Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10135
Rich, Adrienne 1929–
Praised since her earliest collection, Ms Rich continues to elicit critical response as one of America's important poets. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Adrienne Rich has taken her title [The Will to Change] from Charles Olson—not, for me, an encouraging sign. She has forgotten or forsworn her proved craftsmanship and gone into a kind of secret reverie. All that's worth expressing is the inexpressible, these poems seem to say, and of course that is part of the glory and despair of poetry. But does not the miracle, a slightly perhaps phony miracle (see Nabokov) happen sometimes when fortunate ones come out with a unified expression even if it is not what they were striving for? There is a skilled hand making these poems, but there is also, at least much of the time, a kind of contempt for coherence…. Any one of the ghazals will give the striking phrases and the total incoherence. Perhaps I don't understand the ghazal? (I don't.) (pp. 500-01)
Richmond Lattimore, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1971 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1971.
So important is the will to change in Adrienne Rich's mature work that it may well serve as primary focus in any consideration of her poetry, for it is her understanding and treatment of the ideological dynamics involved that will have much to say about the kind of intelligence we respond to as we read the successive volumes. At the same time, we must try to do justice to the wide range of insights, indeed to the variety of wills, represented in this very singular poetry.
The poet has had an abiding sense of her life and work as split in a decidedly simple and predictable way. As a young woman she had thought of herself as neat and decorous, cultivating a solid look, "Neither with rancor at the past / Nor to upbraid the coming time," as she described it wistfully in "At Majority" (1954). In those years, things had a certain weight and poems could express them in all their apparent accustomedness and density. It was not as though the young poet were entirely unaware of the abyss of uncertainty, but she had a confident way of holding it off, of handling it elegantly so that it seemed at most a mildly threatening idea. Her poetic skills, lavishly praised in the early '50's by Auden and Jarrell among others, seemed altogether a match for any difficult notions or untoward sensations that might have disturbed that wonderful poise and control, whether of self or of the aesthetic medium. All at once, though, in the poems of the late '50's, a more embattled and urgent air began to creep in, and the poet discovered that she had been covering up, not controlling merely, but wilfully evading. There is a certain tidiness in the discovery as she seeks to evoke it in the volume Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), but we know in the perspective of subsequent volumes that the experience was in fact deeply important to the poet…. The single, controlling image demanding control of all particulars in a given poem is perhaps the most consistent element in the volume Snapshots, and accounts for the still formal quality we sense in the various poems. They deliver up their treasures rather too explicitly, we feel, and the note of discovery becomes so pointed and anticipated that we are grateful even for outbursts of spite or anger that break the pattern. But best of all are the rare introductions of specific tensions the poet wishes to work through rather than to resolve…. There is no clamoring [in Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law] for definite answers, no triumphant declarations of the courage to change as though change were all one could conceivably ask of anyone truly human. The poet's self-concern here is seemly and reasonable. She wants to know about herself, her secrets, her gifts. She does not speak yet as though perpetual motion were the ideal state, the will to change the index of perfect maturity….
Most important of all, she does not blithely reject the past as though it had nothing to tell, nor dismiss orderliness and the clean lines of a modest behavior for undifferentiated passion. (pp. 132-34)
In what is surely her best book to date, Necessities of Life (1966), Adrienne Rich moves steadily to inhabit the world and to make contact with that self she had thought largely repressed and almost forgotten. It is a volume not so much of youthful discovery as of sobering expansiveness, a coming out into a challenging universe armed with all the gifts of steady vision and confident warmth we associate only with a very mature person. Adrienne Rich achieves in the poems of this volume a dignity and casual elevation that are altogether rare in the poetry of any period. Imagination here is in the service of intelligence in a way that might well dampen the poetic ardor of most poets, more committed as they are to the sheer vagrancies of creative inspiration. The remarkable thing about the poems in Necessities, though, is that they betray no decline of invention, no thinning of poetic texture, nothing in the way of mere reasonable constraint. They are rich in a quality I can only call character. They bear, everywhere, the marks of a rare and distinguished personhood which we take as at least an implicit celebration of our being. (p. 134)
The echoes in [for example, "After Dark," from Necessities of Life] serve only to enhance one's sense of its largeness, its breadth of vision and informed intelligence. Nothing in the way of irrelevant local texture removes our concern from the very grave and beautiful relation that is evoked, a relation that is as much a communing of a soul with itself as it is the working out of affections between the generations. The tension here is not between idea and image, between abstraction and concretion, but between what we know and what we feel…. There is no pristine self here, no absolutely authentic being the discovery of which is exclusively potentiated by a cutting loose from all that is customary and embedded…. [Her] associations become progressively literary, but there is no ounce in them of the inauthentic. The poetic echoes refresh the context by reminding us of comparably moving treatments of similar themes…. This is a poetry that can afford such echoes, for as it is generous with its emotions without railing or ranting, so can it securely draw upon an entire tradition to substantiate its sincerity. In a work less open, less generous, the associations might seem insufficiently modulated or assimilated, perhaps even calculated. Here they strike us as fine. (p. 136)
The rejection of the dream-life, the emergence into clarified perception and knowing interaction with the things of this world, is central to the poems of Necessities. The will to change is considered within a relatively stable context, for the poet here presupposes a way of life. It is nothing so exalted and distinctive as the old high way Yeats wistfully remembers in the poems of Coole Park or in the "Prayer" for his daughter, but it has its decided features. Chiefly these features have to do with a decision to work through one's problems, to be attentive to one's needs and to the shifting demands of one's environment and companions, to work always at breeding flowers from the refuse heap of the contemporary situation. Involved as well is a growing commitment to what might be called social reality, as though one could not legitimately expect to know oneself or to deal with one's personal limitations without considering the degree to which they are conditioned by external actualities. What we have quite frequently in these poems, and to a much greater extent in the later work, is the spectacle of a vivid intelligence working to avoid being overwhelmed by brute matter…. What we recognize, are never permitted to forget in Adrienne Rich's poems, is that the materials we are shown constitute events in the poet's mental and emotional life. We do not expect, and never feel that we get, transcriptions of reality such as a theory of verisimilitude might enjoin upon the artist. Nor do we get, or expect, discursive argument of a philosophical nature. All we are shown carries with it that peculiar baggage of associations and tensions that the poet customarily lugs around, as though it were strapped forever to her back. She may shift the weight from time to time, may dance about to lighten the load, may even, temporarily, forget her burden, but it is there, and she will acknowledge it in time. (pp. 139-40)
