Adrienne Rich Essay - Rich, Adrienne (Vol. 6)

Rich, Adrienne (Vol. 6)

Rich, Adrienne 1929–

Adrienne Rich, an American poet and critic, won the National Book Award in 1974 for Diving Into the Wreck. Another poet has written that her work displays "complete mastery, absolute assurance of movement and tone." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

There is much craft [in Adrienne Rich's "Implosions"], and, just as unusual, much humility. Here the poet is telling us how she feels, not instructing us in how we ought to feel. She commands our assent all the more by refusing to court it. Our first impression when we read this is not likely to be, "Aha, protest poetry"; we will be thinking of things which resist categorization. Good poems, poems like this one, always fight free of labelling. Such individuality cannot be copied, but we can only hope that it can be emulated. The age is dominated by faceless collectivities, and in such a milieu the poet's most cogent protest lies not merely in what he has to say but in his finding an inimitable voice in which to say it. (p. 54)

Robert B. Shaw, "The Poetry of Protest" (copyright © 1974 by Robert B. Shaw), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974.

Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963) is the transitional book in Adrienne Rich's development…. What happens is the crucial event in the career of any artist: a penetration into experience which makes for a distinguishing style. Her themes—the burden of history, the separateness of individuals, the need for relationship where there is not other transcendence—begin to find their clarifying focus and center: what she is as woman and poet in late-twentieth-century America. The first poems in the book are still quite regular; even so striking a piece as "The Knight" is something of a tour de force in its proportioned elaboration of a conceit. But by the time the reader encounters the title poem, he knows he is dealing with a sensibility tough, restless, capable of unpredictable leaps and turns…. This thinking woman paraphrases Baudelaire, parodies Horace to register the pressures that make the mind moulder. The shock of the imagery is due not merely to its violence (each of the passages refers to a cutting edge) but to an accuracy so unsparing that the imagination reacts psychosomatically: muscles tighten and nerves twinge. The ten sections of "Snapshots" comprise an album of woman as "daughter-in-law," bound into the set of roles which men have established and which female acquiescence has re-enforced. Women-artists—Emily Dickinson, Mary Shelley, Fanny Burney—stand out as images of resistance and achievement, and they herald the image of fulfilment. (pp. 126-27)

Adrienne Rich's earlier poems were praised for their subtlety of rhythm and tone, and these unmetered lines lose none of their subtlety for being more strongly stressed and more freely paced. But in becoming more concrete, her poetry was becoming primarily visual rather than aural, and she has been increasingly successful at imprinting images so indelibly that they convey the meaning without comment or conclusion. The words "eye" and "see" recur insistently (some thirty times) throughout the Snapshots volume, and there can be no mistaking her purpose: to "outstare with truthfulness" each moment in the flux of time and thereby live as keenly as her powers of perception make possible. To be is to see; I am eye. Poetry functions as the vehicle for seeing and for fixing what one comes to see. It is the camera with lens and focus, and poems are snapshots. (p. 128)

The psychological and artistic point which the Snapshots volume dramatises is Adrienne Rich's rejection of the terms on which society says we must expend our existence and her departure on an inner journey of exploration and discovery. (p. 132)

Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969) and The Will to Change (1971) are better books than Snapshots; they move steadily and with growing success towards making a poetry which is not just an activity consonant with life but an act essential to it. (p. 134)

Rich has commented on the importance of Williams' example in her learning not to be "self-protective" like Frost and thereby to "take the emotional risk as well as the stylistic risk." But the emotional and psychological quality of her verse is utterly her own, and the prosody shows none of the posturing of much "experimental" verse and none of the halting choppiness which too deliberate a preoccupation with "breath-unit" imposes on some of Williams' followers. (p. 135)

The rejection of bourgeois mores voiced in Snapshots has led to a more radical view of the necessity, for life, of reordering social values and structures. But even the political poems in Leaflets and The Will to Change (for example, "For a Russian Poet", "Implosions", the "Ghazals", "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children") are not, in the end, propaganda leaflets. They remain poems because Rich has too powerful a sense of "original sin" to make the utopian mistake of externalizing evil by projecting it on others. The poems compel us precisely because they record how excruciating it is to live in this time and place; the politics is not abstracted and depersonalized but tested on the nerve-ends. The psychological and political revolutions are interdependent, because personal and public tragedy are linked, as "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children" and "The Photograph of the Unmade Bed", as well as the title poem, declare. Individually and collectively we need "the will to change."

