Adrienne Rich Rich, Adrienne (Vol. 3) - Essay

Rich, Adrienne (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rich, Adrienne 1929–

Ms. Rich is an award-winning American poet, critic, and translator. Citing the precise diction and explosive energy of her poems, critics now consider her one of our most exciting and original developing poets. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Adrienne Rich has developed slowly and unspectacularly to become one of the best poets in America. Her Necessities of Life contains twenty-five new poems of her own, plus some remarkable translations from the Dutch. She is, first of all, a poet of detail, perfect in bringing to light the contents of the drawers of memory, the "dream photographs." There is no clutter; the details are always being used—"A million insects die every twilight, / no one even finds their corpses." Despite all our talk about the "memory-laden past" and the "future of dreams," the present is when we really deceive ourselves. And today is within Miss Rich's range; she writes about daily life unsentimentally, rationally, with no smugness, sarcasm, or false epiphanies. In her love poems she shows us what we ought to have known anyway, that a woman's attitude towards love is more clear-sighted and unromantic than a man's. Yet one must not imagine that this makes it joyless or unsensual.

Richard Tillinghast, in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 2, April, 1969, pp. 583-84.

Adrienne Rich, in her fifth book, Leaflets, comes to us so garlanded with honors that one tends to expect each poem to be a masterpiece. This is, of course, unfair. Yet she does manage, in the book as an entirety, to display complete mastery, absolute assurance of movement and tone. I do not find the book great, but I do find it faultless. One fashionable mode at the moment is poetry in free verse with surrealistic jumps between its lines and an ending of deliberate banality, a drop into flatness which constitutes the shock of the poem; another is free verse written with conscious flatness, whose last lines lift in sudden flight into sentimental lyricism, which the preceding lines pull back on like a kitestring. Miss Rich avoids both of these over-used methods.

Most, though not all, of the poems seem to be written to someone, friend or loved one, and the reader has a sense of overhearing an extraordinarily genuine communication. This, it is amply clear, is achieved with unfaltering art, not artlessness. The poems are nearly always focused on personal relationships; few are comments on a wider world. Even the five adaptations from Dutch, Yiddish, and Russian poets seem entirely Miss Rich's poems, in subject and sensibility.

Mona Van Duyn, "Seven Women," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1970, pp. 433-34.

Adrienne Rich has given us [the] balanced tension [of a complexity of moral, sensual, and political vision] in all her books—and The Will to Change is her best evocation of the fully matured and imaginative woman alive to the wonder and terror of her mind and flesh in a bad age…. Adrienne Rich writes the complete poetry of protest. She is involved in the will to change our politic and our national temper. She is against the war, against the slums, against the quaint liberalisms, and she also knows that the individual must maintain the will to change, the will to gain soul and grace. Grace. The poems of Adrienne Rich go for grace and often show it.

James Whitehead, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 18, 1971, pp. 40-1.

Adrienne Rich began as an elegant American—there is nothing more elegant than an elegant American: cf Wallace Stevens—in the early 1950s, but since then she has loosened up, gone confessional, and (though the progression should not occasion surprise) lost a good deal of her intensity. Whimsies slide into incoherences, incoherences into ingratiating beseechings, and the clamorous female emerges…. There is something firmer about the poems [in Leaflets] that derive, however remotely, from foreign originals (Dutch, Russian, Yiddish, Urdu), and these give one hope that Adrienne Rich will recover herself again.

"Moving Around," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), June 9, 1972, p. 651.

How we respond to [Ms. Rich's poem "Rape"] involves our deepest beliefs about the nature of poetry. It is a poem that, with a little polish added, could have been written by a small committee composed of Germaine Greer, Susan Brownmiller and Ti-Grace Atkinson. Its heavy, knowing tone; its "you, woman" air of really being in on everything; its absolute willingness to put forth The Cop (whose eyes of course narrow and glisten) as an accurate portrait of the way life is; its sensationalistic, flashy hot-bit about the maniac's sperm greasing the thighs—all these bespeak a capitulation to ideologic simplification that somebody who goes to poetry for exactly not that can only deplore. Cop-Maniac-Man: really, the poem says, aren't they the same, sister? But poetry is supposed to preserve differences, make distinctions, be clear instead of simple. Or so I assumed. Adrienne Rich's truest mode is evident in two poems in [Diving Into the Wreck]—"For the Dead" and "From a Survivor"—which are private, toneless, floating, unpunctuated; in which the voice speaks out, breaks off, picks itself up again, tries to get something said, makes us push toward though never lets us reach the experience that is sadly back there somewhere behind the poem. I am aware that very different, certainly more favorable accounts of her volume will have been given by the time this one is published. But I would hold that whatever else poetry gives us it must, in Stevens' terms, give Pleasure. These poems do not give pleasure.

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973, pp. 587-88.