The 1969 volume Leaflets seems to me to mark a decline in the poet's career. There are some brilliant things in the volume, patches of exquisite writing, several perfectly achieved poems, but the sense one takes from the volume is of things coming apart, not the texture of the universe merely, but the fibre of the poet's attention. She seems, if I may say so, less careful about what she says. She says, in fact, silly things, of a sort we cannot easily ignore or attribute to passing inattention, while moving on to the nearest reassuring sentiment. When a mature and accomplished poet writes ("In The Evening," 1966): "The old masters, the old sources, haven't a clue what we're about, / shivering here in the half-dark 'sixties," we are forced to stop and vent serious doubts about the entire enterprise. What is the poet after? She seems too shrewd for us to say it is simply rage or utter desperation that prompts her to declare the perfect uniqueness of her own burdened moment. Is human experience in general so radically disparate that even the old masters could fail to intimate our problems, provide us with a clue? Apparently the poet believes in the specialness of her experience, though frankly nothing she tells us seems to me in the least astonishing. But that is not really so important. What matters is why she feels compelled to make us feel we have no clues. She apparently does not wish to play the role of victim to the hilt, so that vulnerability is but one of the notes she regularly sounds. And even when indulging such a posture, she resists the temptation to wring it for all it's worth, so that she appears at once vulnerable and wryly ironic. (p. 142)
In Leaflets and in The Will To Change, Adrienne Rich labors, it would seem, under the notion that we are inevitably period-creatures, that to deny the fact is to deny our very being. She tells us in "The Demon Lover" (1966) that "A new / era is coming in. / Gauche as we are, it seems / we have to play our part." Taken by themselves, such lines surely point in but one direction. The fact is, though, that they may not be taken in isolation from a great many other lines which not only qualify but openly contradict them. What I conclude is that Adrienne Rich wishes with all her strength to be other than a period-creature. She wishes, that is, to retain that sense of self displayed so handsomely in Necessities of Life. The problem is that progressively she falls prey to ideological fashions like the will to change, so that, though she is too intelligent ever to mouth petty slogans, she allows herself to be violated by them. They touch her verse with an almost programmatic wand. (p. 143)
I say this recognizing full well that one is not supposed to confuse the content of poems with their specific value as poems. The idea does seem to me a little ridiculous, taken generally, but I can see the point of such an objection where the works of certain other poets are at issue. If a poet is a radical innovator who brings experimental resources to his craft that may alter the direction of poetry in his time, he is surely entitled to be examined in a special way. Or if the poet is possessed of a voice so grandly authoritative that it strikes us as in some sense the expression of an entire age, so again will we need to deal with it in a special way. Adrienne Rich is neither a radical innovator nor the voice of an age. We think of intelligence when we read her best work, and we miss that intelligence when we examine much of her recent verse. It is no use pretending that what she says does not matter, or oughtn't to, or is marginal, by comparison with the brightness and energy of her line or the sharpness of her diction. (p. 144)
We began by speaking of the centrality of the will to change in Adrienne Rich's mature verse…. The poems in [The Will to Change] … are about the will to be both self and other, to embody at once both presence and possibility. They are, in fact, about the will not to be left behind, not to be deluded, not to rest with one's achievements or comforts. "A man isn't what he seems but what he desires: / gaieties of anarchy drumming at the base of the skull," she tells us in one of The Blue Ghazals (1968). A familiar enough idea, looked at casually, but why the insistence upon anarchy, we should like to know. Why such further lines as "Disorder is natural, these leaves absently blowing." Absence, disorder as natural: and only a few years earlier she had spoken so fiercely of the blight that is rampant disorder, of the indifference and inattention that permit the wasting of our endowments…. The terrible downward glide is evoked in these poems as an inevitability to which we lend ourselves as a mark of honor, of lucidity. But to describe our drift as in some sense honorable is not to see how terrible it is, I'm afraid, and I doubt the poet has lately stepped out of the current long enough to attend to this problem. In "I Dream I'm The Death Of Orpheus" (1968) she presents "A woman feeling the fullness of her powers / at the precise moment when she must not use them / a woman sworn to lucidity." What is this terrible lucidity, we wonder, that it should prevent us from using our powers: some such thing occurs to us to ask as we move through any number of poems here.
As earlier intimated, the will to change is at the heart of Adrienne Rich's thought and work, and it has much to do with this terrible lucidity. For what the poet insists upon is nothing less than full revelation of every motive, every shabby instinct and cheap thrill that drives her on…. There is nothing offensive or commercial in Adrienne Rich's poetry, but it shares with other contemporary work a quality of impatience and of rashness that is a little disappointing. She is too ready in her poems to see the "Meanings burnt-off like paint / under the blow-torch" ("Our Whole Life," 1969). Oh, she knows the toll the blow-torch will take, writhes a good deal under its too steady heat and glare. What disturbs us is that she should have so little faith in the usefulness of resistance. For the conservateurs she had ready contempt, but for the anxious wielders of the blow-torch, for the more openly murderous of her own intellectual instincts, she has no strength to resist. She … mistrusts the very idea of being anything solid and loyal. (pp. 146-47)
The effect of all this on Adrienne Rich's writing has not been good, for though the poet need not manifest the organic wholeness of the traditional novelistic vision, obviously, she is responsible for more than a series of intensely noted fragments. There is some pleasure in watching her manage her combination of intimate detail and abstract rumination, in pondering her attempt to forge an authentic language deserving of the name dialogue, but we are impressed by the absence of that steady largeness of vision, those marked traits of character formed and expanding, that we marveled at in her earlier writing. The will to change has turned the poet from wholeness to analytic lucidity. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that, unable to live according to those calmly alternating rhythms we think of as the emblem of a poised maturity, the poet has had to turn to the will to change to validate her hungers, to provide the stamp of authenticity she sought. I don't know for certain. What seems to me clear is that a point has been passed beyond which the poet has ceased to be herself, that blend of instinct and learned wisdom, innocent eye and educated adult, who knew there was a limit to will, and worth in steadfastness. Now that she has begun to speak of nature, of doing her thing, giving herself to the performance of "something very common, in my own way," I don't know that we may hope for very much for her verse beyond striking fragments. I shall have to hope for a resumption of that other toughness so well expressed in "Snapshots Of A Daughter-in-Law." It may be fitting to conclude with a few lines from that poem, to remind ourselves of the course we have traveled:
mere talent was enough for us—
glitter in fragments and rough drafts …
our mediocrities over-praised,
indolence read as abnegation,
slattern thought styled intuition,
every lapse forgiven….
