Ms Piercy, an American novelist and poet, is one of the most talented of the so-called "activist writers." She has said that she "[doesn't] understand distinctions between private and social poetry," and the obliteration of that dichotomy—between "political" and "personal"—distinguishes her fiction (as it also does Doris Lessing's) as well. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The violence in Marge Piercy's book [Breaking Camp] is inhuman and irredeemable because it does not stem from natural necessity, but from cruelty and neglect, from the immorality of a society which condemns its poor to despair and crime, which uses its power to destroy. I gather that Miss Piercy has lived in a Chicago slum and knows whereof she writes so bitterly; she is also, according to the biographical note, a political activist. I assume the poems are more or less arranged in chronological order, because there is a definite break in the book about halfway through. Not only are the poems in the second half shot through with a gritty joy in being alive and in love, but they are also better poems; their craftsmanship is admirable and the language acquires depth, in contrast to the sometimes flat, shrill diction of the first part. Miss Piercy, incidentally, handles rhyme with superior skill and subtlety. [The] title poem…, along with The Peaceable Kingdom, is her most quietly moving piece, bearing witness to the strength she is developing…. (pp. 324-25)
Lisel Mueller, in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1971.
The poems in Marge Piercy's Breaking Camp are personal, raw, and tough responses to charged situations, but not without the rightness that good poems need. Miss Piercy tries to make the inward outward by turns of language that are both original and frantic and by a continual juxtapositioning of images, for which she is never in want. Her descriptive passages do not lull the reader into daydreams or try his patience; even when they seem outrageous, they always engage his interest.
But there are some annoyances to her method. In her straining to be original, Miss Piercy can be too rhythmically abrupt; and though her poems are governed by narrative, she refuses to take the straight way through a story, to let the force of the narrative work by itself. She prefers the way not taken before, the ultimate difference, with the result that feeling is too actively sought after. I should like to have her play it straight once in a while; she has nothing to fear from that. (p. 245)
Ronald Moran, in The Southern Review (copyright 1972, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter, 1972.
The first thing you notice in Small Changes … is the extraordinary confidence that suffuses the prose. It is written with a moralistic insistence that recalls nineteenth-century novels…. Marge Piercy is writing about womanhood…. She writes from an evident feminist perspective, and the book rides a wave of contemporary feeling that seems to free her from self-consciousness. It's a mixed blessing. (p. 105)
The vision of marriage in this novel is no cheerier than you'd expect to find by raising the topic in a Los Angeles divorce court. Oppression. Entrapment. Amputated lives. Despair and desperation. That that contract holds some chance of communion is not an allowable idea…. Wherever they go in this novel's world, women have two roles open to them: they may be prisoners or fugitives.
All the newly classic scenes of womanly suffering that we have read in memoirs of the past half-decade are anthologized here. (pp. 105-06)
If much of this material is programmatic, though, Marge Piercy's voice has its strengths…. The energy of the book doesn't all go toward polemic; events move along compellingly and the social reportage is acute….
What is absent in this novel is an adequate sense of the oppressor (and his allies), for one thing; and beyond that a recognition that there are limits to a world view that is organized around sexual warfare. It's hard not to think that Piercy feels this, knows that much of the multiplicity and mystery of life is getting squeezed out of her prose, but her polemical urge wins out….
Marge Piercy gazes down at these hapless characters with the finger-wagging authority of George Eliot. The novel doesn't justify that gusto, though I imagine it's an agreeable feeling. (p. 106)
Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1973.
Small Changes is fun and engrossing to read, but there is not a good, even tolerable man in the whole lot of characters. Aside from the novel's bulk and humor and its frequently marvelous poetic imagery, hateful men are its most visible commodity. The men are monsterized, the women idealized.
A glance at the cynical chapter headings immediately alerts the reader to the tone of the book, debunking traditional women's pablum: "Come Live With Me and Be My Love," "You Ain't Pretty So You Might As Well Be Smart" and "Everything Comes to the Woman Who Doesn't Wait for Anything."
It is really a woman's odyssey with an ironic title, since it's a record of large rather than small changes in the lives of a variety of women….
