The Passing of a Poet ~ The Power of a Poem

Poet Adrienne Rich passed away last month. I only know a few of her poems, but one of them made a huge impact on my artistic view of the world. It was my junior year of college, second semester – right about this time of the year actually. I was enrolled in my first poetry course, and like so many other misinformed kids I thought it would be a breeze. Little did I know that poetry was one of the most difficult forms of writing to both execute and understand. The deceptively happy work of Emily Dickinson was revealed as a masked portal into the darkest psyche of a woman’s heart. The Rape of the Lock was seen as both frivolous and ruinous. And an ancient Grecian urn contained the key to an entire world of artistic understanding.

That poetry course illuminated the power of words, the intricacies of a single letter, the way a single comma or period could change everything that followed. It also showed me that I could and would never be a proper poet. There was too much going on, too much space for disaster, too many opportunities to fuck it up beyond all recognition. But I gained a greater appreciation for the art form, and for one poem in particular.

On a dismal early Spring day, not unlike the ones we’ve had this week, I made my way from the dorm to the small building that housed the poetry class. It was an early course, the way I liked it, and the campus was quiet. A few birds chirped in the misty upper-reaches of a barely-sprouting maple. Wet pavement and moss lined the short walk, echoes of a Grecian urn offering solace before the real warmth of Spring took hold, the solace of finding beauty in words.

Our professor, in his smoky, cigarette-stained voice, at once seductive and on the verge of ragged, read Adrienne Rich’s ‘The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood At Last As a Sexual Message’:

A man in terror of impotence
or infertility, not knowing the difference
a man trying to tell something
howling from the climacteric
music of the entirely
isolated soul
yelling at Joy from the tunnel of the ego
music without the ghost
of another person in it, music
trying to tell something the man
does not want out, would keep if he could
gagged and bound and flogged with chords of Joy
where everything is silence and the
beating of a bloody fist upon
a splintered table

from Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972

Listening as he read, I had a visceral reaction to it. Having heard Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ symphony in church every Easter, having played it on the piano, and having a childhood idea of what it meant, I was not prepared for how the poem turned everything I thought I knew upside down. This wasn’t joy, this wasn’t celebration, this wasn’t happiness – this was rage, pent-up and released. This was a pounding, a thrashing, a violent explosion. This was fear and terror and a strident, desperate crashing of pain. Rich’s words rent me from the inside out, her voice channeling Beethoven, and anyone who had felt such fear in a secret, silent world.

It was a lesson in how art ~ true, everlasting art ~ survives and changes according to the time. Rich gave her own voice, and her own ears, to a man who couldn’t hear, who was no longer even alive, transforming his music into hers, reaching someone like me, who would have gone through life utterly unaware of any other sort of ‘Joy’ ~ assuming the superficial happiness otherwise attributed to Beethoven’s Ode, or even Emily Dickinson’s poems. It was my first experience with how one artist could reach out and respond to another, traversing time and space and boundaries, and connect in a way that culminated with another work of art.

As I neared my final year at Brandeis, it showed me how much I had yet to learn.
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