Adrienne Rich Essay - Rich, Adrienne

Rich, Adrienne

Introduction

An important poet of the post-World War II era, Rich is praised for her lyrical and highly crafted poems in which she explores a variety of socially relevant subjects, including feminism and lesbianism. Rich is also an influential essayist whose numerous prose works have advanced theories of feminist criticism. An early proponent of societal change that reflects the values and goals of women, Rich is credited with articulating one of the most profound poetic statements of the feminist movement.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Dr. Arnold Rich, a respected pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, and Helen Rich, a classical pianist and composer. According to the educational beliefs of her father, Rich was schooled at home under the tutelage of her mother until the fourth grade. She showed an early interest in writing and was encouraged by her father to peruse his extensive collection of Victorian literature. Rich graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, and her first volume of poetry, A Change of World, was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets award. The following year Rich won a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveled to Europe and England. In 1953 she married Harvard University economist Alfred H. Conrad, and the couple settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rich gave birth to a son in 1955 and that same year saw the publication of her second poetry collection, The Diamond Cutters, and Other Poems. By 1959 Rich was the mother of three sons and had little time for writing. Though she wrote sporadically when her children were young, Rich was unhappy with the quality of work she produced. In 1963, however, she published Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, a collection of poems drawn from the fragments of writing she had compiled over eight years. This volume is widely considered her breakthrough work because of its overt delineation of female themes. In 1966 Rich and her family moved to New York City, where she became involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements. By 1969 she had become estranged from her husband, who committed suicide the following year. During the early 1970s Rich devoted much of her time to the women's movement and began identifying herself as a radical feminist. In 1973 her eighth poetry collection, Diving into the Wreck, won the National Book Award. Defying what she perceived to be the patriarchal organization on which the competition was founded, Rich refused the award as an individual; however, she accepted it collectively with fellow nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. In 1979 she moved to Montague, Massachusetts, with Michelle Cliff, a distinguished Caribbean-American fiction and essay writer, where the two coedited the lesbian feminist journal Sinister Wisdom. In 1997 she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award. Also that year, Rich was awarded a National Medal for the Arts, to be presented at a ceremony by President Bill Clinton; Rich refused to accept the award, criticizing public policies and governmental priorities as a whole. She wrote a short essay explaining her actions, which was published in the Los Angeles Times books section on August 3, 1997. Rich currently lives in northern California.

MAJOR WORKS

Rich's poetry is generally divided into discrete phases that reflect the evolutionary nature of her canon. The highly crafted verse structures and portrayal of such themes as alienation and loss in her first two collections, A Change of World and The Diamond Cutters, evince Rich's early affinities with modernist poets. In Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, considered her first transitional work, Rich departed from the formalism of her earlier volumes by employing free verse and overtly portraying women's themes. Rich began the next phase of her poetic career with the collections Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971). These works focus on the relationship between private and public life and openly reject patriarchal culture and language. Diving into the Wreck, Rich's second major transitional work, stands as a radical feminist critique of contemporary society. Many of the poems in this volume assert the importance of reinventing cultural standards in feminist terms and focus on the need for women to achieve self-definition. Her next collections, The Dream of a Common Language (1978) and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), are considered lyrical celebrations of the accomplishments of women. In these works Rich examines the lives of historical female figures as well as the everyday experiences of ordinary women. In Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Time's Power (1989), and An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), Rich addresses new issues—such as her Jewish heritage and the effects of the Holocaust on her life and work—while continuing to develop feminist ideals. In her most recent collections of poetry, Dark Fields of the Republic (1995), Midnight Salvage (1999), and Fox (2001), Rich focuses on "the interfold of personal and public experience."

In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976)—a volume of essays frequently considered her most forceful statement of radical feminism—Rich discusses the alienation and anger that she contends women experience in their roles as mothers in a patriarchal society. A second collection of essays, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979), contains prose that furthers her feminist aesthetic, including her most noted essay, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," in which Rich clarifies the need for female self-actualization. In Blood, Bread, and Poetry (1986) Rich continues to explore issues of lesbianism while focusing on such topics as racial identity and racism. In What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993) Rich argues for the importance of poetry as a "social art" throughout human experience. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001) collects some of Rich's best-known essays and adds several new works to her canon.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Since the publication of Diving into the Wreck, most critics have analyzed Rich's work as an artistic expression of feminist politics. While many reviewers have praised her ability to write effectively in numerous verse forms, others have faulted the content of her poems as didactic. Critical commentary on Rich's work has reflected the polemics of her verse; critics who adhere to Rich's politics frequently commend her poems unconditionally, while those who disagree with her radical feminism disavow her work. Additionally, there has been no conclusive appraisal of her canon as Rich continually revises her views and asserts her new approaches to contemporary issues. Most critics concur, however, that Rich's intelligent and innovative portrayals of women have contributed significantly to the feminist movement.

