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...

(The entire section is 778 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Each essay in Blood, Bread, and Poetry has value, as feminist discourse and as historical documentation of feminist concerns between 1979 and 1985; however, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” can be singled out as the most significant essay in the collection, perhaps even the most important of all Rich’s writings. Rich radically recontextualized women’s social, affectional, and sexual relations—with men and with other women. Rich exposes the social origins of patriarchal heterosexuality: Not “natural,” inevitable, or essential, the pervasive tool of women’s compulsory subjugation is constructed by the lifelong “education” of individual women to support men through sexual and affectional servitude.

Yet the idea of “compulsory heterosexuality” disguises the essay’s even more radical contribution: This essay first framed a theoretical construction of “lesbian existence,” when published in Signs magazine in 1980. Rich moved beyond the “Woman-Identified Woman” of the Radicalesbians Manifesto (1970) that fostered often-celibate “political lesbianism.” Rich considers diverse lesbian praxes as a viable aspect of female-female relations, pointing out the paranoid erasure of lesbians from male-organized “reality.” Based on material lesbian experience, rather than on male, patriarchal psychoanalytic categorization of lesbianism as abnormal and patholog-ical, Rich’s “lesbian continuum”...

(The entire section is 454 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Allen, Jeffner, ed. Lesbian Philosophies and Cultures. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. The essays collected here, many by well-respected lesbian scholars, make substantial contributions to lesbian/feminist studies, following Rich’s lead.

Benstock, Shari, ed. Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Essays in this well-known anthology extend the ideas considered in Blood, Bread, and Poetry. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Judith Louder Newton, and Hortense Spillers address women’s history and literature, including that of African Americans; others address feminist poetics and criticism.

Freedman, Estelle B., et al., eds. The Lesbian Issue: Essays from “Signs.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. This book reprints selected Signs articles from 1982 to 1984, including Stanford Friedman on Rich and responsory dialogue with Rich.

Frye, Marilyn. Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism, 1976-1992. Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1992. Partly contemporaneous to Blood, Bread, and Poetry, Frye’s essays on feminism, women’s studies, and lesbianism permit informative comparison to Rich’s topically similar views.

Montefiore, Jan. Feminism and Poetry: Language, Experience, Identity in Women’s Writing. New York: Pandora, 1987. Focusing on poetry, Montefiore also discusses Rich as an essayist, relating her works to those of other contemporary feminist thinkers and poets.

Phelan, Shane. Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism and the Limits of Community. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. This comprehensible theoretical text describes the relationships between lesbians and the feminist community, and between lesbians and the gay community. Lends historical perspective to several Rich essays.

Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. This elemental feminist work incisively analyzes the many ways in which women’s writings have historically been dismissed, censored, and derogated, with references to Rich’s texts.