For Adrienne Rich, whose concern with metamorphosis is evident throughout her work, the process of change is now wrought chiefly by burning. From her first collection to her sixth, or from A Change of World to The Will to Change, there are recurrent images of altering the self that gather strength and become, at their most forceful, breaking open, fracturing, shedding. In her seventh volume [Diving Into the Wreck] that renewal by destruction is achieved—with astonishing effects—by fire….

What makes this book important in our time is the way a new definition of self emerges in poems of startling metamorphosis….

The self that rises, visible and whole, on the ashes of the person that has burst into flames is androgynous, having no rigidly male or female identity. In the strongest poems of Adrienne Rich, the saving humanity incorporates traits of both sexes and allows for vacillation between them….

Speaking in a voice that is characterized less by outrage than by sadness at the world's waste, Adrienne Rich creates a poetry of change by fire. Her art bodies forth an ideal of restoring the self by recognizing inward manliness and femininity….

To build a poem out of the horror of social brutality has been the aim of many poets in our time, writing in different languages under different political conditions. One hopes that this book will be the first of many to incarnate a broader vision of human wholeness.

Grace Schulman, in The American Poetry Review, September/October, 1973, p. 11.

When a poet takes up a simpler idiom, like the one used by Adrienne Rich [that is, "free verse stanzas in a near-colloquial idiom with a somewhat scientific vocabulary" employed in Diving Into the Wreck], subjects are of great importance. The presumption is that the poet has especially chosen a line that will allow her to cover ground of all kinds. Even so, we must be moderate in the expectations we form, for there are other difficulties in such a line—which, although fragmented, could be called a narrative line—and I shall try to show some of them. It becomes dangerous, rather than insidious, when there is insufficient fresh material within it; originally it did the work of prose and tends to be one-dimensional….

In Miss Rich's work, the moral proportions are valid, the protagonists are sane, responsible persons, and the themes are moving on their courses. Why is it then that we are still waiting for the poetry? At once it's obvious what has happened. She has taken on too much, and the imagination is exhausted by the effort required to familiarize itself with all the burdens of the modern world. The syntax is not there to reinvent the material, is not allowed to do so, but only to expose it. Therefore everything hangs on the uniqueness of the poet's personal contribution….

The line goes on quietly forcing the poet to produce more and more objective pictures in the interests of drama, tension, and news. It asks for the next action, the next scene, perhaps for the next statement—but not for the next thought. It would be impossible for example for an idea to be argued through to a conclusion. Similarly the lines can never have finish. It is not, regretfully we admit it, the ideal classical modern line, which can do every kind of work and for which we are searching; the one with which we can talk and think….

We may perhaps conclude that the basic fault of [Diving Into the Wreck] lies in the nature of a subject matter already familiar being joined to impersonality of presentation: the result is abstraction, or politics….

The day consciousness of the poet appears to stand in direct opposition to the unconscious dreamer of the night—the compensating self, who is doing all the real work, and who rights the balance by releasing buried aspects of her personality. It's no wonder that while this vital process of unification was going on the poetry regularly escaped from stanzas about current affairs….

Il faut être absolument moderne; but there can also be an out-of-date modernness. Early poems by Miss Rich, such as "The Raven," "After Dark," and "In the Woods" (those essential woods) are more modern than many in her present book. That the contemporary nerve is wide awake in her poetry is shown in ways that pass unnoticed. For example, as we read forward we are struck by the observation that this poet never writes a love poem from which she cannot learn something useful psychologically; which forms an amusing and relevant comment on our society.

Rosemary Tonks, "Cutting the Marble," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), October 4, 1973, pp. 8-9.

The poetry of Diving into the Wreck is a poetry of risk, of search and of appetite. It has the fierce quality of certain poems by the more gifted women poets of the past but, unlike them, Adrienne Rich is on guard against her own swings of emotion…. The risk is the risk of exploring an unknown environment, where the most trivial activities must be handled, and will become accomplishments. The search is a search for the means of survival. This poetry is deadly serious, but it is not, like so much of women's poetry in the past, death-enamored. For it is the poet's appetite, her undeniable life force, which sustains these operations….

In the title poem, "Diving into the Wreck," surely one of the most beautiful poems to come out of the women's movement, the explorer—simultaneously male and female—achieves something close to a mythic density. The figure is passionate but with an isolation and passion transparent to the universal. The poem is utterly personal but there is nothing in it which draws away into private life.

Cheryl Walker, "Trying to Save the Skein," in The Nation, October 8, 1973, pp. 346-49.

In [Adrienne Rich's] preceding book [The Will to Change], there had been a constant imagery of inconstancy, of breaking free, of fracturing, of shedding and molting. Here [in Diving Into the Wreck], in poem after gerundively titled poem—"Trying to Talk with a Man," "Waking in the Dark," "Diving into the Wreck," "Living in the Cave," "Burning Oneself In," "Burning Oneself Out"—the effort is to pierce, to lift stone from stone until the self that speaks penetrates a region mistakenly held to be unspoken, even unspeakable….