Principal Works

A Change of World (poetry) 1951

The Diamond Cutters, and Other Poems (poetry) 1955

Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems, 1954-1962 (poetry) 1963; revised edition, 1967

Necessities of Life: Poems, 1962-1965 (poetry) 1966

Selected Poems (poetry) 1967

Leaflets: Poems, 1965-1968 (poetry) 1969

The Will to Change: Poems, 1968-1970 (poetry) 1971

Diving into the Wreck (poetry) 1973

Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974 (poetry) 1975

Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (criticism) 1976

The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974-1977 (poetry) 1978

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (criticism) 1979

A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems, 1978-1981 (poetry) 1981

The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984 (poetry) 1984

Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985 (criticism) 1986

Your Native Land, Your Life (poetry) 1986

Time's Power: Poems, 1985-1988 (poetry) 1989

An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems, 1988-1991 (poetry) 1991

What Is Found There:...

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Primary Sources

SOURCE: Rich, Adrienne. "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision." In Adrienne Rich's Poetry: Texts of the Poems, the Poet on Her Work, Reviews and Criticism, edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, pp. 90-8. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.

In the following essay, originally published in the journal College English in October, 1972, Rich encourages readers to reexamine texts by and about women in order to come to a new understanding of women as artists and individuals.

Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken is a play about the use that the male artist and thinker—in the process of creating culture as we know it—has made of women, in his life and in his work; and about a woman's slow struggling awakening to the use to which her life has been put. Bernard Shaw wrote in 1900 of this play:

[Ibsen] shows us that no degradation ever devized or permitted is as disastrous as this degradation; that through it women can die into luxuries for men and yet can kill them; that men and women are becoming conscious of this; and that what remains to be seen as perhaps the most interesting of all imminent social developments is what will happen "when we dead awaken".1

It's exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful. This awakening of dead or sleeping consciousness has already affected the lives of millions of women, even those who don't know it yet. It is also affecting the lives of men, even those who deny its claims upon them. The argument will go on whether an oppressive economic class system is responsible for the oppressive nature of male/female relations, or whether, in fact, the sexual class system is the original model on which all the others are based. But in the last few years connections have been drawn between our sexual lives and our political institutions, which are inescapable and illuminating. The sleepwalkers are coming awake, and for the first time this awakening has a collective reality; it is no longer such a lonely thing to open one's eyes.

Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society. A radical critique of litterature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us; and how we can begin to see—and therefore live—afresh. A change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if we are not going to see the old political order re-assert itself in every new revolution. We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.

For writers, and at this moment for women writers in particular, there is the challenge and promise of a whole new psychic geography to be explored. But there is also a difficult and dangerous walking on the ice, as we try to find language and images for a consciousness we are just coming into, and with little in the past to support us. I want to talk about some apects of this difficulty and this danger.

Jane Harrison, the great classical anthropologist, wrote in 1914 in a letter to her friend Gilbert Murray:

By the by, about "Women," it has bothered me often—why do women never want to write poetry about Man as a sex—why is Woman a dream and a terror to man and not the other way around?…Is it mere convention and propriety, or something deeper?2

I think Jane Harrison's question cuts deep into the myth-making tradition, the romantic tradition; deep into what women and men have been to each other; and deep into the psyche of the woman writer. Thinking about that question, I began thinking of the work of two 20th-century women poets, Sylvia Plath and Diane Wakoski. It strikes me that in the work of both Man appears as, if not a dream, a fascination and a terror; and that the source of the fascination and the terror is, simply, Man's power—to dominate, tyrannize, choose, or reject the woman. The charisma of Man seems to come purely from his power over her and his control of the world by force, not from anything fertile or life-giving in him. And, in the work of both these poets, it is finally the woman's sense of herself—embattled, possessed—that gives the poetry its dynamic charge, its rhythms of struggle, need, will, and female energy. Convention and propriety are perhaps not the right words, but until recently this female anger and this furious awareness of the Man's power over her were not available materials to the female poet, who tended to write of Love as the source of her suffering, and to view that victimization by Love as an almost inevitable fate. Or, like Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, she kept human sexual relationships at a measured and chiselled distance in her poems.

One answer to Jane Harrison's question has to be that historically men and women have played very different parts in each others' lives. Where woman has been a luxury for man, and has served as the painter's model and the poet's muse, but also as comforter, nurse, cook, bearer of his seed, secretarial assistant and copyist of manuscripts, man has played a quite different role for the female artist. Henry James repeats an incident which the writer Prosper Mérimée described, of how, while he was living with George Sand,

he once opened his eyes, in the raw winter dawn, to see his companion, in a dressing-gown, on her knees before the domestic hearth, a candlestick beside her and a red madras round her head, making bravely, with her own hands, the fire that was to enable her to sit down betimes to urgent pen and paper. The story represents him as having felt that the spectacle chilled his ardor and tried his taste; her appearance was unfortunate, her occupation an inconsequence, and her industry a reproof—the result of all of which was a lively irritation and an early rupture.3

I am suggesting that the specter of this kind of male judgment, along with the active discouragement and thwarting of her needs by a culture controlled by males, has created problems for the woman writer: problems of contact with herself, problems of language and style, problems of energy and survival.

