Syntax as Power: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich

By Charles Altieri

Adrienne_Rich-4The Critical Flame’s invitation to write on Adrienne Rich has pushed me to a long overdue assessment of what her poetry once meant to me and how it stacks up now, now that the urgencies that produced much of it have receded into the historical record. I was delighted to discover, or rediscover, how fresh and intelligent most of her poetry still seems. I think this is largely because she had so mastered the possibilities of intricate syntax that she could establish a noteworthy stability for her passions. Rich is for me the poet after WWII who shows most fully how it is possible to “love with all our intelligence,” so that intelligence and love manage to sustain each other, even in a culture where those two values seem inextricably at odds with one another. Like Yeats, Rich can produce in syntactic intensity the sense of person necessary to make modes of choosing identities substantial and exemplary.

For brevity’s sake, I will concentrate on three poems that celebrate that syntactic power by emphasizing the self-referential deictic “this,” to call attention to the union between the how of the saying with what can be said because of such mastery. It virtually goes without saying that if one can focus attention on the work “this” does, one can also make an argument for the continuing force of the deictic, even as culture changes and references dissipate in time. Poetry endures largely by the power to preserve “this” against all the “that’s” and “maybe’s” that comprise much of our shifting social realities.

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