Adrienne Rich is one of the most influential self-identified lesbian feminists of 20thcentury America. Her writing reflects the development of feminist thought, and documents events in the history of the women’s movement. Her talents as an essayist have been acknowledged mainly in this context, as distinct from her poetry. Throughout her decades of work as a writer-activist, Rich uses essays, speeches, conference papers, magazine articles, book reviews, and personal reflections to articulate with stunning complexity issues of women’s liberation, individual identity, and the role of poetry. She has collected these writings in three volumes: On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978 (1979), Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (1986), and What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993). Rich introduces each piece with information about its first publication (or delivery). She also supplies updated facts, sketches out controversies that particular passages evoke, and cites references for further reading. Her prose complements her poetry by expanding upon metaphors epitomizing her hopes for the future.
On Lies, Secrets, and Silence contains Rich’s first essays about the damaging effects of patriarchy, which she sees as a product of a gynophobic splitting of thought from emotion. Rich resists this division by bringing personal experience back into the political realm. Relying heavily on the wisdom of Virginia Woolf, she envisions communities of women that will create a politics of addressing women’s questions. She discusses issues surrounding daycare, education, safety from violence, and the politics of birth control and of housework. Her essays on education connect sexism with other systems of oppression, while motherhood becomes a central social and political issue in “The Antifeminist Woman” (1972). (This essay inspired her to write a separate prose volume on the ideology of motherhood under patriarchy, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, 1976). Rich also resurrects female writers as mentors for women who are unearthing the unspeakable elements of their lives, since “women’s minds cannot grow to full stature, or touch the real springs of our power to alter reality, on a diet of masculine ideology” (“Conditions for Work: The Common World of Women,” 1976.)
Patriarchal dualisms create other divisions (gay/straight, white/black) which Rich scrutinizes in her second anthology, Blood, Bread, and Poetry. Her formulation of feminist issues now foregrounds their connections to racism, class-blindness, and anti- Semitism. She quotes and reviews the work of black feminists, and credits the civil rights movement as a model for the women’s movement. She also focuses on issues of lesbian identity and history; “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980), her most famous essay, documents a breakthrough in sexual politics: the recognition of how patriarchal culture uses the assumption that everyone is heterosexual to disempower women. In the second half of the book, Rich interrogates her position and privileges as a United States citizen, leading ultimately to “Notes Toward a Politics of Location” (1984).
Location encompasses all the differences among women, men, places, times, cultures, conditions, class, and movements that contribute to one’s perspective. This formulation refines her earlier ideas about acknowledging individual experience in a political sphere.
Rich moves from a revolutionary social agenda in early essays toward the ostensibly narrower purpose of examining poetry and politics in her third anthology, What Is Found There. As she compiles excerpts about poetic power from diverse authors and from her own reflections, her scope widens to encompass poetry in prisons, malls, public art, and everyday epiphanies. Her vision grows global as she contends that the most exciting recent poetry comes from indigenous, mestiza/o, and women’s poetry movements in all the Americas, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as Europe and Africa (“What If?,” 1993). Unfortunately, as Rich attempts to interweave the political concerns of more people from more places, her writing loses focus. In the middle of reading any given essay, it can be hard to isolate the original thematic issue.
Rich’s later writings seem scattered—not because she is trying to deal with too many issues (her earlier writings prove that she is eminently capable of combining breadth and subtlety), but rather because the format of many selections reads like an imprecise gathering of journal fragments, with few connecting arguments or commentaries on quotations. The powerful, direct rhetoric that characterizes her earlier anthologies is sadly diffused by this profusion of information. Her earlier experiments with alternative styles seem more deliberate. The psychoanalytically rich “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” (1975) discusses relationships in an elegantly impressionistic format; in “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity” (1982), Rich meanders through time and circumstance to explore her Jewish heritage. Episodic writing is well suited for these reflections, but the wide-ranging political goals of her most recent volume fall between the cracks of this writing style. Although an open format best matches Rich’s political
vision, it is not purposeful enough to support her convictions.
The most astonishing element of Rich’s essays is an ever more exacting vision of politics. When she returns to topics in order to develop her thoughts further, her selfcriticism is fearless. In one particularly lucid example, Rich describes an audience’s reactions to her statement that “It is the lesbian in us who is creative, for the dutiful daughter of the fathers in us is only a hack” (“It Is the Lesbian In Us…,” 1976).
Recounting the various opinions becomes an occasion to revaluate her assertion. Rich notes that “I probably oversimplified the issue, given limits of time, and therefore obscured it. This experience made me more conscious than ever before of the degree to which, even for lesbians, the word lesbian has many resonances.” As she goes on to describe some possibilities, Rich discards any solution that implies an escape from radical complexity (“The Meaning of Our Love for Women Is What We Have Constantly to Expand,” 1977). Here, as in her writing in general, the essays indicate a continuing exploration, not a destination.
Adrienne Cecile Rich. Born 16 May 1929 in Baltimore. Studied at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.B. (cum laude), 1951 (Phi Beta Kappa). Married Alfred H.Conrad, 1953 (died, 1970): three sons. Taught at the YM-YWHA Poetry Center Workshop, New York, 1966–67, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, 1966–68, Columbia University, New York, 1967–69, City College of New York, 1968–75, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1972–73, Douglass College, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1976–78, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1981–85, San Jose State University, California, 1985–86, and Stanford University, California, 1986–93; visiting professor at various colleges and universities. Columnist, American Poetry Review, 1972–73; coeditor, Sinister Wisdom, 1980–84; member of the editorial collective, Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends, from 1989.
Awards: many, including several grants and fellowships; Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, 1951;
Ridgely Torrence Memorial Award, 1955; American Academy Award, 1961; Poetry magazine Bess Hokin Prize, 1963; Poetry magazine Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, 1968; Shelley Memorial Award, 1971; National Book Award, 1974; Ruth Lilly Prize,
1986; Elmer Holmes Bobst Award, 1989; honorary degrees from seven colleges and universities.
Essays and Related Prose
On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978, 1979
Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985, 1986
What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, 1993
Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose: Poems, Prose, Reviews, and Criticistn, edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, 1993
Other writings: many collections of poetry (including Diving into the Wreck, 1973; The Dream of a Common Language, 1980; A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, 1981;
The Fact of a Doorframe, 1984; Your Native Land, Your Life, 1986; Time’s Power, 1989;
An Atlas of the Difficult World, 1991; Dark Fields of the Republic, 1995), two plays, and Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976).
Cooper, Jane Roberta, editor, Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and Re-Visions, 1951–81, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984
Diaz-Diocaretz, Myriam, The Transforming Power of Language: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich, Utrecht: HES, 1984
Diaz-Diocaretz, Myriam, Translating Poetic Discourse: Questions of Fetninist Strategy in Adrienne Rich, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1985
Farwell, Marilyn R., “Adrienne Rich and an Organic Feminist Criticism,” College English 39 (October 1977):191–103
Flowers, Betty S., “The ‘I’ in Adrienne Rich: Individuation and the Androgyne Archetype,” in Theory and Practice of Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gabriela Mora and Karen S.Van Hooft, Ypsilanti, Michigan: Bilingual Press, 1981:14–35
Griffin, Susan, and Beverly Dahlen, Skirting the Subject: Pursuing Language in the Works of Adrienne Rich, Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1993
Keyes, Claire, The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986
Ratcliffe, Krista, Anglo-American Challenges to the Rhetorical Traditions: Virginia Woolf, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996
Templeton, Alice, The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994
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