Rich, Adrienne (Vol. 18)
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 reflects her interest in the feminist movement. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 7, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Mixed] motives—to enlarge "feminist theory" and to express a personal experience of a fateful kind—account for the title of Adrienne Rich's book [Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution]. Motherhood as experience appears in autobiographical episodes interspersed through much longer reflections attempting to analyze motherhood as a social institution. It is impossible to discuss either the autobiography or the analysis without raising the problem of partisan writing.
The autobiography is retold by a convinced feminist, reinterpreting her past in the light of her present convictions. All autobiographies construct a myth of explanation; some are more complex than others; some authors are conscious of the limitations of their myths (as Yeats was in discussing his "masks"). Though Rich is conscious that she has not always interpreted her life as she now does, her present myth is not offered as provisional; instead, the current interpretation of events of the past forty years, from childhood to liberation, is offered as the definitive one. (p. 263)
It is not surprising that a woman who, at this stage in her life, represents her father as seducer, cruel controller, intellectual critic of her first poetic attempts, and angered despot, should find herself protesting the control that a society which she regards as male-dominated, and therefore cruel, exerts over women. It is not suggested in these...
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Susan R. Van Dyne
Despite Rich's current commitment to a poetry of energetically willed process which would generate an irresistible forward momentum, breaking through the old dilemmas in a "succession of brief, amazing movements / each one making possible the next" … one is struck in rereading the volumes [of her poetry by] how much of the most significant movement in her poems is neither directly forward nor equivocal in its consequences. Instead, the critical discoveries are made when the poet insists, as she first did in a poem in A Change of World, on "stepping backward." Perhaps too much is being made these days of Rich as prophet, with too many approving critics reviewing her career eager to uncover only embryonic stirrings of her present feminist identity. (p. 142)
Even before feminism and Rich discovered each other, many of the readers of her seven volumes felt she was articulating with uncanny accuracy a familiar body of American experience, voicing in 1950 the educated ennui of that decade, and later announcing the liberal antiwar sentiments of the sixties. Precisely because the timely volumes so often seemed proven upon the pulses of her audience, Rich has been championed or condemned as the voice of larger movements than her own. Yet to appreciate the complex consistency of her poetry we cannot afford to overlook the regular reappearance of poems which from the very beginning until the present moment seem to arise from the poet's...
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Adrienne Rich's prose moves with force, clarity, energy; and soothes with a poet's grace and elegance. The only bad prose in ["On Lies, Secrets, and Silence"] is its title, which conveys a wholly inaccurate idea of whining and whimpering within. Feminism, pedagogy and literature, not lies, secrets and silence, are the subjects covered by her essays. The literary studies are brilliant: on Anne Bradstreet, on "Jane Eyre" and on Emily Dickinson, about whom Adrienne Rich may have written the single best critical essay we have….
On feminist issues, which loom largest here and affect all her subjects, Adrienne Rich says much that we have heard before from others; but she usually says it better. Feminist readers, who may feel they need not read another word on women's issues, will find themselves mining this collection for quotable epigrams….
For the purpose of scholars, Adrienne Rich's most important feminist subject is lesbianism, because female homosexuality (of capital importance to modernism in the arts) has a slim bibliography, to which she unfortunately contributes only a few scattered pages here….
Antifeminist readers, who do not understand what "patriarchal society" means, can learn a lot from the critical use of the concept Adrienne Rich makes in her studies of Brontë and Dickinson…. In "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson," it is with the authority of a woman poet that...
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Adrienne Rich notes dryly that "the first verbal attack slung at the woman who demonstrates a primary loyalty to herself and other women is man-hater."… [On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978] continues to offer its primary loyalties to women. The author also refuses to allow her very real compassion for men (which an astute reader will not miss) to defuse her conclusions, nor does she parade evidence of her "humanism" (a word Rich has elsewhere said she finds false and will no longer use).