Those of us who believe in the altogether special and distinguished qualities of Adrienne Rich's best work will not, I hope, forgive lightly her recent lapses, nor praise overmuch her more indulgent intuitions. (pp. 147-48)
Robert Boyers, "On Adrienne Rich: Intelligence and Will," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1973 by Skidmore College), Spring-Summer, 1973, pp. 132-48.
Adrienne Rich's memorable poetry has been given us now, a book at a time, for twenty-two years. Four years after she published her first book, I read it in almost disbelieving wonder; someone my age was writing down my life. I felt then, as I feel now, that for each reader there are only a few poets of whom that is true, and by the law of averages, those poets are usually dead or at least far removed in time and space. But here was a poet who seemed, by a miracle, a twin: I had not known till then how much I had wanted a contemporary and a woman as a speaking voice of life…. When I look back now through A Change of World (1951), I try to remember which of the pages so held me and why; and I find four sets of poems I greet with the sense of déjà vu. One set had simply lovely lines, seeming today almost too decorative, too designed, but presenting to me then the poetry of the delicately apprehended and the exquisitely remembered, poetry of "the flecked leaf-gilded boughs," and "paths fern-fringed and delicate," ornamented with "whisking emerald lizards." I did not mind, in some of these solacing poems, echoes of Auden or Yeats, feeling that what was beautiful was beautiful no matter who invented it; but there was, it was true, an ominous note which kept being interlaced with the poised rhythms.
A second group of poems set the status quo against some threatened future time; yet the danger was contained, and in fact the action of containing danger was gravely obligatory, a sacred trust. The poems articulated their own balance between danger and decorum in imagery of rebellion (which usually lost) against tradition (which usually won, at least tonally)…. [The] poems played with fire, yet did not burn: I must have liked that.
The third set of poems that moved me then were poems on the identity and lot of women. I had no conscious thoughts on the topic, the natural order of the universe seeming then to be the inequality of man and woman; and yet some strains of discord in the book must have seemed an external documentary to those inarticulate strains in myself. (pp. 5-7)
In A Change of World Rich struck all the notes of her generation's inchoate responses to Europe: an attachment, a disloyalty; beauty, decadence; the perfect, the tired; art, the artificial. Alienated by a lengthily educated childhood from the American scene, and yet invisibly, visibly, and irrevocably American, the students who went abroad like Rich wandered tranced in the deceptive paradises of the transatlantic escape.
Now, six books later, almost two decades older, Rich's readers encounter her newest book, Diving into the Wreck. If we suspend knowledge of what came between, we may ask what has happened to the girl of 1951, that girl who wanted everything suffused by the delicate and the decorative, who questioned her passivity even while exhorting herself to that virtue, who mourned change and yet sensed its coming, who feared her own alienation in her native country, who, above these cares and anxieties, took pains that all her poems should turn out right, that there should be no ragged edges, that chimes should chasten discords—what has become of her? She has forgotten, or repudiated, her dream of Europe: Beethoven makes a fugitive appearance in the new book, but even he is not permitted to represent nineteenth-century European high culture; Rich calls her Beethoven poem "The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message." Passivity, too, is repudiated in principle, but returns in surreptitious forms, as life is consumed by that which nourished it…. The overtones [in "Burning Oneself Out"] come from Williams' "Burning the Christmas Greens," but Williams' poem is about the desire for change which consigns the greens to the fire, while Rich is helplessly suspended in the fires of time and thought. The old decorativeness reappears in the intricate ending, but this time not in the service of a scrim-curtain prettiness. As for the questions of female identity and the rival claims of change and tradition, they have merged into one inextricable and apparently insoluble problem. In the first book, change could be chosen or not; by now, Rich utters ruin (and resurrection) as inevitable law…. There is a visible continuity between the phosphorescent wreck and the orderly gardens and villas of early Rich, but the complacency of tone, so earnestly assuring the intellectual resolution of the early poems, is conspicuously stricken from this new exploration.
Oddly, it is not stricken from other poems, where complacency has become an unthinking assault on plain reasonableness. Because this new volume has provoked such hostile and intemperate criticism, it is probably just as well to mention its most extreme poem: a poem called "Rape."… [The description of the cop is a cliché], really unworthy of a poet, as is the incrimination of all men in the encapsulation of brothers and fathers in the portrait of this rapist super-cop. Rich would be the first to object to an equally stereotyped description of women—as shrew, as castrating mother, or whatever. The poem, like some others, is a deliberate refusal of the modulations of intelligence in favor of an annulling and untenable propaganda, a grisly indictment, a fictitious and mechanical drama denying the simple fact of possible decency (there are decent cops and decent fathers, and decent brothers, too, but they have no place in the consciousness producing this poem).
