Anneliese Harrison on Adrienne Rich

Margaret Atwood

The wreck she is diving into, in the very strong title poem, is the wreck of obsolete myths, particularly myths about men and women. She is journeying to something that is already in the past, in order to discover for herself the reality behind the myth, "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth." What she finds is part treasure and part corpse, and she also finds that she herself is part of it, a "half-destroyed instrument." As explorer she is detached; she carries a knife to cut her way in, cut structures apart; a camera to record; and the book of myths itself, a book which has hitherto had no place for explorers like herself.

This quest--the quest for something beyond myths, for the truths about men and women, about the "I" and the "You," the He and the She, or more generally (in the references to wars and persecutions of various kinds) about the powerless and the powerful--is presented throughout the book through a sharp, clear style and through metaphors which become their own myths. At their most successful the poems move like dreams, simultaneously revealing and alluding, disguising and concealing. The truth, it seems, is not just what you find when you open a door: it is itself a door, which the poet is always on the verge of going through.

From The New York Times Book Review (1973).

Cary Nelson On "Diving into the Wreck"

Her better poems always exact a certain price from anyone willing to participate in their vision. The kind of political awareness she advocates may cost a loss of personal freedom. The voyage into new territory may require us to adopt a generalized, mythic identity. The reader who accepts her vision uncritically has probably repressed the real anxieties accompanying self- recognition and personal change. The enthusiasm for her efforts to create a myth of androgynous sexuality is a typical case. To applaud the androgynous psyche or to announce this as its historical moment is easier than actually living out its consequences: "I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair / streams back, the merman in his armored body ... I am she: I am he." We all have more varied sexual impulses than we can act on, but will Rich's romanticized androgynous figure, "whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes," help bring them any closer to realization? While that is not a criterion one would ordinarily apply to all poetry, it is relevant in Rich's case. Unlike Roethke, she cannot take pleasure in the powerlessness of poetic solutions to social and historical conflicts. Her poetry continually testifies to her need to work out possible modes of human existence verbally, to achieve imaginatively what cannot yet be achieved in actual relationships. Moreover, she hopes that poetry can transform human interaction. Yet perhaps that is not, after all, the point, at least in poems like "Diving into the Wreck," despite its call for "the thing itself and not the myth." For what we have here is the myth, as Rich herself has now implicitly acknowledged: "There are words I cannot choose again: humanism androgyny" (DCL, 66). "Such words," she goes on to say, "have no shame in them." They do not embody the history of anguish, repression, and self-control that precedes them. "Their glint is too shallow" (DCL, 66); they do not describe either the past or the life of the present. As Rich has recently written of bisexuality, "Such a notion blurs and sentimentalizes the actualities within which women have experienced sexuality; it is the old liberal leap across the tasks and struggles of here and now." Indeed "Diving into the Wreck" demonstrates that one can suppress difficult feelings by mythologizing them. It may be that both Rich and her readers are relieved to have their fear and their desire conjoined in symbols so stylized and abstract.

From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois Press.

James McCorkle: On "Syringa"

Poets and critics share in the necessity of INVENTION   . Ashbery’s artes poeticae [Latin: "poetics" in the sense of a poet’s concept of how poems are made] are EMBLEMS    of invention and reinvention of the poet and poetry. In "Syringa," Ashbery explicitly invokes the myth of Orpheus, particularly the aspect focusing on renewal or re-membering after fragmentation or dismemberment. The poem’s title points to still another emblem of poetry, the reed, or what Syrinx was transformed into so as to escape being raped by Pan. The narrative of Syrinx is displaced by the story of Orpheus – her story is alluded to only at the end of the poem. Ashbery, thus, suggests there are two modes of poetry. On the one hand there is the Orphic whose

music passes, emblematic

Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it

And say it is good or bad.

You must

Wait till it’s over.

Ashbery, however, regards Orpheus with some approbation, depicting him as a comic-book figure in the opening lines and questioning the culture that allows the elitism and self-serving endeavors of the artist who acknowledges that "Stellification / Is for the few." On the other hand, there is the music of Syrinx, of whom only a name remains – the signature of both the poet and her new fragmented and dispersed poems that leave only these "hidden syllables" of her name. Or does Syrinx represent the demand that art transcend its artifice, to move from something loved to life itself? To invoke that utter tyransformation, as Syrinx did before Pan could seize her,

Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow,

Powerful stream, the trailing grasses

Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action

No more than this.

Though these grasses appear now as passive elements in nature, as David Bromwich notes, they are all that is left of an apocalyptic encounter. Ashbery locates a pastoral idyll on each side of the catastrophe. Syrinx, but for her name, has disappeared. … This moment of transformation is what the poet must write toward. Disappearing with the rise of the Apollonian mind and Orphic natural histories, Syrinx’s music represents the juncture of the sacred, violent metamorphosis, and of violence forestalled by invocation.


From James McCorkle, "John Ashbery’s Artes Poeticae of Self and Text" (Chapter 2) in The Still Performance: Writing, Self and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets(Charlottesville: U Virginia P, 1989), 81-82.