Adrienne Rich Rich, Adrienne (Vol. 11)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Anne Bernays

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 shall overlap. (p. 89)

The pervasive tone of this book suggests that the author has been grievously used, as if, like Rosemary in Ira Levin's novel, she had been drugged and then raped by the devil.

Ultimately, the poignancy of Rich's message reaches us. We want desperately to console her for having suffered her "primal agony"—which we are nevertheless unable to share.

Subtitled Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Of Woman Born is convincing only when it catalogues and analyzes the outrages society commits on the mother, from the brutal mechanics of obstetrical care to the politics of patriarchy, whose strategy it is to keep Mother down…. Rich has done a scholarly job of reading and absorbing, and of documenting her various accusations. There is no question about it: mothers don't have it as good as fathers. Fathers have money, freedom to move around, power, daily diversion, professional and political clout, general esteem. But society has reserved the second-class section for all women, not just mothers—for old women and little girls, the nonmarried and the lesbians. Why single out mothers? Mothers, after all, have something no one else has: their children. Rich's book is about motherhood—curious there is so little in it about children. The experience was traumatic for her; the institution reminds her of a prison….

It is hard to finish reading Ms. Rich's book without feeling she has been unfair to her own extraordinary gifts as a writer. In many ways it is a barren book—the very opposite of Mother. (p. 90)

Anne Bernays. "Motherhood: A 'Primal Agony'?" in Harvard Magazine (copyright ©, 1977 Harvard Magazine, Inc.; reprinted by permission), January-February, 1977, pp. 89-90.

David Kalstone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 5,946 words.)