It is not hard to imagine someone writing a poem like "Rape," but it is hard to see how such poems pass muster months later when a volume is being gathered for publication. The truth of feeling ("I felt this way, I wrote it down") has never been coterminous with the truth of art. And since the truth of art has always been Rich's securest claim on our attention even in her tidiest poems, it gives a reader a wrench of pain to see her play false to her own standard. But criticism has so fastened on these lapses that the tense fineness determining the tactics of many of these poems has been ignored. Unwelcome though some of Rich's sentiments may be to those who do not share her recent activist feminism and other political activities, it would be unfair to let ideological differences obscure the presence, felt and conveyed in these poems, of finely-discriminated emotions—of the numbed, the stricken, the defrauded, the miserable…. There are many poems … in which the poet's grief does not encroach upon the rights of others, and the feminist consciousness is mitigated by the real demands of life: the final perplexity of the poem is simply the misery of contending rights and needs in human existence. (pp. 9-13)
Rich hit her stride, and wrote her first "perfect" poem (of her voice at that time) in her second volume, The Diamond Cutters (1955). The poem in question, "The Middle-Aged," is one of a distinguished group, including "The Tourist and the Town," "Lucifer in the Train," "The Wild Sky," "Villa Adriana," and "Landscape of the Star," which all, in some way, deal with homelessness; and that homelessness, with its accompanying ache of filial nostalgia, is the new theme, coming into the ascendant, which distinctly marks The Diamond-Cutters as an advance over the first volume. (p. 15)
The shape of The Diamond Cutters suggests that Rich may need to write explicit cris du coeur as sketches, so to speak, for a more contained and disciplined later poem. It is odd that some readers will so placidly receive and even praise such unmediated cries of filial longing, but will become irrationally damning about a single cry of unmediated anger. These hysterias only prove that Rich is touching intense and widely diffused feelings; a poet could hardly ask for more. In her poems, Rich sees more deeply than in her recent prose propaganda; poetry makes her more reflective and more self-corrective, less inflexible, more pained. (p. 18)
The weakness of [Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963)] is its explicitness and its irresolution. The nerves it touches are raw and recognizable ones; but it leans on words like "ache" and "agonizing" which preempt our responses. "If Rich were a great poet," said a friend reading these poems, "which of us could bear to read her?" Rich's transcriptions of pain, wholly accurate, are to be prized even if only as documentaries: and these unhappy limbo poems ending in stalemate are an honorable and possible form, but a whole book of them inevitably sets the reader on a slide downhill at the bottom of which he anticipates a crash. And yet the crash is staved off for one more book, Rich's most beautiful and accomplished single volume, Necessities of Life (1966).
If, as Rich's early pattern suggests, blunter poems are followed by subtler ones, Necessities of Life derives its power from its absorption of all past phases into its present one…. We cannot help noticing how free from compulsion Rich's images have become. The early poems were so neat in their useful skeins of imagery; if a color appeared in the upper left of the tapestry, it was sure to reappear, economically but predictably, in the lower right. Now precision of feeling and exactness of recollection govern the correlative, and though the visual reference apparent in the thumbtack and the pointillist is maintained, it is allowed considerable freedom. (pp. 20-1)
The more reproachful of her critics have assumed that her revolutionary stances are chosen and therefore blameworthy; I see them rather as part of the inexplicable ongoingness of life, to be reported like the rest. Better a change than the falsely "mature" acceptance of the unacceptable, a stance that Rich falls into off and on in Necessities of Life, notably in the increasingly expedient "literariness" of the poem "After Dark" on her father's death, and in the forced ending of the fine poem "Like This Together," where Rich declares that love can be kept alive by our working at it, that the dry scaly bulb can be pried into life:
Only our fierce attention
gets hyacinths out of those
hard cerebral lumps,
unwraps the wet buds down
the whole length of a stem.
This "solution" won't work for a destroyed city, and a destroyed city is the problem of this poem…. [Her] lines have that power of the best sort of metaphor, that they pierce equally in two directions, until we scarcely know whether we are flinching from the tearing up of Cambridge or from the decay of a marriage. The death of Rich's husband since the poem was written gives the last line an edge it did not have in the writing; but even without that added wreckage, all the king's horses and all the king's men cannot put this Cambridge together again, and the final forced hyacinths are an evasion of reality. (pp. 23-4)
The Will to Change (1971) takes too much credit to itself in its title. Change is our lot whether we will it or not, and though we like to think we have willed what has happened, a sterner eye might see us as motes blown by the zeitgeist. In fact, Rich does see the roots of mystery in human states. In an anti-Wordsworthian version of a Wordsworthian thought ("O mystery of man, from what a depth / Proceed thy honors!") she sees the "depth" as the Freudian upstream of a river. Addressing someone else, she writes unsparingly of his present state, reserving condemnation by the imputation of mysterious damage done long ago. The slow, accretive metaphors describing the river in the poem "Study of History" mirror ecological despair, and are a harrowing picture of a mind so silted over and trampled upon that it can barely make its clouded way through the narrows of present experience…. Rich's "music," so praised by her earlier reviewers and so ignored by most of her later ones, seems to me to reach its height of accomplishment in [this poem]…. (pp. 25-6)
The forcefulness of Diving into the Wreck comes from the wish not to huddle wounded, but to explore the caverns, the scars, the depths of the wreckage. At first these explorations must reactivate all the old wounds, inflame all the scar tissue, awaken all the suppressed anger, and inactivate the old language invented for dealing with the older self. But I find no betrayal of continuity in these later books, only courage in the refusal to write in forms felt to be outgrown. I hope that the curve into more complex expression visible in her earlier books will recur as Rich continues to publish, and that these dispatches from the battlefield will be assimilated into a more complete poetry. Given Rich's precocious and sustained gifts, I see no reason to doubt her future. The title poem that closed The Diamond Cutters says that the poetic supply is endless: after one diamond has been cut, "Africa/Will yield you more to do." When new books follow, these most recent poems will I think be seen as the transition to a new generosity and a new self-forgetfulness. (p. 33)
Helen Vendler, "Ghostlier Demarcations, Keener Sounds," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1973, pp. 5-33.