While the women in the novel are in search of themselves, the men are mostly out to destroy themselves and anyone who crosses their paths. The three main ones in the novel are, without exception, stereotyped monsters…. (p. 507)
This elimination of the male half of the human race as real, with real, deeply civilized feelings for women, is the single most disturbing factor in the novel because it seems so blatantly untrue and destroys some of the novel's deserved credibility. Women are made to seem happier without men. Children raised in communes are more emotionally secure. Lesbian love is more satisfying than heterosexual love. The end is a propagandist's one rather than a novelist's. Marge Piercy insists that a woman cannot be happy compromising herself in any traditional relationship with a man.
My response to the novel is ambivalent. The realistic Boston and New York locales are enjoyable. The poetry is alluring and the characters' lives are orchestrated so that shrillness is always relieved by meaty human material. In short, the novel is absorbing, despite its political rhetoric.
The vivid poetic imagery that so enlivens Small Changes can be found in a purer form in Piercy's new collection of poems, To Be of Use. Most of them are obviously feminist, some good because of this, some good despite it.
The poetry and novel share a sameness of themes, treatment and feeling—suggested by the poetry's cynical title. Rage is expressed throughout, in a variety of ways, at not being loved enough, not just by men, but by everyone.
I feel the same ambivalance about Piercy's poetry as I did about her novel. But the poetry is often full of such wonderful images, captures feelings so perfectly, even at its most blatantly propagandistic moments, that the reader is whipped up into Piercy's mood before the poem is over. (pp. 507-08)
Piercy's disaffection echoes Doris Lessing's insights in Summer Before the Dark, except that Lessing's heroine has learned the truth about her role at 45 and Piercy speaks with a younger, angrier voice…. (p. 508)
Margaret Ferrari, in America (© America Press, 1973; all rights reserved), December 29, 1973.
To talk about [Marge Piercy's] work, I have to go back: to Walt Whitman, first of all: Her poetry is like Whitman with discipline, if you can imagine that: comparable sweep, but with the poet on top of the ride, all the way: on top of it with a purpose and a need that no enormity can obfuscate. And, second of all, back to Neruda, Neruda of Macchu Picchu; I can remember when … I wondered if you could achieve the same, ultimate effects not by struggling through a density of image that emulates, in its difficulty, the perilous climb down into history—which is partly the means of Neruda's achievement. Well, the answer is "yes": Piercy accomplishes the same, final, exhilarating liberation into simplicity that reverberates the whole world. But she manages this achievement without intoxicating imagery (which is amazing, when Neruda handles it); instead, it seems she arrives at a visionary position by dint of the most obdurately honest and exacting examination of important experience in her life; it is primarily the result of an intelligence preoccupied by the prize of understanding things: understanding them, for real.
She is a great poet, a great spirit among us, whose poems are as big as the problems they treat with passionate elucidation. (p. 62)
June Jordan, "The Black Poet Speaks of Poetry" (copyright © 1974 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of June Jordan), in The American Poetry Review, July/August, 1974, pp. 62-3.
Earnest, determined to document the connections between public and private, exalted by visions of a more equitable future, Marge Piercy resembles a Tillie Olsen a generation later. A feature of generational change is Piercy's fierce resolve that her texts will not be lost and her assumption that none of her material need be concealed. She also resembles, though she is American, the young Doris Lessing, particularly the Lessing who wrote the first four novels in the "Children of Violence" series. There is the same interest in political theory; the radical criticism that adds media manipulation and pollution to the long catalogue of social evils; the use of plot to discuss important problems; the willingness to sacrifice linguistic flair for detail, clarity and accuracy….
[In Small Changes] Piercy is recording radical feminism giving birth to itself. She wishes, as well, to justify its internal organization, its rituals and its rights. She concentrates upon the creation of a new sexuality and a new psychology, which will permeate and bind a broad, genuine equality. So doing, she shifts the meaning of small change. The phrase no longer refers to something petty and cheap but to the way in which a New Woman, a New Man, will be generated: one halting step after another. The process of transformation will be as painstaking as the dismantling of electrified barbed wire. Piercy believes that women will pioneer such change, but she admires the male radicals who chip away at sex roles as they settle down for the long political struggle. (p. 567)
Exemplary characters in Small Changes live in advance of their country. The novel's end must be juxtaposed with its beginning….
