‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich

Do you remember the last time you learned something new about an old friend? Were you surprised? Embarrassed? Delighted?

As a younger woman, with an attitude to friendships that was more consumptive than embracing, I would have been dismayed to discover something new about someone I regarded as intimate. Even favorite poets. I wanted their new books to not depart but confirm. Reading Adrienne Rich’s Tonight No Poetry Will Serve (Norton), I realize I have outgrown this desire.

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve confirms as much as it departs. There are two impulses in Rich’s work that I treasure. One is Rich’s work as a public poet, her consistent voice for feminism and progressivism. The other is Rich’s indelible impulse to write in her poetry intimately about human relationships. Rich would reject this binary between the public/political and the personal/intimate.

She would argue passionately as she always has for the connections between public and private, between feminism and intimacy, between poetry and commitment. These impulses are deeply imbricated in her work, never pulling one from the other. Tonight No Poetry Will Serve confirms these connections.

For instance, in the second poem of the collection, Rich asks, “Beauty?” then responds, “a wall with names of the fallen/from both sides[.]” In the concluding lines of “Innocence,” she tells us about “People craving in their mouths/warm milk over soft white bread[.]”

In the poem, “From Sickbed Shores,” Rich reminds us of our “ear tuned to mute vibrations from an occupied zone:/an old enraged silence still listening for your voice[.]” This poem concludes with these metaphorically rich and evocative lines:

____________You could offer any soul-tricking oarsman
whatever coin you’re still palming but there’s a divide
between the shores of sickness and the legendary, purifying
river of death            You will have this tale to tell, you will have to live
to tell
this tale

Rich remind us of the horrors of the contemporary world – war, death, hunger, soullessness –with beautiful language and images carefully wrought.

The title poem, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” exemplifies Rich’s capacity to combine the deeply personal with the political. The first two stanzas are lovely fleeting depiction of a beloved other, “walking barefoot,” looking at the moon then later, “sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair/asleep but not oblivious/of the unslept unsleeping/elsewhere[.]”

The poem then turns with a volta in the line “Syntax of rendition:” and continues with reflections about how language structures our experience of the world. It ends with the command, “now diagram the sentence.” Rich renders a world through language and implores us to enter it, thoughtfully and analytically.

One of the early poems in the collection is titled “Reading the Iliad (as if) for the First Time.” The Iliad is a touchstone that recurs throughout the collection; Rich says, “the lines/pulse into sense” as an affirmation that the “news you were reading/(who tramples whom) is antique.” The Iliad, an old poem. The first poem. The poet returns to it with fresh eyes. For me, this was the departure of Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Rich’s deep engagement with a long literary history.

In fact, this may not be a departure for astute readers of Rich’s poetry over time; I’m a bit chagrined to admit that in my mind Rich’s work engages primarily with women writers, women poets, women thinkers. I have always turned to her for her engagements with women writers – canonical and non-canonical; this is my bias as a reader. Reading Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, I realized that as keenly and thoughtfully Rich as engages with women writers, she does the same with all writers, with all literature. It was an aha! moment for me and her literary engagements in this collection are deeply satisfying.

My favorite poems in this collection are the five poems titled “Axel Avákar” in the fourth section of the book. Rich describes Avákar as a “fictive poet, counter-muse, brother,” someone she dreamed “into existence, did I, boy-/comrade who would love/everything I loved.” These poems are gorgeous—inventive, playful, and emotional honest. I wish for a full book of poems with Axel.

One of my joys as a teacher is introducing Rich to students. Sometimes students ask me where to begin with her work. There is a hint of uncertainty in their voices, a sense of being overwhelmed by the prodigious history of her publishing. I tell them, begin anywhere. The truth is, I am jealous of the discovery that is about to be theirs.

I want to recreate my own experience of reading Adrienne Rich for the first time. 1988. The Fact of a Doorframe. At eighteen, I don’t think I understood collected poems—that there were individual books of poetry behind each selection. I didn’t imagine then that twenty years later I would be buying slim volumes of Rich’s poems at regular intervals, hot off the press. Since 1988, there isn’t a Rich book that I don’t own. In hardback. Yet there is nostalgia for the first time. Now I will tell students to begin with Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. It is a collection that will delight new readers—and long-time readers.

When I read “Diving into the Wreck” to undergraduate Women’s Studies students on the first day of class, some respond with a glimmer of excitement. Some feel the electricity of Rich’s work. That excitement and electricity continues in Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. It is as if I was talking to my own soul.

Poems 2007-2010
By Adrienne Rich
W. W. Norton
Hardcover, 9780393079678, 80pp
January 2011