At its best, Rich's new poetry [in Diving into the Wreck] is distinguished by its odd and artful collocation of realistic image and surrealistic fantasy. A poem like "Trying to Talk with a Man" is superficially quite similar to Marge Piercy's "Doing it differently," which depicts woman's attempt "not to lie down in the same old rutted bed," to forge a relationship with a man which will allow her some measure of freedom and identity. But whereas Piercy generally engages in direct polemic statements …, Rich lets the image speak for itself: "Out in this desert we are testing bombs, / that's why we came here."
These lines have a startling immediacy; we know we are dealing with two real people in a real situation, not with the Women's Movement in general terms. The bomb test is, of course, a metaphor for the ultimate deadly contest between husband and wife, but the poet's response to the "condemned scenery" is complex. (p. 114)
"Waking in the Dark" succeeds because it objectifies the terrible tension between wanting to love a man and finding it impossible to do so, a tension reflected in Rich's strange collocation of everyday language and phantasmagoric imagery: windows full of scissors, rotting logs, underwater plants, power glasses. It is a tension not always achieved in Diving into the Wreck. The title poem, for example, which has been all but universally praised as a marvelous study of rebirth, a diving into the wreck of obsolete myths in search of reality, a quest for the true, the ultimate Self, seems to me too contrived; the metaphor of the self exploring her past like a deep-sea diver à la Cousteau, exploring the wrecks at the bottom of the ocean, is too easy, too neat. Despite the careful trappings of "the body-armor of black rubber/the absurd flippers/the grave and awkward mask," … the poem gives us no sense of how rebirth is actually to be achieved, how the old structures will be broken down to create new ones…. Nevertheless, Diving into the Wreck, taken as a whole, conveys the recognition, quite alien to Corn-Porn poets, that sexuality borders on violence and the yearning for death; that sexual relations have an element of danger and demonic possession. (pp. 116-17)
Marjorie G. Perloff, in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1975.
Poems: Selected and New … is a 24-year document that tells in the searing hieroglyphics of the imagination what it means to be a woman, to have a "man's mind," to want to keep that mind—its "swiftness" and its lucidity, and to make it your own. To keep your mind and change that one possessive, modifying masculine noun means escaping the original decree that you will be, in your desire for clarity, your own cinder. Because that mind, on which your pride is hung—in that ritual, repetitive way by which societies perpetuate their own arrangements—is your mortal enemy and your longest hope, the light by which you see, yet stand condemned and burn. Change it or be consumed—on the market, in the fire.
The measure of that change, that alchemy, is in the transformation of the central images of Adrienne Rich's poetry, a quarter of a century of transformation which this chronological collection holds up to the light; as the images shift in their relation to the living presence they unfold, an unflinching eye opens and gains in power as it alters, living on the double-edged risk of Blake's dictum: "they became what they beheld" and towards the final sense of what he knew: "the eye altering, alters all."…
Poems ends with the images with which it began, their consequences now fully understood: the woman, isolated in her pride, a detached leaf burning under the glass of her negative self-magnification, the eye turned against the flesh, the judgment of a woman's "masculine mind" against her own passionate kind. This time the image comes as an admonition and a last burning away of an old condition….
It is fascinating to go back to the early poems at the beginning of the volume and watch the appearance of this unlived life from its entrapment in an art that was at first its only expression and watch it gain in actuality as the poetry moves away from artifice into "accurate dream." (p. 4)
The imaginative energy necessary to "imagining the existence of something uncreated" … is the growing power of the recent poems, more sure in the newest poems (1973–74) than in anything written before, coming up from the "wreck" to a new vision….
The self-division and self-hate, the old scar healing, a single being emerges in the last poems of the book; in "The Fourth Month of the Landscape Architect" (1973) she is no longer obsessed with her own birth, but that of something else—a strange new world…. Here is the integrated imagination, the meeting of sophisticated artistry and the primal volcanic energy of underground material, set in motion by fire, an art that wants the most precise delineation of the deepest, immemorial powers. The androgynous figure with which the poem begins announces the Jungian figure of individuation, the unification of opposites which is the outcome of psychic maturation and the goal of religious vision—restated in the circular image of "a park / stretching in every direction to the horizon / which is no horizon / which is merely a circle of volcanoes." The volcanoes are both the periphery of the circle and its burning center….
This is the mythic imagination, ruled by the feminine archetype of the moon and infused with the solar power of the masculine altered by its connection to the dominant "Mothers"—solar fire is of the earth, it is volcanic….
Unashamedly smeared with the memory of blood sacrifice, of the death required for rebirth, this is a kind of female apocalypse; no one can miss the ominous character of that landscape ringed in volcanoes—everything must be changed in this circle of fire, overturned, made new in the apocalyptic image of total transformation which always embodies destruction and creation in a single imaginative act. (p. 5)
No longer a mere consolation for or complement to our everyday existence, poetry has become for Adrienne Rich—at last—enabling. The poems themselves allow us to trace the change in the way she regards poetry; it is not distinct from the way she is herself changing. In the first book, poetry is like those candles sheathed in glass: the serene composure of a contained lucidity….
The cozy distance between art and life has vanished for her; from [Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law] on, poetry can no longer express and contain the unlived; it must take the risks she is taking with her life; it must become, increasingly, a rite of passage. [That] 1963 book of her departure ends, not surprisingly, with a door: "if you go through / there is always the risk / of remembering your name". (p. 6)
Eleanor Wilner, "This Accurate Dreamer," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1975 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Eleanor Wilner), March/April, 1975, pp. 4-7.
