Rich, Adrienne (Vol. 11)
Rich, Adrienne 1929–
An American poet, critic, essayist, and translator, Rich was a National Book Award winner with Diving into the Wreck. Her development of a relaxed form of free verse combined with formal diction has been seen by many critics as revolutionary and distinctive in American poetry. Her later work is intimately connected with her interest in the feminist movement. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Of Woman Born] is a disturbing book. In a footnote on page 76 the author, a poet and critic, writes: "I never read a child-rearing manual … that raised the question of infanticide."
This strikes me as an observation so inappropriate to the subject at hand—motherhood—that it raises doubts as to whether reality and wish have not been hopelessly lost in one another, and throws a good many of Rich's insights into serious question.
All mothers have, at one time or another, experienced a murderous kind of rage toward their children. While it is the proper business of child-rearing books to deal with feelings of rage (along with other disagreeable and guilt-producing emotions like melancholia, frustration, boredom, lethargy, despair, and the desire to flee), it seems to me that a discussion of the act of murdering your own baby doesn't belong in Doctor Spock any more than husband-or wife-killing belongs in a marriage manual.
Ms. Rich, when asked why her poems never speak of her children, replies: "For me, poetry was where I lived as no one's mother, where I existed as myself." Is Rich asking us to believe that when she is a writer she is not a mother, and vice versa? It seems as if Ms. Rich is either unable or unwilling to incorporate the experience of motherhood into the part of her that creates not bodies but poems. The one turns off, the other turns on, and never the twain...
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[Rich] has for a long time been interested in American life as registered and suffered by those not in power, those not directly responsible for it, and especially women…. Rich has also written about isolated pioneer figures, whose "unarticulate" lives preserved qualities gone underground—qualities which she, in her poetry, would like to make available to the present. Increasingly in the 1970s that interest has taken on a political cast in connection with the women's movement and feminism. Her prose study, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976)—parts autobiography, history, anthropology—is the most ambitious sign of her commitment to expressing and investigating the unexpressed feelings of women. But it is important to remember that this has been a long-standing concern of Rich's poetry. People who frame questions about the effect of her ideological commitment upon her poetry are, I think, looking in the wrong direction. Part of the ideological commitment is to poetry and the special powers of its language to probe and reveal. (pp. 137-38)
The final line of ["From an Old House in America"]—"Any woman's death diminishes me"—alludes to Donne's famous line. Its shock value drains away fairly quickly on second reading. Rich knows, of course, that Donne's meditation doesn't refer to the death of men alone, and her own version seems less "true" than simply being a signal, a semaphore, saying...
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A woman in a patriarchal society such as ours, Rich has said, "in which males hold dominant power and determine what part females shall or shall not play," is defined by powerlessness. In her poetry Rich probes the effects of such a society on women and moves toward personal and political ways of breaking out of it. An early poem, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," examines the life of a woman dominated, indeed "terrified by men." Creating in her needlepoint tigers a vision of masterful and assured life, Aunt Jennifer cannot escape the powers that confine her: her hands even after death are "still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by." "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" explores the lives of women whom men "dominate, tyrannize, choose, or reject," women who gain identity only through their relationships to men. The poem presents the consequences of such powerlessness: minds "moldering like wedding-cake" …; energies turned inward or erupting angrily at other women; women who either die as complete adults at fifteen or are labelled and dismissed as "harpy, shrew and whore." "Time," Rich reminds us, "is male" and selects for praise women who are beautiful and nurturing, who shave their legs and iron their clothing—and that of others…. (p. 34)
But Adrienne Rich does more in her poetry than merely examine the consequences of powerlessness. "What it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman … is perhaps the major subject of poetry from...
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"Diving Into the Wreck" … was fueled by an immense pounding energy, a raw power, "raw" in the sense of "wound." It was played on a kettle drum with an ax, to a warehouse filled with riot casualties. By contrast, "The Dream of a Common Language" is played on the piano, at evening, beside a half-open window. There are one or two other people in the room, friends of the player, and perhaps some strangers listening outside. The music is subdued but intense, and it is only after you have been hearing it for some time that you realize the player is half-blind and is missing several fingers. These are poems written despite, poems of willed recuperation. Pain is no longer their theme but a given condition they are trying to transcend; the best word for what they have is perhaps not "power" but "authority."
This book will probably be labeled "feminist" and even "lesbian." Both labels apply, though like all labels they are too often used merely for slotting items into pigeonholes so they can be safely dismissed. Adrienne Rich, however, is not easy to dismiss, and her poems, even when they insist on such labels, escape from them. "Twenty-one Love Poems," for instance, seems at first to be a cycle of poems tracing an affair between two women, yet it eludes such simple definition. For although the sequence is insistently rooted in the mundane details of such an affair, conducted amidst the specifics of a city—"the Discount Wares, the...
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Laura E. Casari
Poet Adrienne Rich, in Of Woman Born, chose the topic of motherhood "because it was a crucial, still relatively unexplored, area for feminist theory."… She thoroughly documents the powerlessness of women in a patriarchal culture and vividly depicts its results. Aware that literature on pre-patriarchal cultures is scarce, Rich offers her analysis of its importance along with her vividly depicted experience of motherhood, an experience potentially desirable, but destroyed by the institutions in patriarchal culture. This combination of historical material and personal experience makes starkly clear that we have lost, in taking women's freedom from them, much that our culture sorely needs. (p. 206)
Rich has written with precision of the plight of women in a patriarchy; with the assurance and power of the freed woman, she offers women the strategy and vision necessary to collectively build a world "truly ours." (p. 207)
Laura E. Casari, "Woman Freed," in Prairie Schooner (© 1978 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1978, pp. 206-07.
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Adrienne Rich's [The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977] frustrates oblique approaches and defies moderate responses. Breathtakingly beautiful and moving for the most part, it is sometimes depressingly narrow and mean. Nor is there enough between to allow one to relax into qualified judgments without misrepresenting the book. Even when the good and the bad float in the same medium, they rarely dissolve into the merely interesting or the mediocre. Still, The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977 is a unified project, not just a collection of poems, and it is sobering to contemplate the possibility that Rich could not have accomplished the best without doing her worst.
The unity of the volume springs from what we might think of as a pair of interrelated myths that it articulates bit by bit. One of them … concerns female identity. (p. 83)
[If] being a whole woman means being able to apprehend the self as a whole, Rich has made herself into one. Her thoughts and feelings are sensations. (p. 84)
When Rich turns from women's struggles with themselves to the oppressive society her eloquence turns to rant…. Men, "all of them," according to Rich's Paula Becker, feed on women, who seem sometimes to love men but must actually be dissembling. In short, the male is a "predator," a "parasite."
Some of these judgments are offered in contexts that might permit...
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