if Mlinko had said the same thing about Lowell? He too, like Rich, brought great talents to the urgencies of the hour, but absent the authority of his presence, how many young poets cite him as an influence today? Adam Kirsch, perhaps, if he still counts as young (and still counts as a poet). But I bet you will find a dozen who cite Spicer for every one who cites Lowell. Who would have foreseen that in 1965?
If you are a poet, being right about and taking a stand on the defining issues of one's time simply doesn't cut much ice with posterity. Look at Pound. He was wrong in the worst possible way about every crucial political question of his time. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Grotesquely wrong. And while few nowadays would say he was one of the 20th century's very greatest poets--or fewer than would have said so thirty or forty years ago, I imagine--his influence still percolates through American poetry, due not only to his own work but also the doors he opened for the next generations, Zukofsky, Oppen, Duncan, Rachel Blau DuPlessis....
Great having Katha Pollitt weigh in on Sheryl Sandberg, by the way.