Adrienne Rich & Graphs of Experience

In her later work, Adrienne Rich has developed a poetic technique that presents the reader with a graph of experience. By experience, I mean the moment by moment tracings of conscious perception. There must of course be a a process of editing during composition, but the poem presents itself as a graph — the poet operating like one of those old-fashioned weather instruments in which a stylus scrapes a line upon a rotating drum covered in smoked paper. Here is an example:

Ever, Again

Mockingbird shouts Escape! Escape!
and would I could. I’d

fly, drive back to that house
up the long hill between queen

anne’s lace and common daisyface
shoulder open stuck door

run springwater from kitchen
tap drench tongue

palate and throat
throw window sashes up screens down

breathe in mown grass
pine-needle heat

manure, lilac unpack
brown sacks from the store:

ground meat, buns, tomatoes, one
big onion, milk and orange juice

iceberg lettuce, ranch dressing
potato chips, dill pickles

the Caledonian-Record
Portuguese rose in round-hipped flask

open the box of newspapers by the stove
reread: (Vietnam Vietnam)

Set again on the table
the Olivetti, the stack

of rough yellow typing paper
mark the crashed instant

of one summer’s mosquito
on a bedroom door

voices of boys outside
proclaiming twilight and hunger

Pour iced vodka into a shotglass
get food on the table

sitting with those wild heads
over hamburgers, fireflies, music

staying up late with the typewriter
falling asleep with the dead

Well, it’s a sly artlessness I see now while typing it out. First, the registered patch of experience is a memory & memories can be edited, consciously or unconsciously. (The way one edits memory, consciously or unconsciously, counts for everything, morally & aesthetically, which for me, increasingly, amount to pretty much the same thing.) The telegraphic registration of small details add up to a record of an experience that has been recovered and reexperienced, perhaps more intensely that it was the first time. (What is the positive term for nostalgia?) And as readers that recovered experience becomes our own through the graphing of details. Also, we all know that rich is a “political poet,” but I think that leafing through the newspapers “Vietnam Vietnam)” has the effect of placing the speaker’s recovered experience in the context of a particularly intense moment of history. It is also, of course, a poem about making poems inside both personal and national histories.

[The poem above is from Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006 by Adrienne Rich, published by W.W. Norton.]