“Late Ghazal” by Adrienne Rich

Footsole to scalp alive facing the window’s black mirror.
First rains of the winter     morning’s smallest hour.

Go back to the ghazal then     what will you do there?
Life always pulsed harder than the lines.

Do you remember the strands that ran from eye to eye?
The tongue that reached everywhere, speaking all the parts?

Everything there was cast in an image of desire.
The imagination’s cry is a sexual cry.

I took my body anyplace with me.
In the thickets of abstraction my skin ran with blood.

Life was always stronger . . . the critics couldn’t get it.
Memory says the music always ran ahead of the words.

Reprinted from Dark Fields of the Republic, copyright © 1995 by Adrienne Rich. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


In this poem, Adrienne Rich conveys the irreconcilable gap that exists between experience and articulation. Poetry, therefore, has the inherent inability to stand as a comprehensive evocation of the poet’s life, as “life [will] always [pulse] harder than the lines.” Yet, the poet will inevitably “go back” through the “thickets of abstraction” to grasp life’s “music” in “words,” which serve as afterthoughts to experience. Rich therefore attempts to demonstrate that her poetry cannot be equated to a direct representation of herself, as “critics” have incorrectly surmised.

The ghazal is a strict and ancient poetic form generally used to evoke the pain of separation. In this case, the separation is that which exists between poetry and a poet, or between life and words. This is emphasized by the caesuras, or pauses, within the second and third verses of the poem. These blank spaces delineate the nature of creating poetry as a process of first listening to life’s “music,” and then collecting the “words” to evoke it. Additionally, Rich does not adhere to the ghazal’s true structure—a further rejection of poetry as the direct outlet of life.

Adrienne Rich was a poet who never shied away from expressing controversial views in her art. She thus served as one of the most prominent writers of the second half of the twentieth century, resonantly voicing social and political issues through her poetry. Though she recently passed, Rich will continue to propagate her influence to generations of writers to come.