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 that certain kinds of language from the past just won't do. The line is a deliberate narrowing of focus, an unsubtle way of talking about a subject Rich treats with as much point and with more complexity in images which in this same poem precede the "put-down" of Donne. The subject of this poem is women's dream of isolation. The loaded gun [which was a sexual image in "Face to Face"] is that of the watchful frontier woman at her stockade, and Rich imagines, with a great deal of psychological penetration, that this dream also "snares" a woman's pride. It may be like a "suicidal leaf" (the half-rhyme "life" close to the surface) ready for combustion under the burning-glass.
I have used this example for two reasons. First, to cite one instance of the way Rich's feminism has come forward in her recent writing. Second, and more important, to suggest that the shock value of a line like "Any woman's death diminishes me"—and our agreement or disagreement with its place as poetry—should not blind us to the fact that else-where in the same work Rich is continuing a task more effective as poetry and more profoundly political. Rich's images—like the "loaded gun" of "Face to Face" and " From an Old House …"—often attach themselves in the mind to feelings of ardor and tension. Sometimes, as in "Face to Face," the poem is pitched toward a meeting or a reconciliation. The main action takes place in stillness, an isolated concentration to find the "old plain words," the "God-given secret," which will, in the meetings dreaded and desired, both explode and reach out for understanding. In the later assertiveness of "From an Old House …" the "loaded gun" defines boundaries of self, a stockade within which exploration and attention to the self are taking place. No immediate release is promised. But in both these examples, Rich is straining toward a charged language which will make the self, at last, palpable. (pp. 140-41)
Composing in charged phrases shifts attention to her images, draws the pulse of the poem to them and away from verbs. In many of Rich's poems the images—close to the truth of dreams—rest close to one another in a complexly realized present…. Rich appropriates the manner to the coil and recoil of emotions. Her ardor transmutes traditional modernist materials. Above all, she puts them at the service of dialogue. What marks her … is the explicit demand her speakers make not only to understand but to be understood. They fight off the notion that insights remain solitary, unshared, dribble off into the past. What's more, her poems, however public in reference, proceed in a tone of intimate argument, as if understanding—political as well as private—is only manifest in the tones with which we explain ourselves to lovers, friends, our closest selves. Whether this radical intensity can be attained and sustained is the question George Eliot asked in Middlemarch, and the one Rich asks again and again as her poems make the attempt. (p. 142)
[In her] period of apprenticeship Rich was guided by instinct to the literary modes and postures through which she could express a smouldering and independent nature—one which impressed itself more directly in later work. It is interesting how, in the mannerly tones of her Frostian narratives, she goes intuitively to the core frustration of women dwindling into marriage. She is also not blinded by the glittering surround of heroic figures to whom she is in other ways drawn. In "Euryclea's Tale" (1958), impersonating Ulysses's old nurse, or in "The Knight," playing the critic of heroes herself, she is marvelously penetrating about the burdens and derelictions of traditional warriors. "Who will unhorse this rider / and free him from between / the walls of iron" ("The Knight"). "I have to weep when I see it, the grown boy fretting / for a father dawdling among the isles" ("Euryclea's Tale").
Yet still we see the knight "under his crackling banner / he rides like a ship in sail." And Euryclea, baffled and resentful on the part of the boy Telemachus, still can think of Ulysses's vagrancy in more romantic terms…. (p. 144)
The ambush here is the storyteller's own susceptibility to all facets of the story, to the all-encompassing light in which Ulysses's travels may be viewed…. (p. 145)
In taking on earlier literary modes and historical figures, Rich very often found an angle of the subject which allowed her to enter the scene guardedly. But the time she wrote "Antinoüs: the Diaries" it was with a measure of self-disgust. Only later, when they were no longer part of the inherited "poetry of furs and manners"—and through the strange economy of a poet's memory—was she to welcome back those glints of richness as signs, not of a transmitted love of surfaces, but as answering to the hidden resources of the spirit. Modulated, in a different key, a chastened opulence was to be one way of talking about the sunken treasure of personality—the lost, the suppressed, the unspoken—in Rich's more disciplined, radical poems. For example, in "Diving into the Wreck" (1972), one way of talking about confusions of history and sexuality, the damages, the riches rotting and waiting to be unlocked, was to imagine them among shifting underwater forms, "the silver, copper, vermeil cargo," the sea-creatures "swaying their crenellated fans," "the ribs of the disaster /...
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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,...
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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...
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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)
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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.
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