As the ultimate challenge to her initial assumptions, Adrienne Rich raises the dreaded question for a poet: the very validity and efficacy of language. Is art the act of clarification and communication that we say it is? As early as "Like This Together" in 1963 she was worrying that "our words misunderstand us." Now in "The Burning of Paper":

          What happens between us
          has happened for centuries
          we know it from literature
          still it happens
          there are books that describe all this
          and they are useless

If language has no power to affect the given, then is the resort to language an evasion of action, as the revolutionaries charge? (p. 137)

[There] must be no blinking away the dangers of language as escape or the tenuousness of any attempt at articulation. But in the acknowledgment of all these limits, language remains a human act which makes other actions and choices possible: "Only where there is language is there world," "We are our words" ("The Demon Lover"); "Our words are jammed in an electric jungle;/sometimes, though, they rise and wheel croaking above the treetops" ("Ghazals"); "I am thinking how we can use what we have/to invent what we need" ("Leaflets"); "I wanted to choose words that even you/would have to be changed by" ("Implosions"). So, even in "The Burning of Paper", "this is the oppressor's language/yet I need it to talk to you." The conclusion is not to stop speaking and writing but to make words penetrate to the will as well as the mind and heart: "the fracture of order/the repair of speech/to overcome this suffering" ("The Burning of Paper"). (p. 138)

[The] fact that hers is not merely a private struggle but a summons to us all—at least to all of us who enter the door and cross the threshold into the psyche—informs the poetry with a mythic dimension in a singularly demythologized time. A myth not because her experience has been appended, by literary allusion, to gods and goddesses, but because her experience is rendered so deeply and truly that it reaches common impulses and springs, so that, without gods and goddesses, we can participate in the process of discovery and determination. It is existentialism raised to a mythic power, and the myth has personal and political implications. The result is a restoration to poetry of an ancient and primitive power, lost in the crack-up which the last centuries have documented. The power of the bard in his tribe has long since declined with the power of prophecy. Adrienne Rich's mission is to live out her dream of a society of individual men and women. By challenging us to a more honest realization, she has recovered something of the function of the poet among his people: not by transmitting their legends and tales but by offering herself—without pretensions, with honest hesitations—as the mirror of their consciousness and the medium of their transformation. In effect, her poetry has come to represent a secular and unillusioned version of the poet as prophet and the prophet as scapegoat living out individually the possibilities of the collective destiny. By long tradition in the patriarchal culture this tribal function has been the prerogative of male poets, but there is something peculiarly clarifying and liberating about confronting ourselves through the mind and imagination of a woman. Equally so for men as for women, because the work of a woman-artist is much more likely than the work of most men to present the counter-image essential to his wholeness and to activate and call into play that whole area of emotion and intuition within himself which is the special province of the "woman within."

All this accounts for the centrality of Adrienne Rich's work in the contemporary scene, for the electric immediacy of the reader's or hearer's response, and for the finally healing effect of poems wracked with the pain of awareness and the pain of articulation. (p. 143)

Albert Gelpi, "Adrienne Rich: The Poetics of Change" (copyright © 1974 by Albert Gelpi), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974, pp. 123-43.

Adrienne Rich's poetry is unglamorous…. [At] 45 [she] is a very different woman from the Radcliffe undergraduate whom Auden congratulated, in his preface to her Yale Younger Poets first book, for having written poems that "are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs." But the elders she most visibly respected in those early poems were Frost, Edward Arlington Robinson, Emily Dickinson to some degree and, perhaps, Auden himself. And she has remained a plain-speaker, neither a maenad, an ecstatic nor a flirt, the roles easiest available to women poets. She doesn't frisk or whirl or go mad for our attention….

Her early work was lapidary; her later poems are bulletins, looser and more improvisatory in appearance. At her least convincing, she writes poetic journalism, free-form expostulations on Vietnam, Women's Lib and "patriarchal politics."…

Early in her career Adrienne Rich wrote competent narrative poems in Frost's mode ("The Perennial Answer," for example). Her new "For L. G.: Unseen for Twenty Years" [in "Poems, Selected and New, 1950–1974"] is better than those, a mature woman's reaching-out to amend a troubled conversation with a homosexual friend of her youth. "White Night" is a hushed, uncanny poem in which a woman working late at night looks across a courtyard to the lighted window of a neighbor "up/at this snail-still hour." A long final piece, "From an Old House in America," convinces me that we are just now hearing a story-teller, a spell-spinner, rise to her fullest capability…. (p. 5)

Walter Clemons, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 27, 1975.

