Blood, Bread, and Poetry by Adrienne Rich

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Blood, Bread, and Poetry collects fifteen essays by noted American poet, lesbian, and feminist Adrienne Rich, some of which were first presented as lectures or speeches. The essays are arranged in chronological order of composition, from 1979 to 1985. The anthology revolves around the central thematic issues of contemporary feminism, articulating a range of subtopics, particularly women’s history, women and literature, and academic women’s studies. In a clear and accessible voice, Rich addresses subjects pertinent to understanding not only the development of feminist studies but also a feminist point-of-view on the position of women during the Reagan Administration. The essays often adopt a lively hortatory tone, alternating with thoughtful, thought-provoking inquiry.

Several essays discuss important but underappreciated figures in women’s literature. “The Problem of Lorraine Hansberry” (1979) identifies the late African American playwright as an astute feminist who wrote of women’s issues and ideas well before the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960’s. In 1957, Hansberry began an essay on Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953) and corresponded to The Ladder, an early lesbian periodical, about the “hetero-social” pressures that lesbians face. Rich tells poignantly of how Hansberry’s papers and dramatic corpus have been manipulated by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff. Rich suggests that Hansberry’s female voice has been at least partially diluted through male mediation of her texts.

Similarly, in “The Eye of the Outsider: Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, 1927-1979” (1983), Rich describes Bishop’s work as incompletely appreciated by the literary establishment that canonized it, and she considers exemplary poems in terms of Bishop’s “outsiderhood.” She concludes that “Bishop was critically and consciously trying to explore marginality, power and powerlessness.” The 1984 title essay, “Blood, Bread, and Poetry: The Location of the Poet,” contextualizes Rich’s concern over how women writers are situated and studied in the academy—or how they are not. Typically autobiographical and personal, the essay describes Rich’s life progress as an academic and canonical poet; she brilliantly exposes how women’s writing often employs sociopolitical critique which the academy chooses to ignore, leading to minimal female representation in literary curricula. The essay calls for greater attention to women’s (political) art in a world where most illiterates are women.

In fact, women’s social history, personal and collective, plays some part in nearly every essay, but it is central to the opening work, “What Does a Woman Need to Know?” (1979); Rich asserts that “what a woman must know” is the history of women, no matter how elusive or hidden. Women’s history has grown more accessible since 1979, but the need for young women to comprehend how women’s place in society has developed is no less crucial. “Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life” (1983) explores the problem; Rich recalls Susan B. Anthony’s abolition work and remarks on the American notion “that one can be socially ‘twice born,’” a function of U.S. immigrants’ hyphenated relation to the “original” Anglo-Saxon establishment.

Making pointed connections between African American history in the Americas and women’s history, Rich suggests that, although “to the victor go the spoils of history,” subaltern histories permit members of social “minority” groups a vital sense of continuity and the foundation for future struggles. In “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity” (1982), Rich analyzes her personal history as an example of multiple subaltern histories. Her relatively privileged life—as a white, middle-class, educated, Southern, “once-married” lesbian—specifies secular Jewish experience in America. She seeks connection, comprehension of...

(The entire section is 1,509 words.)