The 500-seat Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress has been sold out for weeks, yet calls were still coming in every 90 seconds yesterday.
"We could fill a stadium," said Maxine Kumin, the poetry consultant.
It is always this way when Adrienne Rich gives a reading. For one thing, she doesn't read every day because her arthritis makes it hard to get around. For another, as perhaps "the major woman poet of our generation," as Jumin says, Adrienne Rich represents for many the cutting edge of the feminist movement.
There is a third reason. She has been invited at least six times to the Library but always refused.
"The first time it was the Vietnam war," she said at a luncheon yesterday in the poetry consultant's aerie overlooking, if not the corridors, at least the statues, fountains and tourist buses of power. "I felt I had to make a statement about that. Some of the other times I was just too busy. But finally I decided, if I accept invitations from universities, then I shouldn't single out the Library."
She was talking about the sexism of the Washington establishment in general and the poetry consultant's office in particular: Since 1937 there have been 26 poets. Only five have been women. And one black.
In any case, it was a powerhouse evening. There couldn't have been 50 men in the overflow audience. "I write as women, lesbian and feminist," she said. "I make no claim to be universal, neuter or androgynous."
Commenting that "probably never has a political movement gestated so vital a literature," she read several new works including "Culture and Anarchy," a long, lyrical dialogue, a roster of heroic women, a song of the outdoors and of a life together. At the end, shyly, she limped off with her cane to a roar of applause from the standing crowd.
"I am a feminist," she writes in her latest nonfiction book, "On Lies, Secrets and Silence" (W. W. Norton, 1979), "because I feel endangered, psychically and physically, by this society, and because I believe that the women's movement is saying that we have come to an edge of history when men -- insofar as they are the embodiments of the patriarchal idea -- have become dangerous to children and other living things, themselves included; and that we can no longer afford to keep the female principle enclosed within the confines of the tight little postindustrial family, or within any male-induced notion of where the female principle is valid and where it is not."
Much of her poetry is punctuated only with wide spaces between words, in a way that recalls Emily Dickinson's dashes. The effect, when read, is stronger than one might expect: The cadences are so distinct, like powerful strides, that it almost seems a new language. A stanza from "Splittings," in the volume appropriately named "The Dream of a Common Language" (W. W. Norton, 1978): The world tells me I am its creature I am raked by eyes brushed by hands I want to crawl into her for refuge lay my head in the space between her breast and shoulder abnegating power for love as women have done or hiding from power in her live like a man I refuse these givens the splitting between love and action I am choosing not to suffer uselessly and not to use her I choose to love this time for once with all my intelligence
"I was trying to suggest splittings literally," she said, "making a crack right down through the lines."
A native of Baltimore, the 51-year-old Rich has degrees from Radcliffe, Smith and Wheaton, lectured at Swarthmore, Columbia, City College of New York Brandeis, Rutgers and other academic strongholds, leading to the years of slim volumes, grants, prizes.
"Because I was also determined to prove that as a woman poet I could also have what was then defined as a 'full' woman's life she writes, "I plunged in my early 20s into marriage and had three children before I was 30."
In 1970 her husband died. Today she speaks as a radical lesbian feminist about "the complex spectrum of issues surrounding women's claim to bodily -- and hence spiritual -- integrity: sexual harassament on the job; women-beating; rape; genital mutilation; pornography; psychosurgery; the use of dangerous and/or pacifying drugs on women; equal pay for equal work; the rights of lesbian mothers; the erasure of women in the history of the species . . ."
Prose or poetry, her words seem to glow with the force of her rage.
She wishes people weren't still stuck with the abortion issue. "I'd rather go forward," she said. And in "On Lies" she adds, "Both the Right-to-Life and Population Control movements are obsessed with direct control of women's bodies -- not with discovering and creating conditions which would make life livable for the living," noting that women's "choices" about having children are still "dependent on the far from neutral will of male legislators, jurists, a male medical and pharmaceutical profession, well-financed lobbies, including the prelates of the Catholic Church, and the political reality that women do not as yet have self-determination over our bodies . . ."
Her next book, coming out this fall, is titled, "A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far."
One of her spare, calmly angry poems is taken from the letters of painter Paula Becker to her friend sculptor Clara Westhoff, who married the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. . . . Rainer, of course, knows more than Otto knows, he believes in women. But he feeds on us, like all of them. His whole life, his art is protected by women. Which of us could say that? Which of us, Clara, hasn't had to take that leap out beyond our being women to save our work? or is it to save ourselves? Marriage is lonelier than solitude. Do you know: I was dreaming I had died giving birth to the child . . .
In 1907 Paula Becker died after childbirth, murmuring, "What a pity!