Thr nurturing restraints of formal grace … are rarely eschewed in Adrienne Rich's Poems: Selected and New, 1950–1974 …, and then only when, as an embattled feminist, she hurls her words with such dogmatic glibness that they seem priggish and mean, closed off from her witty intelligence…. In the poems of her youth, which Auden praised for their neatness, modesty and candor, she had already begun to forge a language of her own, calculatedly bare and thoughtful, astonishingly free of the self-important virtuosity that often disfigures the efforts of the gifted young.

Indeed, throughout the work of her 20s and 30s she was curiously obsessed by middle age, as in the sharply realized "Autumn Equinox," with its mood of unquiet resignation…. Through the years, Miss Rich's subjects have moved from the graphically captured transiencies of a bewildered tourist in Europe to the graver burdens of responsibility enclosed in scenes from domestic life.

By the late 1960s, the tense, articulate proprieties of her early work, with its undisguised homage to Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, had clearly become suspect, so much confining anachronism. In "Leaflets," the world ("Che Guevara/Bolivia, Nanterre") is dragged in like an effigy of evil. Some of the poems are little more than metered fragments of Leftist rhetoric ("I was trying to drive a tradition up against the wall" or, worse, "LeRoi! Eldridge! listen to us …"). With her aggressively absolute commitment to radical feminism, she is geared to write leaflets, speeches—anything but poetry.

The poems from Diving Into the Wreck, published in 1973, are looser still, and more programatic. The words are sometimes stretched into slogan balloons, spasms of rage sprayed on a wall: "Madness. Suicide. Murder./Is there no way out but these?" Nonetheless, the volume's title poem is one of her best, with its heavy, waterlogged portrait of the woman diver, her body clumsily armored for descent into the inchoate depth of new being, her courage sucking at the skin like black rubber. And despite lines spoiled by the intransigent, untransformed rhetoric of a cause, the long poem "From a House in America" is a beautiful, ruminant elegy, powerfully somnolent in rhythm, about women and men, old houses and suicide, the endurance of grief in the act of survival. (p. 4)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), May 26, 1975.

Adrienne Rich's process of transformation over the years has been an astonishing phenomenon to watch: in one woman the history of women in our century, from careful traditional obedience (that was Auden's description of her) to cosmic awareness, defying the mode of our time, especially the sexual and political repression. She describes her own process of change in the wonderful new poem "Tear Gas" [in Poems Selected and New].

If she began in 1951 with a control that seemed to me to be cold, she has exploded into passion and compassion, beginning in 1966 when she moved to New York from Cambridge—during the time of the Vietnam war, the student protests, the rage of the Third World, and the accelerating women's movement. "From An Old House in America" is a magnificent poem, a quieter more comprehensive statement of her allegiance than any yet made: "Any woman's death diminishes me."

But if her poetry is now open and even occasionally violent, it carries with it the strength of those years of craft. When Rich breaks away from form, as in "The Phenomenology of Anger," it is with a strength that comes from years of control and mastery. If the tension between passion and control sometimes leans toward the side of passion, so much the better: she sees the world whole and she sees what it needs. She is poet as prophet, she is Cassandra, willing to stand in the earthquake….

I believe that "Diving into the Wreck" (the title poem of her previous book, which won the National Book Award) is one of the great poems of our time. It is a poem of disaster, with a willingness to look into it deeply and steadily, to learn whatever dreadful information it contains, to accept it, to be part of it, not as victim, but as survivor. (p. 67)

Ruth Whitman, in Harvard Magazine (copyright © 1975 by Harvard Magazine; reprinted by permission), July-August, 1975.

[Two] things remained constant in [Ms. Rich's] work from the days when it evoked the Charles River or San Miniato al Monte, to more recent times when Godard or Ghazals were all its rage: it has always been very much in fashion, never to my knowledge at variance with current chic—academic, domestic, or radical; and it has from the beginning been characterized by an almost total absence of the humorous element. Ms. Rich has the ability to be deadly serious about anything at a moment's notice, and of course there is always herself to be serious about. To compare her with Lowell, or even Sylvia Plath, is immediately to see that her self-watchfulness is devoid of self-mockery, looniness, outrageous liberties taken with one's own feelings and caught through language. Thus it is easier, though less rewarding, to read Rich than Lowell or Plath because her "positive values" eventually come through; her poems try to be about griefs, but more often end up about grievances, and at least since 1970 to be a woman is to have grievances in ample measure. (pp. 300-01)

I don't think the poetry [in Poems: Selected and New] matters enough, nor do I see the "new generosity and new self-forgetfulness" which Helen Vendler predicted [in Parnassus, Fall-Winter 1973]. Wall-to-wall solemnity and dedication, rather. (p. 301)

William H. Pritchard, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1976.