Adrienne Rich is often associated with modernist poet W. H. Auden, in large part because he selected her book A Change of World for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize. Rich is often seen as eventually rejecting Auden’s legacy, in large part because of her eventual shift from rhymed, metered poems and towards free verse. However, the two are often compared, in large part because both were out gay poets, and because both expressed deep ambivalence over poetry’s ability to effect political change.
John Nichols compares “In those Years” to Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” and this is a productive, interesting comparison. Written on the eve of World War II, Auden’s poem famously states:
“There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Here, Auden seems to suggest that nationhood is a fiction, and that the only certainty in this life is the reality that human beings must support each other, or face eventual doom. Especially important, though, is the fact that Auden eventually renounced this poem, saying of his own lines, “that is a lie.” It is not included in his collected volumes of poetry.
“In Those Years,” then, is an interesting corollary. Written after a period of relative peace (at least in the domestic U.S.), it shows Rich thinking through what happens when we fail to “love one another.” Rich might seem to conclude, like Auden, that when we fail to see our commonality, that when we forget “no one exists alone,” we allow violence to perpetuate itself. Here, however, there is a fruitful contrast. While Auden says “there is no such thing as the State,” we must wonder if Rich agrees. Although Rich would not famously reject the government-sponsored National Medal of Arts for several years after writing this poem, it already suggests her dissatisfaction with the arc of history even in a period of relative peace and prosperity. As an intersectional feminist, Rich can be read as producing a rallying cry for the collective confrontation with the very real power of a very real State.