Literary Treasures: Adrienne Rich reading her poems in the Coolidge Auditorium, April 7, 1981

The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012.

Adrienne Rich was born on this day in 1929, so it seems a fitting occasion to celebrate her poetry and remember her 1981 reading at the Library of Congress. After an introduction by Consultant in Poetry Maxine Kumin, Rich walked onto the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium and prefaced her reading with a short statement. “Before I start to read, I want to speak a little bit about the soil in which these poems I’m going to read to you are rooted,” she said to a packed auditorium. “The ecology, as I might call it, of this work.”

That evening, Rich read poems from her 1978 collection, The Dream of a Common Language, as well as poems from her not-yet-published collection A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, which would be released six months later. Listening to this recording 37 years later, her opening statement before an excited auditorium crowd remains aurally stirring. She continued,

For a long time, I wrote of my experience as a woman tentatively and codedly, sometimes almost telegraphically. [There are] a lot of reasons for that, and I think in the room back there Maxine [Kumin] and I were talking, and she was telling me a little about her lecture on women poets. I think if you go to her lecture and hear it, you may understand more of some of the reasons why many of us wrote of our experience tentatively and codedly and almost telegraphically.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a body of writing began to emerge by women which told me I was not alone nor mad nor lacking in a political and literary tradition. Magazines, journals, anthologies, reprint editions, bibliographies, documentary histories began to appear from the feminist media, which revealed a conspiracy in the sense of a breathing together of women of many different backgrounds and degrees of embattlement. Probably never has a political movement gestated so vital a literature, and it is still growing. It is this literature, both the old which has been and is being refound, and the new, by women 15 to 20 years younger than me, and also the new, by women 15 and 20 years older than me, which fires my blood and urges me on, gives me what I need to do my work, challenge, goads inspiration. […]

Listening to Adrienne Rich read and discuss her work is a spellbinding thing. On what would be the poet’s 89th birthday, how better to celebrate than with the poet herself?

In case you want to jump to a particular poem from this recording, here is a timestamped guide:

  • From The Dream of a Common Language
    • Power (13:05)
    • Hunger (16:04)
  • From A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far
    • Integrity (22:47)
    • Culture and Anarchy (28:09)
    • For Julia in Nebraska (38:54)
    • Transit (44:22)
    • Mother-In-Law (47:30)
    • The Spirit of Place (53:52)

Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1929. She is the author of 25 poetry collections, including A Change of World (1951), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award; Diving into the Wreck (1973), winner of the National Book Award for Poetry; and An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems1988-1991 (1991), winner of the Poets’ Prize. She also published seven books of non-fiction. The recipient of fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from The Poetry Foundation, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the National Book Award, Rich was also the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999-2001. Rich taught at Swarthmore College and Columbia, Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell, San Jose State, and Stanford Universities. She died in 2012.

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