A Personal Public: Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich. Photo by Thomas Victor, courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAdrienne Rich. Photo by Thomas Victor, courtesy of Schlesinger Library
By Bridget Vincent

In 1996 Adrienne Rich wrote that “suffering is diagnosed relentlessly as personal” and that “we lack a vocabulary for thinking about pain as communal and public.” In 2013 we still lack an adequate vocabulary for describing the relationship among personal and communal suffering, agency, and responsibility. Rich’s work, however, is a good place to start looking for this vocabulary.

The confusion about where individuality ends and collectivity begins is especially visible in what Mark Gibney has called the “age of apology.” Since the middle of the 20th century, a large number of public apologies have been made all over the world, ranging from the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Willy Brandt’s iconic genuflection before the Warsaw Ghetto Monument to the Australian government’s apology to the stolen generation of indigenous people. The practice of making amends in public for both individual and collective wrongs can be as ethically fraught as it is transformative. Public apologies of all kinds raise difficult questions, particularly about the relationship between personal and collective responsibility. Should we, for instance, apologize only for our own wrongs? Can we apologize for the wrongdoing of others? Who should—and who shouldn’t—make amends on behalf of a nation? Where is the boundary between personal and collective agency, the self and the cultural whole?

My postdoctoral research asks how this reparative work manifests itself in literature—and in particular, in poetry. When writers take on the burden of apologizing for collective harm, how might these questions surrounding public atonement be complicated or reframed? When does a poet have the right—and the responsibility—to apologize on behalf of others?

By virtue of her passionate and imaginative engagement with reparative social movements, Adrienne Rich is a key figure for this research. Of particular relevance is her conceptualization of feminism as an inherently global, transcultural movement—a movement in which advocacy for the rights of others stretches across national borders. In Rich’s work, questions surrounding political identification and advocacy are complicated, productively, by equivalent questions surrounding poetic speech. To what extent, for instance, is a lyric speaker already a representative of a community?

Before I came to the Schlesinger Library, I knew that the archive would shed light on the idea of advocacy in Rich’s life and work. But once I started reading, I found myself gaining something unexpected and more fundamental.

Encountering Rich’s informal voice in her diaries and letters gave me an adjusted understanding of what advocacy and solidarity meant for her poetics. I came to see that identification with people in disparate circumstances was not so much an application of her feminism as a grounding feature of it. This more nuanced understanding would not have been available to me had I not been able to read, for instance, letters between Rich and scholars in other countries, in which administrative conversations widened into meditations on topics such as the possibility of intercultural dialogue in the face of institutional traditions.

The assistance of the Schlesinger’s research librarians, both before and during my visit, was detailed and thoughtful, especially when it came to identifying newly released material. The visit has contributed very significantly to the progress of my research, and I am especially grateful to have received a Research Support Grant from the library that allowed me to make the trip from Melbourne.

Bridget Vincent is a McKenzie Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia, working on a project titled “Poetry and Public Apology in the Late Twentieth Century: Adrienne Rich and Geoffrey Hill.” She recently completed a PhD in English literature at Cambridge University as a General Sir John Monash Scholar.

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