[A] moralist is at last what Adrienne Rich is…. And the source of her authority as a moralist is poetic, is in her words. From the beginning Rich has been in the business of delivering herself of truths: "To work and suffer is to be at home. / All else is scenery"; "A thinking woman sleeps with monsters"; "Time is male / and in his cups drinks to the fair"; "our needs mock our gear"; "emptiness of the mirror and/the failure of the classics"; "the moment of change is the only poem"; "Like everybody else, we thought of ourselves as special." Such utterances have the special kind of originality that, encountered, feels like something remembered, not learned. It is important, I think, that this quality is to be discerned in the newer pieces as well as in the older ones. It's less epigrammatic now, less "classical," but the newer work, like the older, is very much a matter of style, of achieved statement that gives authority to the thing said (even when, as in "the moment of change is the only poem," the thing said is plainly untrue). For example,
I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.
This poetry of precise assertion (it's not only that, by any means) grows book by book more implacable in its claims upon us. But if we are to honor Rich as a moralist, we are also obliged to argue with her sometimes in something like moral terms. Consider the poem "Rape."… Out of the air I somehow pick up the notion that this is well on its way to becoming a famous, or infamous, poem. Its virtues are, I guess, undeniable. But put very simply, here's one objection: it's kind of tough on the cop. And not just the cop as representative male—he's fair game. The trouble here is that this male is socially situated—and is therefore somehow felt to be especially odious: what else would you expect from a cop? This is—or can be read as—a snobbish poem (and it doesn't help to point out that "he grew up on your block"; he didn't grow up on Adrienne Rich's). I think I can imagine answers to such an objection. One is simply that that's how it is, the police are like that, what are you going to do? Another, and to me more satisfactory response, is a plain so what: "why should the wild child/weep for the scientists," as Rich says in another poem. But I have another problem here. This poem excites, and excites in me feelings analogous to those the poem fears. This may of course be testimony to the poem's legitimate power, especially since I am led also to reprove, as a matter of judgment, those feelings as they arise in me. But I am afraid that it is the excitement that lingers. It may be that that is "just the point." But I perceive this poem as a dangerous object, a possibly poisonous substance, for whose existence Adrienne Rich, for good or ill, bears responsibility. (pp. 448-50)
John N. Morris, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1975.
One sign of Rich's involvement in the world which exists apart from her response to it is her interest in other lives. As early as the Frost-like dramatic lyrics of The Diamond Cutters she dramatizes this interest, this concern, in how it is for women "Living in Sin," for aging faculty wives, for girl-brides of violent men having agonized affairs with village parsons, for Odysseus' old nurse Euryclea, for Hadrian's favorite boy Antinoüs, for somebody's daughter-in-law, "once a belle in Shreveport," for Emily Dickinson, for men thinking of the women they once loved, for the daughters of obscure late nineteenth-century American painters, for Charleston women in the 1860s, for eighteenth-century female astronomers, for Godard, Cleaver, LeRoi, for the nineteenth-century Indian poet Ghalib, for homosexual friends/would-be lovers of twenty years ago, for pregnant landscape architects, for alleged murderesses walking in their cells.
But I don't mean to suggest that the book as a whole has a hail-and-farewell quality. There's no autumnal glow here, no summoning the circus animals for a last review, no grandly benevolent pretense of understanding all and forgiving all. These are poems spun off from the life of one who's been diving into wreck after wreck for years and evidently expects to continue doing so for many more. These are hard poems, angry poems, above all obsessively honest poems from a woman who never asks easy questions, never takes easy answers. (pp. 388-89)
Stanley Poss, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1975, University of Utah), Autumn, 1975.
At first it would seem simple to chart the growth of Rich's poetry, away from the elegant and graceful work of her first two volumes to the more spare, jagged, and free forms of the past decade, and from poems about lovely things and scenes to those about war, torture, oppression, and rape. But with the omniscience of hindsight we can see how the beginning contained, organically and logically, all that followed. These poems that flow with the prosodic assurance of Auden or Wilbur give off the slightest aroma of stagnation and of discontent with the lives presented and the styles employed. The characteristic early themes are suffocation, alienation, and entombment, none particularly dangerous because each is viewed with a well-bred youthful skepticism that seems unwilling to take appearance for truth. They are poems in the conversational manner of Auden and Yeats, worldly and witty, polished and careful. But like the characters they present, these poems are crushed under the weight of the very tradition they parade. (pp. 370-71)
The people in A Change of World and The Diamond Cutters (1955) are elegant, passive, and will-less…. Alienation in these poems is neither painful nor merely fashionable; it is the precondition for creativity and for a certain set of attitudes about art and life: "Art requires a distance: let me be / Always the connoisseur of your perfection" ("Love in the Museum"); "Form is the ultimate gift that love can offer—/ The vital union of necessity / With all that we desire, all that we suffer" ("At a Bach Concert"). "Proud restraining purity" is needed to repair the human heart in a world of inevitable imperfection and disappointment, and to construct art as a defense against invasions or threats from without. This is the stoicism of the young, half-accepting the reality of human weakness, yet holding out for an ideal landscape, however distanced, artful, or irrecoverable. This is the last infirmity of romantic mind which Rich begins to abandon later, as she increasingly refuses to take the world as it is given…. [In] Rich's later work hardness becomes stridency, seriousness polemic, and pride political awareness. The artist, "careful arriviste," is less important than the raw material she is given and the product she creates. Her task is unending: "Africa will yield you more to do."
What Auden praised in his 1951 introduction, "good manners," "modesty," "craftsmanship," "capacity for detachment," begins to give way to a terrible kind of beauty, new formal freedom, and the presentation of a major personal tone in Rich's third book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963). His estimate now seems inaccurate, precisely the condescension that Rich strove to escape and overwhelm: "These poems … 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: that, for a first volume, is a good deal." Perhaps Auden was correct. But what he heard in these poems was his own voice echoed back to him, imitated by a schoolgirl for the approval of pedagogic and paternal elders. (pp. 371-72)
"Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" is a major stylistic and thematic advance. First of all, it is a medley of lyrics, varying in length and form from a three-line epigram to an unpunctuated fade-out at the end. There is neither plot nor character; rather, the poem offers images of women throughout history, freely citing Horace, Dr. Johnson, Diderot, and Mary Wollstonecraft on the condition and nature of the sex, and suggesting as well versions of modern entrapment and repression. Second, the search for form is a search for an honest speaking voice (Keats's "true voice of feeling") and a true self: "What I know I know through making poems," Rich wrote in "Poetry and Experience" (1964). Still, "Snapshots" refrains from autobiography. The women in the poem, a Shreveport belle, a mad housewife, Horace's Lalage, Campion's Corrinna, Emily Dickinson, and others, are variations on a single theme. They are presented candidly and rapidly, and pasted down in the photo album of history.
