Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948
Adrienne Rich was very much the product of her times. In 1951, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Radcliffe College. In the same year, with the encouragement and guidance of noted literary figure W. H. Auden, she published her first collection of poems, A Change of World. As Auden observed in a patronizing foreword, “The poems a reader will encounter in this book are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.”
Rich’s early poetry is markedly different from her later works. She feels that in the beginning she was writing for men, particularly her father, which could explain the orderliness noted by Auden. It was only later, during the frustration of trying to fulfill the obligations of wife (she married in 1953) and mother (by the time she was twenty-nine, she had three sons) that her poetry began to reflect her rage and she began to express her true feelings.
Though not a man-hater by any means, Rich does present, claim many critics, a biased account of the power structure and who is to blame for the subjugation of women. She recognizes that, at times, women are their own worst enemies but does not fault them for their suspicions of or aversions to radical feminism, seeing them as victims of their social environment. Her central contention is that all women everywhere are socialized, victimized, and indoctrinated. Her arguments to support this thesis are often convincing. Misogyny in all its subtle and insidious forms abounds in all cultures. Western society is based upon a principle of patriarchy in which men make most major decisions. Discrimination determines even the way in which women view one another, resulting in part from the fact that most written portraits of women were conceived by men. Hence, in fiction there are lovely young ladies who often die at the height of their powers. It is the concept of the woman as appendage that offends Rich: Woman as “the painter’s model and the poet’s muse . . . comforter, nurse, cook, bearer of his seed, secretarial assistant, and copyist of manuscripts. . . .” Seldom woman as living and thinking, having the same basic requirements as man for spiritual and intellectual fulfillment.
Rich’s belief that, historically, women often have been trivialized is clearly valid. Some critics charge, however, that On Lies, Secrets, and Silence indulges in polemics. The evils of society affect men as well as women. Expectations for men are as unrealistic and ultimately numbing as the lack of them for women. All people are victims of faceless oppression.
Critics also wonder about her view that women’s creative energies originate from their inherent lesbian qualities, that “the dutiful daughter of the fathers within us is only a hack.” (Rich, amid much controversy, later amended this argument, saying that perhaps the term “lesbian” was too “charged” and could possibly be changed to the “self-chosen woman,” the one who “refuses to obey” and says “ ‘no’ to the fathers.”) They question, too, the idea of heterosexuality being fostered by the “white male dominated capitalist culture to keep women enchained, lest they lapse into more threatening lifestyles.”
Rich’s assertion that a woman’s self-knowledge and solace come only through intense relationships with other women unnerved some critics, as did the idea that “much male fear of feminism is the fear that, in becoming whole human beings, women will cease to mother men, to provide the breast, the lullaby, the continuous attention associated by the infant with the mother.”
It was after her third child that Rich began to feel that she was either a “failed woman” or a “failed poet.” She was frightened by what appeared to be her destiny, by her loss of being in touch with herself. She says she was “writing very little, partly from fatigue, that female fatigue of suppressed anger and loss of contact with my own being; partly from the discontinuity of female life with its attention to small chores, errands, work that others constantly undo, small children’s constant needs.” She most missed having time for uninterrupted, quiet contemplation. She longed for a certain “freedom of the mind . . . freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away.” She experienced a conflict between traditional female functions and creative ones, finding it hard to put aside “imaginative activity.” As she noted, “Biological motherhood has long been used as a reason for condemning women to a role of powerlessness and subservience in the social order.”
In one of the strongest essays in the collection, on the Vietnam War, she equates maleness with killing, seeing the ravaging of that small country as a rape, brought on by a male desire to dominate and destroy. She sees the bombings as “so wholly sadistic, gratuitous and demonic that they can finally be seen . . . [as] acts of concrete sexual violence, an expression of the congruence of violence and sex in the masculine psyche.” Rich’s observations in 1983 in the essay “Blood, Bread, and Poetry: The Location of the Poet” on her past and what brought her to lesbian feminism help to clarify the views that she espoused in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence:Even before I named myself a feminist, or a lesbian, I felt impelled to bring together, in my understanding and in my poems, the political world “out there”—the world of children dynamited or napalmed, of the urban ghetto and militarist violence, and the supposedly private, lyrical world of sex and of male/female relationships.
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