I first learned about Adrienne Rich, who died on Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, CA, at the age of 82, in college almost 20 years ago. I was 18, and many of my professors adored Rich. They taught entire courses about her, or at least included her poems on their syllabi, and by sophomore year, I understood that in the pantheon of Important Writers to Know About, Rich ranked pretty high.
And yet, I never read her — or at least not that I can remember. Why not?
In her memoir, But Enough About Me, What do You Think of My Memoir?, Nancy K. Miller describes reading as an autobiographical act. Everything we read says something about who we are, and we define ourselves through the process of reading. She’d say that there’s a simple reason that I loved Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, and Tim O’Brien: I found myself in their words. They still define me today, along with everything I’ve read since college.
Adrienne Rich never appealed to my sense of self as an undergraduate, and it wasn’t because she was a lesbian, a feminist, or a Jew. I read other feminist authors, and liked some of them. I even took women’s studies courses. I simply didn’t care to read her work. But now that she’s gone, I find myself thinking about her again for the first time since the early 1990s, wondering why I never gave her a chance.
Maybe it’s because she was a poet, and the only poet I can remember liking at that age was Gary Snyder. Or maybe it’s because, at that age, we tend to develop our identities around our tastes, and in opposition to that of others. I was a Kundera fan; meanwhile, Patrick liked Adrienne Rich.
It seems so juvenile now, so limiting. But that’s how it is, and frankly, if I didn’t give Rich a try in college, why would I after graduation?
So I’m left with nothing but a vague sense of Adrienne Rich’s significance in American literature, and a few fuzzy memories of college that are associated with her name.
And so, I ask for your thoughts. Help me understand what I was missing.
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Oddly enough, I guess over time, Ms. Rich’s impact on literature has decreased. Or there’s been a shift. But I don’t recall her ever coming up on any syllabi while I was at NYU. The point being that I’ve never heard of her until just now. But, with that said…
While I was in school, there were plenty of other author’s that I skipped over that were considered seminal literary masters. To this day, I’ve never read a Jane Austen novel. Or more than 20 pages of Mark Twain. And that’s just off the top of my head.
I think what EVERYONE does at some point, is pick’s their “specialization”. No one on earth can be the master of all English literature. Just like there is no Dr. House in real life who is simply just a master of every single medical field in all the world. It’s impossible. And so, you start picking what interests you and what doesn’t. And you get to a point where you sort of make a checklist. Or an anti-checklist. Like you said, you’d read feminist work and Jewish work and poetry and everything else that she stood for. Which means, by that point in time, you should be able to look at a piece of written work and immediately decide if it’s going to enrich your own, personal canon of information or if it’s simply not going to “add to your specialization”. To me, it’s simply a neurosurgeon skipping over a textbook on dermatology. While in school, why the hell would they bother? In my opinion, this is why someone would gloss over authors or written works and not be concerned about reading them.
This does not mean that you ever stop learning. Or that your specialization is ever rooted firmly to the ground. As you get older and you start running out of canonical works to read in your own specialization, you start to wonder what else is out there. And in the case of Adrienne Rich, you wonder if – as you said – there is something vital you missed. This is partially due to the very human trait to appreciate someone’s life once they’ve died.
Which means, as far as I’m concerned, you’re only doing what any natural English major would be doing right now. So pick up her book if you want, but if you don’t, ain’t nothing wrong with that either.
Thanks, Joe. I think the point about falling out of fashion is important. It’s interesting that between the early 90s and when you were at NYU, the canon had changed that much. Or it might have been where I went to college, or that it was a liberal arts school, or that much of the English department at my college was made up of women who had gone to graduate school during the 1970s.
But culture does change, and reading lists are constantly being amended. This is obviously for the best, on several levels, but I wonder what the implications might be. After all, what does it mean if two people who both majored in English two decades apart can’t have a conversation about literature?