I meant to post something earlier to commemorate Adrienne Rich‘s life; her work greatly impacted me during my study abroad program.
This will be an unusual post, and I’m probably crossing a few of the “don’ts” of blogging. Below is excerpted part of a piece I wrote for my final undergraduate English class, including MLA citations. I feel it accurately expresses some of the things that have been on my mind about Rich since her recent death. As this is a writing blog, I don’t intend for it to become too political. However, feel free to discuss Adrienne Rich and her work in the comments section of this post. How has her work impacted you?
Adrienne Rich published her first book of poetry in 1951. W.H. Auden described the poetry therein as “neatly and modestly dressed”; like much of Rich’s early work, it was notable for its formalism and “emotional containment” (Cook 503).
Rich had first developed as a writer by reading primarily canonical poetry. In “Blood, Bread, and Poetry,” she noted that her world view was shaped by such poetry as that by white Anglo-Saxon men (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 506). The resulting aesthetic ideology Rich originally adhered to led her to believe in all art, and poetry in particular, as “the expression of a higher world view,” an achievement of “universality” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 506). In this way, Rich tried to think and act like poetry was a gender-neutral space (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 508).
However, as she began to read more philosophical texts, many of which connected freedom to revolt, Rich began to “taste the concrete reality of being unfree, how continuous and permeating and corrosive a condition it is, and how it is maintained through culture as much as through the use of force” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 509). In this time, poetry became to Rich something less general, and more personal. Rich became more aware of how patriarchal society induced a kind of mental fragmentation. This realization led Rich to the conclusion that “Every group that lives under the naming and image-making power of a dominant culture is at risk from this mental fragmentation”—in her case woman from poet—“and needs an art which can resist it” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 508).
Rich communicates this idea in her poem “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” which quotes Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminist thinkers: “To have in this uncertain world some stay/ which cannot be undermined, is/ of the utmost consequence.” (qtd. in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” 2624). For Rich, this “stay” or stronghold for feminism became the art of poetry, through which Rich establishes strength and voices resistance to male dominance and chauvinism.
Rich’s new way of writing was criticized at first. She engaged such major political events as the emergence of feminism (Cook 503). In 1963, when she published Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, a book influenced by her new consciousness of sexual politics, Rich was “told, in print, that this work was ‘bitter,’ ‘personal’; that [she] had sacrificed the sweetly flowing measures of [her] earlier books for ragged line and a coarsened voice” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 510).
Reflecting in the 1980s on this earlier stage of her writing, Rich noted in “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” that things had not changed much. Then, as before, “the reading of poetry in an elite academic institution is supposed to lead you… not toward a criticism of society, but toward a professional career in which the anatomy of poems is studied dispassionately” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 507).
Despite her detractors, Rich continued to write politically, becoming an indispensable voice for feminism. She resisted “the apparent splitting of poet from woman, thinker from woman, and to write what [she] feared was political poetry. And in this [she] had very little encouragement from the literary people I knew” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 508). Rich drew inspiration from the generation of African American writers that grew from the Civil Rights Movement and the “poetry readings [that] were infused with the spirit of collective rage and hope” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 510). This tone of rage and hope remains notable in much of Rich’s poetry, but especially in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.”
Prior to publishing Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, Rich strove to draw together the fragmented identities of poet and woman, and thinker and woman (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 508). Like Leda, the “thinking woman sleeps with monsters” to gain knowledge and power (“Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” 2623). By writing such expressive and political poetry, Rich would seem monstrous to many critics; however, she also gained power and stature.
In Rich’s nod to the thinking woman towards the end of “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” she quotes Samuel Johnson’s remark on women’s public speaking: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all” (qtd. in note 5, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” 2625). This comparison of women to animals cannot fail in contemporary times to bring to mind arguments such as that made by Republican Representative Terry England before the Georgia House of Representatives in March.
England compared women to farm animals while advocating a bill that intends to prohibit a woman from having an abortion after 20 weeks; however, the bill would also force women carrying stillborn fetuses to carry to term, regardless of the physical and emotional health risks that would entail (Owens). This and other recent efforts by many Republican politicians in recent months have focused on limiting or repealing altogether many rights women won during the 1960s and 70s, namely rights to birth control and abortion. While such attempts against women’s reproductive rights have been cloaked in claims of supporting “family values,” in truth they can limit women’s access to education and employment, access that was more fully opened during the 1960s and 70s. Former presidential nominee Rick Santorum claimed in It Takes a Family that “Respect for stay-at-home mothers has been poisoned by a toxic combination of the village elders’ war on the traditional family and radical feminism’s misogynistic crusade to make working outside the home the only marker of social value and self-respect” (qtd. in Brown). While it is unclear who these “village elders” are, Santorum turns to the familiar demonization of feminism. In reality, reproductive rights that freed women from the home allowed them the ability to choose domesticity, careers, and sometimes both.
Due to the current political climate, and how it seems to stand aimed in direct conflict with the advancements gained for women’s rights in the 1960s and 70s, it is disheartening for proponents of both literature and women’s rights to have so recently lost Adrienne Rich. One must question, what would she have written in such a time?
If anything may be taken from Rich’s work, it is her constancy and passion for pushing boundaries, for revolting against restrictions maintained by culture. Carruthers, after noting critics’ attacks against poets such as Rich for writing “propaganda,” admitting to understanding their blindness. After reading Robin Morgan’s Monster, Carruthers “regarded it as prosy and propagandistic” (Carruthers 306-7). It was in hearing Morgan recite the poems that Carruthers “remembered that poetry is, in the most complete sense of the word, re-creative, it moves and persuades” (Carruthers 306-7).
Adrienne Rich struck a new path in poetry, creating bold, moving, and persuasive works. By setting such an example for the inheritors of her writing, it should then not be a question of what Rich would write in response to current events; rather, what raging, enlightening, mold-breaking, hopeful verses will these successors compose?
What ever you write, I hope you do it passionately. Keep at it.
For more about Adrienne Rich:
Brown, Maressa. “Rick Santorum’s Beliefs About Women Should Terrify You.” The Stir. Cafe Mom, 14 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <http://thestir.cafemom.com/in_the_news/134547/rick_santorums_beliefs_about_women>.
Carruthers, Mary. “Imagining Women: Notes towards a Feminist Poetic.” The Massachusetts Review 20.2 (1979): 281-307. Print.
Cook, Jon. “Adrienne Rich.” Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 503. Print.
Owens, Leigh. “Terry England, Georgia Republican Lawmaker, Compares Women To Farm Animals.” The Huffington Post. 03 Sept. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/09/terry-england-farm-animals_n_1335976.html>.
Rich, Adrienne. “Blood, Bread, and Poetry: The Location of the Poet.” Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000. Ed. Jon Cook. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 504-13. Print.
—. “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 2008. 2622-2625. Print.