Rich refuses to blame men or history completely for the suppression of women; it is they themselves who have enjoyed and tacitly approved the status quo…. (p. 373)
Edges, doorways, thresholds: these are central images in the books from Snapshots to Diving into the Wreck (1973). Snapshots is the liminal volume, attempting a journey from one self, world, poetic form, to another. The poet comes clear in one of her finest lyrics, "The Roof-walker," in which she sees herself as the double of the roof-builders, poised dangerously "on a listing deck" above her…. Earlier she was a tourist; now she's trying to be a builder, but firmness and sureness are still lacking…. The elegant skepticism of the first volumes now borders on despair. (pp. 374-75)
The next three books, Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971) are Rich's most radical (pulling herself up by her own roots), most strident, and most original. Sometimes obscure, doctrinally unattractive, or baldly prosaic, these poems are the necessary passage to the deeper humanism of Rich's more recent work. But they are also, especially on rereading, impressive in themselves. Anger and hatred are the most difficult emotions to express in poetry: they inhibit creativity and defy articulation. In the past two hundred years, only Blake and Pound have been great poetic haters, and they at least had the advantage of more capacious forms for their prophetic rage. Rich encloses her outrage within the lyric, an almost impossible task and one which proves the originality of her art. Moreover, her indignation is both righteòus and generous. (p. 376)
The lucidity of Rich's later poetry shows how well she has understood Keats's dictum, "scenery is fine, human nature is finer." The starting point for an understanding of the world is the self, and the last four volumes are all joint explorations of the self and its political relationship to the world it inhabits.
Still, a tension exists between an attempt to define the self by withdrawing and fixing its limits, and a desire to push beyond the boundaries of the ego and contain, Whitman-like, multitudes. Keatsian empathy, the ability to participate in all forms of life and be affected by them, to transform the enemy for his rebirth and to identify the enemy within, triumphs in Rich's poetry, but with pain and struggle. In the title poem from Necessities of Life the conflict is clearly stated: either the self has a rigid identity, in which case it is "a small, fixed dot … a dark-blue thumbtack, pushed into the scene," or it loses itself under the onrush of other lives and influences…. What some readers will find appalling or offensive in these poems is only the necessary expression of the will—the tough, combative and intellectual strength—to change. A new galactic dimension in some of the poems, marked by images of chiseled coldness and those vast interstellar spaces which frightened Pascal, might be mistaken for an iciness in the woman herself. But it serves to identify foreign elements within her. (pp. 378-79)
The danger of empathy is Rich's stunningly original theme. She reaches beyond the sexes in an attempt to understand sexuality, and she plunges within herself to discover the perfect balance between anima and animus. Easy traditional dichotomies about the sexes will not bear the weight of her ideas or contain the explosion of her imagery. Her prose statements on this matter are more polemical and less persuasive than the poems, which urge us to accept the bisexual nature of the psyche; it is here that we see her moving into ever larger realms of selflessness and inclusiveness, in spite of the seeming exclusiveness of her political pronouncements. (pp. 384-85)
With the exception of Lowell, Rich is our only poet who understands heroism and grandeur as the other side of degradation and suffering, and who, even in her most personal lyrics, stretches all human activities on the frame of social and political consciousness. With stripped-down language, images shot out like bullets not always hitting the target, her movie scripts of the late sixties tried to capture the reckless daring and depression of a moment. In poems like "Diving into the Wreck," and the more meditative and generous new ones, Rich has begun to contemplate and to create a world worthy of her care. Her major long poem, "From an Old House in America" (1974), shows the newly achieved calm which nevertheless contains the spirited excitement of the time before. (p. 386)
Willard Spiegelman, "Voice of the Survivor: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich," in Southwest Review (© 1975 by Southern Methodist University Press), Autumn, 1975, pp. 370-88.
[Poems: Selected and New 1950–74] charts a curious evolution, exactly the opposite of the one we have learned to expect: in it the 20-year-old author of painstaking, decorous poems that are eager to "maturely" accept the world they are given becomes a 45-year-old poet of prophetic intensity and "visionary anger," utterly unable to feel at home in a world "that gives no room / to be what we dreamt of being" ("Pieces"). These women are, of course, related, by their clarity of vision and of speech, and by their common need to face harsh truths, but the effort that separates them is such a radical transformation that it amounts to the discovery, or creation, of a new self in the ruins of the old—a self, furthermore, that had to be invented alone, for as a wife confined to a house and children in the arid fifties, Rich had no one to tell her her dissatisfactions were "shared, unnecessary / and political" ("Translations")….
[Her] questions are still relatively polite and her imagery tame. The poems from the mid-to-late sixties, however, are fragmentary, bitter, allusive, and made to sound as though written on the run. They describe a life lived from one crisis to the next, and the need for a self tough and resourceful enough to endure such a life. They also represent Rich's first attempts to erase the distinction between the personal and political realities, an effort which finds its fullest expression in her feminism. In them, the patient, distant observer of the early poems is replaced by a woman in pain speaking as simply and powerfully as she can—a woman responding to an emergency, a woman whose worst nightmares are becoming ordinary facts….
The poems from Diving into the Wreck and the 13 previously unpublished poems seem to form a separate group—they are the work of this new consciousness, rested from its strenuous birth, and looking outward…. These poems constitute an arrival—their new tightness of form and their breadth of subject make them more accessible, though no less personal, than any others in this volume. Even so, they are only beginning to explore the themes of women's history, sexual psychology, aggression, oppression and repression they concern. But having found the old answers insufficient, Rich will not be too quick to embrace new ones, or to over-estimate her own importance. (p. 40)
David Zuger, in Poet and Critic (© Department of English and Speech, Iowa State University), Vol. 9, No. 2, 1976.