On Lies, Secrets, and Silence can be seen as one woman's journey past obligatory "humanism" …, to the position of a woman who does not give a damn about such voices because she is talking to women…. The shift occurs halfway through the book, in 1974. The earlier Rich is capable of assuming (in "The Antifeminist Woman") that equal pay is "serious" and housework trivial; the later Rich … can state, "it is the realities civilization has told [women] are unimportant, regressive, or unspeakable which prove our most essential resources."
Not a popular stand. But its uncompromising honesty frees her for some fine things, from the bitter accuracy of "Toward a Woman-Centered University" to the splendid "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson."… At her best Rich is inimitable….
Inevitably the book is uneven. Among the best of the literary essays are those on Dickinson,...
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Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
It's an unhappy fact of life and of prose that ideology tends to coarsen, and sometimes to fossilize, the moral imagination; it leaves little room for nuance or for play. In the writing of some (though by no means all) feminist theorists, insight becomes a bludgeoning rod instead of lightning flash; and the greatest danger for the ideologue who is also political activist is not that she will become corrupt, but that she will bore her readers into disaffection….
It is vexing to be told (as we are, again and again, in [On Lies, Secrets, and Silence]) that we must "frame our own questions on this as on every other issue." (What are "our own questions"?) It's particularly vexing in the context of abortion, when battle-trench mentality seems to suggest to Ms. Rich that all philosophical inquiry is inappropriate (or "male-defined") because all questions are "manmade."
It's interesting, this about questions. In an introductory note to an essay about Anne Bradstreet, Rich says certain questions were "unavailable" to her when she wrote about the early American poet in 1966 "partly because of the silence surrounding the lives of women." Rich wishes she had asked, "What has been the woman poet's relationship to nature, in a land where both women and nature have, from the first, been raped and exploited?" I think we can agree that there was, in 1966, a silence surrounding the lives of women; and I suppose I could be...
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The goal of all this exploration is not the cultivation of "better women writers," but of women who will begin to write outside of the "law" of language, beyond the reach of male critical approval.
Thus language itself in Dream appears to be "in the act of changing its meaning" (a definition Stanley Kunitz has given of poetry) within the framework of Rich's ideological time. For those who call her "radical" (often because they claim to recognize the voice of the demagogue in her recent poems) I suggest that this altered sense of time is her most radical statement. She moves compass-like through other people's "hours and weeks" to the inevitable north of her future, her point of view. More than assaulting the prevailing esthetic, she assaults the temporality of that esthetic, our chronological sense of ourselves—and it is in this deliberately woven time warp that The Dream of a Common Language begins.
Rich asks us to dream collectively, suspend our waking sense of time's authority, presuming all and nothing, as in a dream. As a clever veteran explorer of the unconscious, she knows this mined territory well enough to ask her readers to formally consider the dream as the single metaphoric device whose radar will guide us to "consciousness."
There is irony, albeit unintentional, in the choice of the dream as governing metaphor, for it is the oldest escape hatch in poetry, the...
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Barbara L. Estrin
The power to choose—the exhilaration and the humiliation of self-determination—is … the subject of Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, only the politics of that book divides the world in half…. In 1964, Lowell could use the word man and include everyone; in 1978, Rich has diminished her arena of meaning to include no man…. Politically speaking, I find her arguments narrow and contradictory. At the same time that she wishes to link herself with those who, "age after age," have fortified the world and to prepare herself as one of those who will provide for a new knowledge of reality, she ignores, in her silence about it, the central fact that is changing the body she enjoys and mutilating, with its insidious power, the generational cycle. (pp. 224-25)
But the strength of The Dream of a Common Language lies in the considerable number of poems that move beyond feminist concerns and explore and accept the responsibility for choice. In these, Rich's voice achieves a quality of independence that Wallace Stevens found in the paintings of Marcel Gromaire: "Being rebellious is being oneself and being oneself is not being part of the automata of one's times." (p. 226)
The method of the book is exemplified by a pattern of return. Definitions arrived at in one poem are reworked in another, threads cast earlier are picked up at the end, like the fugues, the etudes, the telephone calls back...
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