Rich, with memories and a passion for poetry

October 16, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

WASHINGTON — Washington--Like many people who have not been back home in some time, Adrienne Rich is approaching her return to Baltimore this weekend with a mixture of anticipation and curiosity. The trips to Lexington Market, eating crab cakes -- these are things she hopes are still as delightful as they were during a comfortable childhood in North Baltimore in the 1930s and '40s.

But there are other things she remembers less fondly -- the racism, the homophobia, the closed social system that included well-bred gentiles and few others.

Ms. Rich is 64 now, a well-known poet and writer about women's and lesbian issues. That's why her return to Baltimore for the first time in 15 years will include not only a stop at crab houses and possibly a visit to the Inner Harbor she has never seen, but also an assessment of where the city is in 1993.

"This visit has really started me focusing on growing up in Baltimore," says Ms. Rich, who will be reading from her new book of essays, "What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics," tonight at 7:30 at the Waverly Chapel Social Hall in Baltimore. "I had a wonderful childhood in many ways, but there was so much I just didn't know about.

"You know, I never heard the word 'lesbian' and the word 'homosexual' then, except for a few men who people called names and intimated there was something wrong with them," says Ms. Rich, "Well, of the eight to 10 people who were part of my regular high school group, three of us were gay."

Her forcefully argued books and impassioned poetry might make one expect an intimidating presence, but Adrienne Rich is anything but that in person. Standing about 5 feet tall, she walks with a cane. She laughs easily, and her low, rich voice can express several shades of irony -- from detached bemusement to scalpel-like derision.

She began writing poetry as a child. Her father, a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, used to give her poems to copy, and she was exposed to many of the great poets early in life.

Her talent was obvious: Her first book of poems, "A Change of World," was picked by W. H. Auden himself in 1951 to be part of Yale University's Younger Poets series. Of her 15 books of poems, "Diving into the Wreck," which won the National Book Award in 1974, is probably the best known.

By the 1960s, her poems began to explore feminist and then lesbian themes, causing a split among critics who welcomed her increasingly political verse and those who did not. This was, of course, an old question in the arts: Are politics and art separate? For Ms. Rich, they were not, and this theme is extensively examined in her new book.

"She is the pre-eminent lesbian feminist," says Jennie Boyd Bull, manager of the 31st Street Bookstore, which is sponsoring Ms. Rich's reading tonight. "She has always been a voice of conscience in sexual, feminist and social issues."

"I see a lot of despair around me and it would be easy to succumb," Ms. Rich answers when asked how she has maintained a passion for politics and poetry for so long. "But I also see much that makes me hopeful."

Perhaps another part of the answer comes inadvertently in another way, late in the interview -- an indication that while politics and poetry may drive her life, it appears they do not consume it.

Adrienne Rich, child of Baltimore and a well-known connoisseur of food and wine, asks her interviewer, "Who sells the best crab cakes in the city now?"

Excerpt from 'What Is Found There'

. . . I realize that the social fragmentation of poetry from life has itself been one of the materials that demanded evolution in my poetic methods, continually pushed at me to devise language and images that could refute the falsely framed choices: ivory tower or barricades, intuition or documentary fact, the search for beauty or the search for justice. (Of course a change in poetic methods means other kinds of change as well.)

When I can pull it together, I work in solitude surrounded by community, solitude in dialogue with community, solitude that alternates with collective work. The poetry and the actions of friends and strangers pass through the membranes of that solitude. This kind of worklife means vigilance, for the old definitions of "inner" and "outer" still lurk in me and I still feel the pull of false choices wrenching me sometimes this way, sometimes that. But if we hope to mend the fragmentation of poetry from life, and for the sake of poetry itself, it's not enough to lie awake, in Lillian Smith's words, listening only to the sound of our own heartbeat in the dark.

--Adrienne Rich

READINGS

When: 7:30 tonight; doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Admission: $3

Where: Waverly Chapel Community Center, Old York Road and 34th Street

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