Adrienne Rich: Teaching the walk

Prolific poet and feminist activist Adrienne Rich passed away last week on March 27.  Years ago as a freshman undergraduate, I attended by chance a poetry reading she was giving at my campus.  The reading was held in a large auditorium – large enough to hold maybe 500 attendees.  As I recall, the room was quite full.  In the midst of her reading, a young baby began crying – loudly.  Adrienne Rich read on, accompanied by the wails of the baby.  A number of attendees began craning their necks in growing annoyance.  Where was that baby?  Why didn’t the mother have the decency to get up and leave?  The nerve – we’re here to listen to poetry!

The baby continued crying, and more attendees were visibly looking this way and that, searching for that baby.  At last, a young woman, red-faced, stood up with the fussing baby – of course they were in the middle of the auditorium and in the middle of a very long row.  The mother began slowly inching her way down the long row, headed for the exit aisle, swaying from the weight of the wriggling and fussing baby in her arms.

While reciting, Adrienne Rich noticed the standing woman and her baby, and immediately stopped reading her poem.  Urgently, she said into her microphone:

“Stop!  Don’t leave!”

The atmosphere throughout the auditorium was electrified.  The anonymous young woman indeed stopped in her tracks, extremely shocked to be addressed directly by the famous poet.  We all stared dumbly at Adrienne Rich, who also seemed a bit embarrassed by her own outburst.

She explained earnestly, urgently, in words I will never forget:

“I mean, if you are leaving because of your baby, DON’T.  Because your baby isn’t bothering anyone.”

The audience was momentarily stunned.  Of course, the baby had been bothering quite a few attendees.  But in a second, Adrienne Rich had taught us all a vital lesson.  A split second later, the whole auditorium went wild with cheers and a standing ovation.

I remember this lesson frequently.  I certainly remembered it when I was a single parent struggling with my own crying baby at public events and lectures I desperately wanted to attend.  I thought of it again when I learned of Adrienne Rich’s death.  She really was a poet and feminist who talked the talk, walked the walk, and in surprising ways taught the walk to all of us who could listen, reflect, and understand.  Rest in peace, Adrienne Rich.

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From Poetry Everywhere (Public Television)

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Selected Books by Adrienne Rich in the Library:

  • Tonight no poetry will serve: Poems, 2007-2010
  • Telephone ringing in the labyrinth: Poems, 2004-2006
  • The School among the ruins: Poems, 2000-2004
  • The Fact of a doorframe: Selected Poems, 1950-2001
  • Arts of the possible: Essays and conversations
  • Midnight salvage:  Poems, 1995-1998
  • Dark fields of the republic: Poems, 1991-1995
  • An atlas of the difficult world: Poems, 1988-1991
  • Time’s power: Poems 1985-1988
  • Diving into the wreck: Poems, 1971-1972
  • What is found there: Notebooks on poetry and politics
  • Collected early poems: 1950-1970

Adrienne Rich – Selected Multimedia in the Library:

  • Spoken Word: American Poets (Audio CD:  Media Collection – Disc 008 016)
  • Readings & Conversations: Reading by Adrienne Rich (Video: Media Collection – VIDE 003 699)
  • Adrienne Rich (Audio CD:  Media Collection SOUN 000 367)
  • The Language of life: A festival of poets, with Bill Moyers (Video: Media Collection – VIDE 002 143)