‘I come to explore the wreck’: on Adrienne Rich and the arts

In the age preceding identity politics, writing about the cultural politics that infiltrated social norms was not a good way to get yourself published. I think of Valerie Solanas and her 1967 radical feminist manifesto, SCUM, which was little-known until Solanas attempted to kill Andy Warhol in 1968. Not the best example at all, given the polarity of radical feminism in the 1960s, but I think about the way this sort of public activism could have been construed as a blemish on an otherwise ‘homogeneous’ culture.

What I like and admire about Adrienne Rich, poet and writer, is that her activism didn’t directly occupy public space, but inhabited the sublime spaces between behaviour and language. The 16th of May commemorated the eighty-eighth birthday of Rich, a woman who, more than many, has influenced my views on art, feminism and the archetypes of femininity. She was political and actively so, famously declining the National Medal of Arts, and protesting the vote by House Speaker Newt Gingrich to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997.

Publicly, the ‘space for the arts [has been] opened by movements for social justice’, Rich said, in justifying her stance on refusing the National Medal in 1997. The relationship between art and politics (particularly relevant in the cultural malaise represented by both Australian and US arts funding cuts) has seen devastating denouements for Australia’s cultural evolution. The podcast Starving Artist and the blog Extraordinary Routines both interview arts figures about how they live and survive, and provide us with insight into how artists are striving to create in a world that demands more than mental contributions from them, but also fiscal and political.

Rich was confronting and aggressive in an evangelic fashion. There’s not an ounce of a poetry zealot in me, yet when I read her words I am transformed into a devout follower. Her book, Diving Into the Wreck, and its eponymous poem, balance the dichotomy between vulnerability and sinew: the wreck, and the subliminal reminder that we still occupy a space that is dismantled by a force greater than us. In the poem, the narrator unites themselves with the audience as one force (‘we are, I am, you are’) that needs to ‘find our way / back to this scene.’ These words themselves are a kind of mystic chant: the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck.

The nonviolent protest Rich demonstrated by rejecting the National Medal spoke volumes to an impressionable, younger version of myself. In my teens, I revered the brash and brazen spirits of men who demanded and pioneered change. I don’t feel so different from Rich in this regard: she was informally mentored by male poets when she was growing up. W.H. Auden published her first collection of poetry in 1951, and her father fed her poetry from his male-ridden library.

Almost seventy years on, there is a strong need for her words, and words like hers, to champion our current cultural (and political) malaise. A poet who can portray the strengths and vulnerability of a woman caught in the patriarchal system: I am an instrument in the shape / of a woman trying to translate pulsations / into images. To articulate the struggle, to make people see what you are feeling. As a poet, she took on the role of the observer and encouraged the reconstruction of a female identity. Not an easy feat in the 1960s.

To me, Rich illustrates and illuminates the woman’s journey. I am happy to say she converted me to start listening more to the stories of women around me. It needn’t be only about feminism or branches of femininity. I’d say it was a general contextual awakening that argued that women need to fundamentally support each other. Language, outrage, passion – they are all shared between women, so that no individual woman bears the burden of solitary struggle, the sheer weight. In Vesuvius at Home, Rich reviews the poetry and legacy left by Emily Dickinson. As Dickinson seemed to tell [Rich] that ‘the intense inner event, the personal and psychological, was inseparable from the universal,’ Rich tells me that the personal is political and they cannot be separated.

Radical activism can still be seen as ‘ugly’ action for female artists and writers. I have always wanted to be loud in my activism, but my personality doesn’t lend itself to public acts. I prefer the more circumspect acts of observing and writing. The more difficult point to press on is that radical activism is not a pretty image for emerging artists. More so, radicalism often pairs itself with a level of perceived recklessness and disregard that I am simply uncomfortable with. See the media spectacle that was made of cartoonist Nicky Minus for spitting on the newly-appointed Administrator for the Inner West Council, Richard Pearson, during a protest. What happened to her, the virile harassment she was subjected to by the media for her conduct, was ridiculous. Yet protests for the arts require acts of bravery akin to hers.

Recently, Fairfax Media dramatically reduced its arts coverage to a solitary figure. Imagine covering the spectrum of arts – theatre, exhibitions, music, poetry and others! – without skilled expertise in each area. Could you expect one to do the same with the economy, with the budget? It’s not just arts coverage that is threatened, but also arts criticism, which helps cultivate a national overview of our intellectual, expository art culture.

There’s a public, perhaps bureaucratic pressure to keep politics separate from one’s place of labour, and one’s labour of love. Rich also said this, more eloquently: ‘The debate over the proper relations between the state and the artist, between the realms of the public and the private, continues unabated.’ Arts critic Anwen Crawford in The Monthly writes that, ‘as a nation, [Australians] are hostile to self-examination, which is a part of what art and arts criticism can do. We don’t want to hear that we are anything but the fair-go larrikins who carry the spirit of the Anzacs in their hearts, or something like that.’

Writing on the public regard for arts coverage in Australia, Crawford says, ‘we are in crisis’, and within me echoes a sinking realisation: the arts are struggling, supported arts culture is almost non-existent, there is a fervour in young emerging writers … and I don’t know what to do. I want to hear from people who are worried about our future, and the thing I worry about is those same people becoming so disillusioned by not being heard, that they stop speaking up altogether. We don’t have to be the loudest people in the room, but we have to show we care about art.

The last set from Planetarium says:

I have been standing all my life in the   
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most   
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep      so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15   
years to travel through me       And has   
taken      I am an instrument in the shape   
of a woman trying to translate pulsations   
into images    for the relief of the body   
and the reconstruction of the mind.

Rich acknowledged where she stood as a woman in the universe. As she wrote in Vesuvius at Home, undoing the unwritten and invisible laws that support patriarchal notions and taboos takes more than just recognising them as a problem. It needs to be collective and it needs to alter the way we work in our shared spaces.

Art can be a means of resolving internal conflicts and exploring uncharted terrain, but it is also a rallying cry for support, and for the ‘relief of the body’, a society we all share. In a culture where patriotism and nationalism are on the rise, it is revolutionary to say: ‘my concerns for my country are inextricable from my concerns as an artist,’ whether private or public.

Image: Adrienne Rich / flickr

Marta Skrabacz

Marta Skrabacz is a writer and journalist based in Melbourne. She is currently working on a book examining confessional writing and memoirs in the twenty-first century.

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