Because her most interesting poems are chronicles of a mind in process, turning backward and forward in time for material, Adrienne Rich is a writer well-served by a selection of poems spanning twenty-five years [Poems: Selected and New, 1950–1974]…. The reader watches her make vows or construct beliefs in early volumes, and as the pages turn a kind of suspense becomes part of the esthetic experience: how will these attitudes strengthen or be shed? How will they stand up under aging and fame, under Vietnam, women's liberation, and other forces known to be lurking between one volume and the next? In the later poems a dialectic with the past becomes an essential part of Rich's normal experience. (p. 360)
Her early work contains slavish imitations of poets like Yeats, Frost and Lowell; part of her struggle for self-awareness will be a rebellion against these masters who gave her words (not images) inauthentic to her own experience. We hear also throughout the Poems plaintive, dangling conversations of husbands and lovers, who, like the poets, oppress Rich by making her internalize their voices. Later in Diving into the Wreck (1973) Rich will formulate her lingering resentment and self-pity in a narrative of the wild child, the primitive boy who has language forced upon him by a scientist. In her personal use of the material, Dr. Itard becomes the type of a masculine society that cannot tolerate the untamed spirit. This later poem records an exorcism, like Pound's Mauberley, that happened to work. Rich's career really began when she emerged from the shadows of influence and began to speak in the impassioned rhythms of her own reveries.
The title of her 1963 volume, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, announced a major change in Rich's stance toward reality…. [She] begins to wrestle more with her accidental fate and lets the shape of that struggle make the shape of her poems. They are more conversational, compulsively metaphorical…. The bolder experiments to come tend to put these poems, and her next volume, Necessities of Life (1966), in the shadow, but these are arguably some of Rich's most completely satisfying poems. Her authentic voice speaks lucidly and powerfully, with a tense excitement that doesn't give way to browbeating self-righteousness or obscurity. Human relations are studied with compassion, anger, and sorrow, but the reader can always follow in sympathetic measure the fluctuating moods of the poem. As the 'Sixties became more clamorous, however, Rich, like other poets, found that the eye of intimacy, lingering before its object, at home with the everyday, the human, needed reinforcement from other media: the painter's focus, the movie camera's accelerated montage, the eye of dream and the eye of madness.
Beginning with Leaflets (1969) and increasing in tempo with The Will to Change (1971) the poems become prolific of imagery, every rift loaded with ore. Public and private worlds bruise in collision, image jarring image like the absurd juxtapositions of reports from Vietnam and commercial messages on the Evening News. Rich finds her way to an esthetic best described in our day by Charles Olson, who insisted that poetry, to be vital, must have the rapidity and variety of natural energy itself…. Rich's poetry becomes ever more fluid and cinematic ("the poet is at the movies," she writes). She composes a large number of ghazals, the Arabic verse form of (at least) five couplets, each autonomous and independent of the others. In these and other experiments fragmentation and disassociation bring the reader closer to the cauldron of the creative process, at the expense of a satisfying but in Rich's view reactionary completion of thought. (pp. 361-63)
Rich's new conception of form brings with it new dangers. Obscurity is so built-in to the non-sequential method of composition it must be called one of its technical devices, not one of its faults. (p. 363)
Because Rich locates all of her work "in a world masculinity made/unfit for women or men" a reader must be cautious about classifying Rich's later poems as [feminist] movement-inspired. As this collected volume, which includes many previously unpublished poems on the sexes, makes clear Rich had occupied a large part of the ideological territory before the bandwagon got there. A recent poem like "Rape," for example, emerges organically from Rich's long-standing personal and public concerns. The poem is angry and vivid in its dissection of masculinity but I don't find it as stridently self-righteous as the "Savage Child" poem. A more narrowly political work is "The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message." Narrow, and even mean-spirited, because it depends upon the prior acceptance of an ideology before its conception of Beethoven as "A man in terror of impotence / or infertility" makes any sense at all. Rich has excluded better poems than this from her collection, but one of her necessities of life for the moment includes it. With exceptions like this one Rich has avoided dogmatism and abstraction. As with all ideologies, whether James Dickey's masculinism or Rich's feminism, the principal requirement of a poet is minute articulation of thought and feeling. The legitimacy of the larger system has to be established elsewhere, and Rich is doing just that in essays and speeches.
Diving into the Wreck is Rich's finest single volume because it restores coherence to her vision without cramping the capacious achievement of her previous experiments. Sequences like "Waking in the Dark" and "The Phenomenology of Anger" develop into complex wholes; the language in them is once again lucid and compelling…. The title poem, already a modern classic, defines imaginative (not just poetic) activity by an elaborate symbolic narrative…. Like the best parables "Diving into the Wreck" doesn't insist on a single scheme of reference. On one level the wreck represents many dissolutions in Rich's own personal life, documented in this volume. The wreck is also the ruins of History, the Fall from unity of being, and like all historical metaphors represents a stage of consciousness which the poet must explore and salvage from in order to advance in spirit. Feminist philosophy acts as a torch in these murky depths, and by revealing all things in their original nature, Rich believes, it enforces clarity of form as an obligation. In this sense the poem repeats as it amplifies the credo of Rich's early poem, "The Diamond Cutters." (pp. 364-66)
It seems entirely fitting that there be no dramatic finale to these Poems, nothing one could call triumph or decline. Twenty years ago, Randall Jarrell said whimsically of Rich, "This young thing, who knows what it may be, old?" Her latest work is still only Rich's halfway mark and, artist more than ideologue, she is not likely to get her foot caught in an underwater wreck…. (p. 366)
Laurence Goldstein, "The Evolution of Adrienne Rich," in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1976), Summer, 1976, pp. 360-66.