Adrienne Rich Rich, Adrienne (Vol. 18) - Essay


(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 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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Susan R. Van Dyne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 need to remove herself intentionally, if only momentarily, from any type of involvement whatsoever. Although the habit of keeping her distance has been repeatedly a source of personal suffering and guilt, it has nevertheless served throughout her career as an essential poetic advantage. (pp. 142-43)

Certainly as Rich's poetry and sensibility matured, she moved steadily away from the formulas which served, in poems like "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" … and "The Loser" … to pose emotional dilemmas with an excess of logical simplicity in precise antitheses which were then neatly resolved by a poetic control ruthless in its reserve. Instead she came to trust, especially in the volumes since Leaflets, documentary fidelity to experience and inclusiveness, even at the expense of coherence, as artistic principles. At the same time, in these poems she began more directly to accuse herself, as artist and individual, among those who were compromised and culpable. (pp. 143-44)

To see how and why Rich as a poet refuses ever to be totally taken in, but insists instead on her separateness or severalness, her ability to remain somehow free, for the moment of the poem, of the flow she must chart, we need only compare her favorite terms for describing the act of poetic imagination at several points during her career. In "Writing as Re-Vision," she names as the primary resource which enables her to write as a buoyancy of attention, a loosening of the self from the constrictions of lived experience to "enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot." (p. 144)

In the prophecy which concludes "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" … she imagines a prototype for the potent, creative woman who is similarly unconstricted and airborne. "Her mind full to the wind," this woman is a helicopter safely delivering precious cargo; yet her daring flight is also defiant, "poised, still coming, / her fine blades making the air wince." Although this vision is derived in part from Simone de Beauvoir, Rich returns to the image in three other poems over a period of fifteen years. (p. 145)

The habits of perception implicit in these images underlie the particular strengths of a frequently ambivalent poetic stance. Rather than making a single emotional response, her poems are more often energized by opposing thrusts whose tension lifts her free and yet holds her in a manner resembling an aircraft's powerful stasis in motion, its difficult balance, and its finely controlled modulations of distance. (p. 146)

[In many] poems in A Change of World (1951) and The Diamond Cutters (1955), the sensitive, well-educated observer stands self-consciously apart and regards experience as a series of neatly framed vistas, each with an instructive corollary to literature, music or art. Although the speaker in these poems claims to regret the sense of alienation which turns the living world to allegorical tableaux, the identity of tourist provides the psychological as well as physical space for introspection. The inexperienced and undefined persona may contemplate the heavily laden landscape as a mirror which illuminates her presence yet never threatens to engulf it. For the most part, the emotional distance which operates in the poems of the first two volumes is a weary resignation, somewhat affected because so premature, of a romantic young girl who wishes to be heroically committed but is sensibly disgruntled by the premise "we had to take the world as it was given" ("Ideal Landscape")…. [We] know the speaker in these poems, as in so many later ones, as a sufferer who is uncomfortably out of place and inadvertently out of touch with the world around her. (pp. 146-47)

Randall Jarrell was one of the first to notice Rich's particular facility for shape-shifting. In reviewing The Diamond Cutters, he notes that the emancipated speaker of "Living in Sin" and the child who heard blue-black bears on...

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Ellen Moers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Adrienne Rich discerns will, power and freedom in Dickinson's poems, many of which "seem to me a poet's poems—that is, they are about the poet's relationship to her own power, which is exteriorized in masculine form, much as masculine poets have invoked the female Muse." (p. 1)

The generosity with which Adrienne Rich has given herself to feminist causes in the last decade has made this collection out-of-date in one odd way, even though most of its essays were written in the late 1970's. She seems not to have had time to acknowledge and enjoy the accomplishments of the feminist movement. (p. 29)

Ellen Moers, "A Poet's Feminist Prose," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 22, 1979, pp. 1, 29.

Joanna Russ

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, Jane Eyre (although Rich scants the difficulties of the novel's ending), and the contemporary poet, Judy Grahn…. Rich's essays on lesbianism, like the last essay in the book (a meditation on racism and women) are more promising and less complete than the others, the other subjects being matters she understands more thoroughly because they are more limited….

Rich is not charming; moreover, her uncomfortable honesty takes place in an atmosphere of passionately felt tragedy. The integrity and clarity of this book are very old-fashioned virtues….

The attack of "man-hater" will most likely be made. Rich, mentioning wife-battering, father-daughter incest, the sadism of pornography, and the forced sterilization of poor and Third World women, asks simply, "who … hates whom."

This is a fine book to read if you want to find out.

Joanna Russ, "On Lies, Secrets, and Silence," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), May 6, 1979, p. F6.

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carol Muske

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barbara L. Estrin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1060 words.)