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Rich, Adrienne 1929–

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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.)

Helen Vendler

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[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 pages that a woman with a different sort of upbringing—or a woman with the same upbringing who interpreted it differently—might have arrived at different political or cultural feelings. (p. 264)

Rich interprets history as a phylogenetic analogue to her own ontogenetic myth. Once there were "prepatriarchal" periods of human culture which "shared certain kinds of woman-centered beliefs and woman-centered social organization."… In "prepatriarchal" times, while men hunted, "women became the civilizers, the inventors of agriculture, of community, some maintain of language itself." Then, in the feminist version of the Fall, society extirpated the worship of the Mother-Goddess in her various forms, instituted monotheism, and devised the patriarchal family…. To the patriarchal system, represented by "rapism and the warrior mentality," "the death-culture of quantification, abstractions, and the will-to-power," Rich opposes the "maternal" or "nurturant" spirit, now oppressed and confined in institutionalized motherhood.

Both of these myths—the personal narrative and the historical reconstruction—refuse full existential reality to men…. It is disheartening to see any of our ruling ideologies … able to seduce a poetic mind, able to make a poet choose (in [Octavio] Paz's terms) "the rhetoric of violence." In Rich, the rhetoric of violence is accompanied by a rhetoric of sentimentality, as though, in having chosen to ally herself with a female principle in opposition to a putative male one, she has adopted a language of uncritical deliquescence…. To find language better than that of greeting-card verse to express the sentiments of love is the poet's task: the rest of us are not equal to it. In lapsing so often into cliché in this volume, Rich has failed her own feelings.

And yet, for all the impatience it provokes, the book has a certain cumulative force, not so much on account of its theorizing as because of its undeniable feelings and its...

(The entire section contains 7658 words.)

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