[Mainly] the poems are a testimony to the task, to the digging and diving and mining. What keeps Adrienne Rich from becoming a pillar of salt as she surveys the territory behind her, the wreck that is our history and our body politic, is work, the poem as labor—shared, assumed, chosen…. When I call her poems testimony, I do not mean to suggest that Adrienne Rich is a poet to be offered in evidence, merely. She is not a reporter, for all her concentration upon the truth. The poet is telling of something now standing before her eyes of which her heart is full. She is not collecting reports, she is not remembering events. If she overhears the words of others, it is by telepathy; if she sees scenes, it is in a vision; if she knows truths, it is by faith. These poems are not loose facts, they are parts of a revelation.

Richard Howard, "Underground Streams," in Harper's (copyright © 1973, by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the December, 1973 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), December, 1973, pp. 120-21.

Rich's book, Diving Into the Wreck, is the stern document of a survivor who no longer knows if or for what kind of life we will be preserved, but her journey is charged, by force of her anger and bewilderment, to seek some energy other than the destructive one that has rendered her contemporaries anemic and un-sane. Her poems are notations on the waking of a deeply feminine/human consciousness that has discovered, almost too late, the amount and kinds of negative power that men have held over her life. Rich is not a hater or denier of men, but her state of shock registers in sobering waves, again and again, as she depicts conversations and scenes in which men and women are trying to speak to one another but remain estranged by the tense pull between a destructive mind-set and its opposing will to survive and change….

It is the utter dismay at being canceled out that makes her anger so especially powerful, the recording of deep damage done to the earth and the private psyche—male and female—the feeling of being historically doomed, but willing a new energy anyway. Rich attempts no polite statements, but lays the tragedy directly in the hands of its makers—those men through history who have denied the nuturing, female part of themselves, men who have given in totally to the brutalizing of others for the sake of feeling a power they have been unable or unwilling to appropriate privately….

Rich cannot afford … the usual emphasis on language inventions and textures we are trained to desire and look for in poems. For these are works of life. Or death. The choice resonates throughout.

Kathleen Fraser, "Songs of Experience," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), December 23, 1973, p. 2.

["Diving Into the Wreck"] is Adrienne Rich's seventh book of poems, and it is an extraordinary one. When I first heard the author read from it, I felt as though the top of my head was being attacked, sometimes with an ice pick, sometimes with a blunter instrument: a hatchet or a hammer. The predominant emotions seemed to be anger and hatred, and these are certainly present; but when I read the poems later, they evoked a far more subtle reaction. "Diving Into the Wreck" is one of those rare books that forces you to decide not just what you think about it; but what you think about yourself. It is a book that takes risks, and it forces the reader to take them also.

If Adrienne Rich were not a good poet, it would be easy to classify her as just another vocal Women's Libber, substituting polemic for poetry, simplistic messages for complex meanings. But she is a good poet, and her book is not a manifesto, though it subsumes manifestoes; nor is it a proclamation, though it makes proclamations. It is instead a book of explorations, of travels. The wreck she is diving into, in the very strong title poem, is the wreck of obsolete myths, particularly myths about men and women…. As explorer she is detached; she carries a knife to cut her way in, cut structures apart; a camera to record; and the book of myths itself, a book which has hitherto had no place for explorers like herself.

This quest—the quest for something beyond myths, for the truths about men and women, about the I and the You, the He and the She, or more generally (in the references to wars and persecutions of various kinds) about the powerless and the powerful—is presented throughout the book through a sharp, clear style and through metaphors which become their own myths. At their most successful the poems move like dreams, simultaneously revealing and alluding, disguising and concealing. The truth, it seems, is not just what you find when you open a door: it is itself a door, which the poet is always on the verge of going through….

Trying to see clearly and to record what has been seen—the rapes, the wars, the murders, the various kinds of violation and mutilation—is half of the poet's effort; for this she requires a third eye, an eye that can see pain with "clarity." The other half is to respond, and the response is anger; but it is a "visionary anger," which hopefully will precede the ability to love.

These poems convince me most often when they are true to themselves as structures of words and images, when they resist the temptation to sloganize, when they don't preach at me: "The words are purposes/ the words are maps," Rich says, and I like them better when they are maps (though Rich would probably say the two depend on each other and I would probably agree). I respond less fully to poems like "Rape" and references to the Vietnam war—though their truth is undeniable—than I do to poems such as "From a Survivor," and "August"….

It is not enough to state the truth; it must be imaged, imagined, and when Rich does this she is irresistible. When she does this she is also most characteristically herself. You feel about her best images, her best myths, that nobody else writes quite like this.

Margaret Atwood, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1973, pp. 1-2.