In rereading Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own for the first time in some years, I was astonished at the sense of effort, of pains taken, of dogged tentativeness in the tone of that essay. And I recognized that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and in other women. It is the tone of a woman almost in touch with her anger, who is determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached, and even charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity. Virginia Woolf is addressing an audience of women, but she is acutely conscious—as she always was—of being overheard by men: by Morgan and Lytton and Maynard Keynes and for that matter by her father, Leslie Stephen. She drew the language out into an exacerbated thread in her determination to have her own sensibility yet protect it from those masculine presences. Only at rare moments in that essay do you hear the passion in her voice; she was trying to sound as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare, because that is the way the men of the culture thought a writer should sound.

No male writer has written primarily or even largely for women, or with the sense of women's criticism as a consideration when he chooses his materials, his theme, his language. But to a lesser or greater extent, every woman writer has written for men even when, like Virginia Woolf, she was supposed to be addressing women. If we have come to the point when this balance might begin to change, when women can stop being haunted, not only by "convention and propriety" but by internalized fears of being and saying themselves, then it is an extraordinary moment for the women writer—and reader.

I have hesitated to do what I am going to do now, which is to use myself as an illustration. For one thing, it's a lot easier and less dangerous to talk about other women writers. But there is something else. Like Virginia Woolf, I am aware of the women who are not with us here because they are washing the dishes and looking after the children. Nearly fifty years after she spoke, that fact remains largely unchanged. And I am thinking also of women whom she left out of the picture altogether—women who are washing other people's dishes and caring for other people's children, not to mention women who went on the streets last night in order to feed their children. We seem to be special women here, we have liked to think of ourselves as special, and we have known that men would tolerate, even romanticize us as special, as long as our words and actions didn't threaten their privilege of tolerating or rejecting us according to their ideas of what a special woman ought to be. An important insight of the radical women's movement, for me, has been how divisive and how ultimately destructive is this myth of the special woman, who is also the token woman. Every one of us here in this room has had great luck—we are teachers, writers, academicians; our own gifts could not have been enough, for we all know women whose gifts are buried or aborted. Our struggles can have meaning only if they can help to change the lives of women whose gifts—and whose very being—continue to be thwarted.

My own luck was being born white and middle-class into a house full of books, with a father who encouraged me to read and write. So for about twenty years I wrote for a particular man, who criticized and praised me and made me feel I was indeed "special." The obverse side of this, of course, was that I tried for a long time to please him, or rather, not to displease him. And then of course there were other men—writers, teachers—the Man, who was not a terror or a dream but a literary master and a master in other ways less easy to acknowledge. And there were all those poems about women, written by men: it seemed to be a given that men wrote poems and women frequently inhabited them. These women were almost always beautiful, but threatened with the loss of beauty, the loss of youth—the fate worse than...

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General Commentary

SOURCE: Stimpson, Catharine. "Adrienne Rich and Lesbian/Feminist Poetry." Parnassus 12-13, nos. 2-1 (spring-summer and fall-winter 1985): 249-68.

In the following essay, Stimpson traces the development of lesbian and feminist themes throughout Rich's poetic career.

… it is the subjects, the conversations, the facts we shy away from, which claim us in the form of writer's block, as mere rhetoric, as hysteria, insomnia, and constriction of the throat.1

Four years after … (Adrienne Rich) published her first book, I read it in almost disbelieving wonder; someone my age was writing down my life … I had not...

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Title Commentary

ERICA JONG (REVIEW DATE JULY 1973)

SOURCE : Jong, Erica. “Visionary Anger.” Ms. 2, no. 1 (July 1973): 30-4.

In the following review, Jong outlines the feminist concerns of Diving into the Wreck, highlighting such themes as the patriarchy, femininity, and androgyny.

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. . . . Is there any other way?”

Emily Dickinson

The test of a good book of...

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Further Reading

Criticism

Bere, Carol. "The Road Taken: Adrienne Rich in the 1990s." Literary Review 43, no. 4 (summer 2000): 550-61.

Provides a thematic overview of Rich's poetry published during the 1990s.

Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Place. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1997, 234 p.

Critical analysis of Rich's poetry.

Eagleton, Mary. "Adrienne Rich, Location, and the Body."1Journal of Gender Studies 9, no. 3 (November 2000): 299-312.

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