Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

“More Than It Says”: Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) and the Political Poem

Hannah VanderHart


April 6, 2012

By Hannah VanderHart

“There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill,” writes Adrienne Rich, who passed away last week at age 82, in her poem What Kind of Times Are These. What appears first as a natural landscape soon shifts to a metaphorical, moral landscape where “the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows / near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted / who disappeared into those shadows.” The place the narrator describes is a place of former “revolution” and action, now abandoned, its visitors gone.

But, although the poem describes a place of the past, the narrator will not give it up. “I won't tell you where the place is,” declares the poem, “the dark mesh of the woods / meeting the unmarked strip of light— / ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise: / I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.” While the narrator will not “tell” the poem’s location, she provides a rich, careful, loving description—capturing the complexity inherent in a “leafmold paradise.”

The concluding stanza reads:

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you

anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these

to have you listen at all, it's necessary

to talk about trees.

The poem’s last few lines serve a conviction to the readers and writers of poetry: “trees” double as a symbol for the bucolic landscape inspiring much lyric-poetry and for the nature poem so favored by American readers (hence the popularity of poets like Robert Frost, W. S. Merwin, Mary Oliver). Rich’s reader might also hear a reference to ecology and conservation. In any case, “trees” serve as a means of catching the reader’s ear and attention.

But if one feels judged by Rich’s final lines, the feeling is owed to a pact between the poet and reader, initiated by the poet. In her essay Someone is Writing a Poem, Rich writes, “And all this has to travel from the nervous system of the poet, preverbal, to the nervous system of the one who listens, who reads, the active participant without whom the poem is never finished.” She might have to attract your attention with trees, but she continues to do so because the attentive ear is an active ear, a thinking reader.

Rich plays the notion of activity against the idea of poetry as a passively consumed experience. What Kind of Times are These may open like a Frost poem, but “the old revolutionary road” and the persecuted persons, the narrative of disappearance—these are Rich’s additions to the poem of nature. Such additions come of believing, as Rich states in her essay, that “In a political culture of managed spectacles and passive spectators, poetry appears as a rift, a peculiar lapse, in the prevailing mode. The reading of a poem, a poetry reading, is not a spectacle, nor can it be passively received.”

In that same essay, Rich describes poetry as “an exchange of electrical currents through language.” She tells of witnessing a vaudeville spoon-player “who made recognizably tonal music by manipulating old spoons with his astonishing fingers.”  Taking the spoons as a metaphor, Rich directs her reader: “Take that old, material utensil, language, found all about you, blank with familiarity, smeared with daily use, and make it into something that means more than it says.”

More than the trees, she means. To the person writing the poem, Rich says: Make your reader listen to your poem because she likes what she hears, and yet make her listen because she will hear “more than it says.” This is the chance every poem has to enter into the political life of the private individual—the individual who may pick up a poem about trees and discover much more. 

 —Hannah VanderHart is a poet and second-year graduate fellow at The Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice in Washington, D.C. (Georgetown University).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”