This article approaches Adrienne Rich's late poems in terms of the shifting conceptions of the poetic “career” in late modernity. I argue that if one were to place Rich's late writings into the normative framework of career “fulfillment,” one would crucially overlook Rich's considerably beleaguered persistence as a poet of radical left-wing politics. Thus the idea of a “career trajectory” in effect too rigidly tries to organize what for Rich has become a melancholic commitment to a conception of poetic practice that has endured temporal dislocations while sustaining an engagement with the present. Focusing on her last collection of poetry, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve (2011), I reconsider how Rich's late lyrics articulate the desire for and aesthetic difficulty of what the anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli calls the “possibility of being otherwise” under late liberalism. Rich's late poems thereby illustrate how late modernism constitutes an interstitial living or what Lauren Berlant has theorized as the “cruel optimism” of late-modern fantasies of the good life. These last poems face their own cruelly optimistic attachments to poetry's political vocation without succumbing to the paralyzing forms of ethical and epistemological violence that proliferate in the twenty-first century.
Jeffrey Neilson; “No Poetry Will Serve”: The Cruel Optimism of Adrienne Rich's Last Poems. Genre 1 December 2016; 49 (3): 331–357. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-3659110
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