Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Phillip Ellis reviews Adrienne Rich

Rich, Adrienne, Tonight no Poetry Will Serve (New York : W. W.
Norton, 2011) ISBN 9780393342789 $15.95 US.

Tonight no Poetry Will Serve is the last book of poetry by Adrienne Rich that was published in her lifetime. As a result, it is easily read as the culmination of her long and fruitful career as a poet. Yet leaving aside questions of whether it can truly be the summation of her career (for which a collected edition of all her poems is the true measure), it can be asked, not whether the poems are worth reading, but what are the strengths and the weaknesses of the poems. In my opinion, there are far more strengths than weaknesses. And that these strengths are of form, language, technique, among others, that they are evidence of the skill and voice of the poet herself.

There are a number of strengths displayed by the poems of Tonight no Poetry Will Serve. Among these are an imaginitive use of white spacethe avoidance of too much punctuation (which throws the range of interpretations back onto the poems' performance), and an assurance of voice that is testament to the poet's confidence and skill. This is not even to venture into the language, or the poems' techniques.

The language of Tonight no Poetry Will Serve is strong and sinewy. In saying that, it does not mean that the idiolect does not change according to need and situation. It does. And the language ranges from the effacing “Saw you walking barefoot” of the title poem, to the more clotted “Princes of predation let me tell you” and other lines of “The Ballade of the Poverties”. This is a mark of the breadth of the poet's vision.

The range of techniques is consonant with the poet's skill and place in contemporary poetry. I need not note the assurance of the free verse and prose poetry, each, not unique, but consonant with the poem in question. The use, also, of the pauses of the lines' ending helps score and mark the poems' meaning and gravity. Read aloud the following strophe from the title poem, and you'll hear this: “Tonight I think / no poetry / will serve” – there is a real weight here.

There is one obvious flaw to Tonight no Poetry Will Serve. The sole use of a fixed form as the basis of a free verse poem fails; the ballade of “Ballade of the Poverties” does maintain the repetend to a point, as well as keep the four line envoi with its obligatory address, but the failure to maintain the basic length and number of the preceding stanzas does break the poem's back, and it does diminish its impact. The other poems, freed from this need to work within the strengths and limitations of a fixed form work far better.

I repeat my opinion: there are far more strengths than weaknesses in the poems of Tonight no Poetry Will Serve. This is evident through the strengths I have mentioned, such as the use of technique, and the language involved. And it is to be expected that there will be some flaws, with the only real problem I had with the poems in the misprision of the form of the ballade. And I could add, at this late stage, further remarks, such as mentioning the clarity of the poems' insights into our contemporary world, or how the fractures of the poems' narratives open up possibilities of breaking apart the mundane fictions which we create to approach the world. But I will, rather, end on this note: the poems of Tonight no Poetry Will Serve work, not just because they speak through their subjects, but also because they work wonderfully on their own, technical terms.

- Phillip Ellis 2013

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