The appearance of the paperback edition of Small Changes offers critics a chance to appraise the reputation they have concocted for Piercy. They often say her novels, though schematically imaginative, are lifeless, turgid; that her grasp of the techniques of realism is too flaccid to permit her to realize her ambitions. She is a good architect, an erratic builder.
The error is to assume that Piercy's genre is psychological and social realism. The extent of her authorial analyses and descriptions, the bulk of her characters' introspection, tempt critics to that mistake. Her real genre is didactic and visionary allegory. Her characters are intended to personify modern states-of-being caught in the modern state. Her dialogue is necessarily stylized. If she is long-winded, her subjects and her subject matter are morally important, the survival issues of her time. Abhorring the trivial and the arcane, she wants her novels "to be of use," a phrase that was the title of her last book of poems.
If Piercy's text were lost in a box, or hidden in a traveling bag, she would find it less a personal sorrow or personal necessity than a political defeat. (p. 568)
Catharine R. Stimpson, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 30, 1974.
Piercy, who hits the mark or just barely misses, who thickens a poem with flour when you wish she'd used arrowroot, who startles you with lines like, "Of course it all came apart/but my arms glow with the fizz of that cider sun," then allows this:
File me under W
because I wonce
(from "The Secretary Chant")
…who also wrenches the language of the women's movement into a book called To Be of Use with an energy that makes it a truly useful book. These are poems to argue with, to grapple with, often to identify with. They come from a strong conviction that (1) woman is and always has been oppressed, and (2) change is necessary and inevitable. What's useful about the book is its insistence that the reader confront the issues in the poems and react. (pp. 154-55)
It is need that pulls me toward these poems, even though I take issue with this or that line or even whole poems when they come thumping in, slamming the door so hard the windows rattle. What we all could use is a dose of the just anger that Piercy lets loose. We need to hear it from her and from each other. (p. 155)
To my mind the anger Piercy details is just, and, because it's anger, it's messy and flailing sometimes, sometimes hard and precise as a traffic light. (p. 157)
To Be of Use reads like a manual, a handbook; it's a believable book, finally, and a useful one to push against. (p. 158)
Marie Harris, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974.
Perhaps one reason for [Marge Piercy's] popularity with both establishment and underground is her unfailing touch in treating timely subjects. Her earliest work, poetry and prose, dealt with radical living styles, communes, and war protests, as well as her own intimate feelings. In To Be of Use she treats women's liberation….
[The book is] a unique blend of poetry and propaganda. The first section of the book, "A Just Anger", is composed of poems of outrage—an outrage directed, for the most part, against the male establishment that has condemned the poet and her sisters to secondary roles in life. Unfortunately most of the poems in this section fail to surprise the reader because both oppressed and oppressors are so predictable. It is a poetry of stereotypes. (p. 10)
Distinctions in Piercy's poetry come rather in nature. She has a fine feeling for the significance of individual plants, machines, and everyday objects, and these give life and power to her poetry. Bonsai trees require constant pruning to keep them from growing. The potted coleus sings when given water. A crippled bird on her windowsill moves her to song. And the natural objects in her poems work both as the things themselves and as symbols, whereas the people in her poems tend to be symbols only. (pp. 11, 66)
The book ends with a tantalizingly vague vision of freedom, of society as it should be…. This utopian vision is the driving force behind her poetry, whose aim is to move and persuade. Her virtues are the virtues of propaganda: passionate commitment, power, and simplicity. And like propaganda her poetry shows little tolerance and little breadth of vision. It presents a bleak world of two colors only, black and white, absolute right and absolute wrong. It is emotional, righteous, and often clever; but in To Be of Use it is not wise. (p. 66)
Victor Contoski, "The Poetry of Propaganda," in Margins (copyright © 1975), January, 1975, pp. 10-11, 66.