Arts of the Possible Summary
by Adrienne Rich

Start Your Free Trial

Download Arts of the Possible Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Arts of the Possible Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)


In the foreword to her book Arts of the Possible, distinguished poet Adrienne Rich reflects on the fifty years she has been writing poetry, calling herself the “poet of oppositional imagination.” She notes that her book is for people interested in imagination and “wider horizons,” not the quotidian details of daily life or the strictly personal concerns of much contemporary poetry. Indeed, for more than four decades, Rich has challenged readers and students to expand their horizons, offering alternative ways of viewing culture and life. Arts of the Possiblecontinues Rich’s crusade to open eyes and ears.

Rich chooses to begin her book with four essays from earlier in her career. She does so to provide the reader with both background and context. The final eight essays were written during the 1990’s. The juxtaposition of the new with the old allows the reader to view Rich’s thinking across time, and allows Rich to clarify and, at times, modify her earlier stance on several issues. At the heart of Rich’s book, however, is the belief that poetry and politics are inextricably bound together. Good poetry, according to Rich, is not (and cannot) be about the personal without acknowledging the cultural and social milieu in which it arises. This philosophy underpins and connects Rich’s writing across the years.

“When We Dead Awaken’: Writing as Re-vision,” the opening essay, is perhaps Rich’s most anthologized and quoted piece of prose. Written in 1971, the essay argues that, for women, the act of revision is also an act of survival. Rich contends that feminist literary critique can help women re-vision themselves and the culture in which they live.

Indeed, Rich further asserts that knowledge of the literature of the past is essential for women, so that they can then resee this literature in a radical new way. Such radical revision is the only way that women can break through the restrictions that the literature of the past holds over them. Using biographical detail to illustrate this point, Rich traces her own transformation from a young woman writing to please her father to a young mother who began to understand that “politics was not something out there’ but something in here’ and of the essence of [her] condition.” Rich, writing in 1971, believed that all women need to experience a similar transformation because “[t]he creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out; what remains is a self-generating energy for destruction.” Women, therefore, need to tap their creative energy for their own survival and perhaps for the survival of the species.

Rich expands her themes in another early essay, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” written in 1984 to be delivered as a talk in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in the same year. In structure, the essay is a series of short notes, divided by white space and dividing lines. The divisions in the text mirror Rich’s growing understanding of the divisions between women. Rich first identifies herself as a white feminist from the United States, before further defining herself as a Jew and lesbian. She takes to task the women’s movement, grounded in white Western culture, that renders women’s lives into a homogenous abstraction. Rich describes her own growth toward this understanding: “It was in the writings but also the actions and speeches and sermons of Black United States citizens that I began to experience the meaning of my whiteness as a point of location for which I needed to take responsibility.”

What Rich decries is the many ways that the feminist movement has been “thoughtlessly” white and Western. That is, white women, by their act of defining the women’s movement as “we,” neglect to include issues of race, culture, social class, and geography as the true locations of women’s lived experiences. Rather, white women see their own experiences as normative for women, in much the same way that patriarchy defines the male experience as...

(The entire section is 1,740 words.)