Toward the end of “Diving into the Wreck,” one of her most renowned poems, Adrienne Rich explains the goals of her underwater journey:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
Here, she says, is the imperative of investigation: needful research into “the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.” Arguably, as she confided that she discovered sometime in the sixties, such research into reality—“the thing itself and not the myth”—was a major aim of her work as a poet. But perhaps it hasn’t yet been clearly enough understood how crucially her writings in prose complemented, supplemented, enriched, and, yes, inspired her writing in verse. For in these writings she was not just one of many contemporary poets illuminating her verse through confessional glosses but a major memoirist, essayist, theorist, and scholar.
As an undergraduate at Radcliffe, Rich was enthralled by the poems of W. B. Yeats, from whose lucid cadences she took what she needed to enhance her aesthetic craft. As she confides in “Blood, Bread, and Poetry,” the “dialogue between art and politics … excited me in his work, along with the sound of his language.” To be sure, there are countless differences between these two writers, in particular large gaps between the Irish artist’s problematic sexual politics and Rich’s radical reimaginings of gender, as well as between Yeats’s eccentric (and aristocratic) mysticism and Rich’s social realism. (She was never, she notes, interested in “his elaborate mythological systems.”) Yet what links the two, at different ends of the twentieth century and of the political spectrum, is a fierce urge toward personal and poetic refashioning, along with an increasingly powerful sense of communal responsibility. For if Yeats spoke for Ireland—once telling an unruly Abbey Theatre audience that “the author of Countess Cathleen speaks to you”—Rich spoke just as passionately for women, and more specifically for lesbians, for black women, for working-class women, for Jews, and, in a larger sense, for the dispossessed, for those whom the poet Anne Winters has called “the displaced of capital.”
In time, as she grew into the intense feminism that was to shape both her life and her work, Rich was increasingly drawn—as so many of us were in the sixties and seventies—to female forebears, who took the place of the “masters” she had studied in college. Like Virginia Woolf, who famously declared that “we think back through our mothers, if we are women,” she assembled a visionary company of ancestresses whose arts and ideas she meticulously analyzed. Prominent among these was the multifaceted American poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose own ongoing “dialogue between art and politics” became as inspiring to the mature Rich as Yeats had been to the Radcliffe undergraduate. Rukeyser, Rich explains in an essay I’ve included here, “spoke as a poet, first and foremost; but she spoke also as a thinking activist, biographer, traveler, explorer of her country’s psychic geography.” She had first read Rukeyser, Rich notes, in the early fifties, because “like her, I had won the Yale Younger Poets Prize at the age of twenty-one, and I was curious to see what a woman poet, at my age, now ahead of me on the path, had written in her first book.” Although she still remembered “the extraordinary force of the first poem in Theory of Flight, how it broke over me, and my envy of the sweeping lines, the authority” in that work, she confessed that she wasn’t yet prepared to learn from Rukeyser. “I came to [her] in my maturity, as my own life opened out [and] I found her to be the poet I most needed in the struggle to make my poems and live my life.” For indeed, like Rukeyser, Rich became “a thinking activist” and—throughout her career but especially in such works as “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” and An Atlas of the Difficult World—a sensitive “explorer of her country’s psychic geography.”
To reread and rethink Rich’s prose as a complete oeuvre is to encounter a major public intellectual—responsible, self-questioning, and morally passionate. For those of us who came of age during feminism’s fabled second wave in the seventies, texts like “When We Dead Awaken” and “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” were key proclamations of ideas that we desperately needed to guide us on our way. Equally important to us was the powerful blend of research, theory, and self-reflection that she produced in her landmark study Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Later, as we matured into the nineties and the twenty-first century, Rich’s analyses of poetry—her own art and the art of others—as in What Is Found There, helped us, especially those of us who were poets and devoted readers of poetry, to sort through a canon that needed reexamination. And throughout her career, the political keenness and candor that energized such writings as “Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts” grounded us in a dissent that was both firm and formidable.
What is perhaps most compelling about Rich’s prose, however, isn’t just its grounding in dissent but its origin in disclosure. Although she herself often claimed that she disliked the “personal” or “confessional,” considering them “therapeutic” genres that evaded edgier social contexts, her prose writings, even more than her verse, mine a richly autobiographical vein. By the time one has read through some of her strongest essays, one comes to know her ambitious, sometimes tyrannical Jewish father, Arnold Rich, and her genteel Gentile Southern mother, Helen Rich, as if they were figures in Proust. The daughter here is nothing but honest, and her personal interpolations significantly illuminate her political interventions. Neither a confessional writer nor a memoirist—she was always private about the failure of her marriage and about the lives of her children—she nevertheless profiled Baltimore (in the forties) and Cambridge (in the fifties) in such precise detail that we feel present at a kind of documentary.
Even Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, begun as a research project, offers comparable portraits of what was and how it changed. At the same time, though, it was and is a groundbreaking feminist study that brilliantly exemplifies the innovative scholarship energized by what has come to be called the second wave of the women’s movement. That Rich, never a professional academic or graduate student, was such a leader in this field, working with rigorous lucidity, makes me wish I could leap into a time machine, go back into the past, and remind dissenters—for instance Midge Dector, “the anti-feminist woman” of one of Rich’s essays—how much thought from how many serious thinkers inspired marches, meetings, and manifestos. In fact, it was the serious and dedicated thought of seventies feminism that not only transformed Rich from a Yeatsian acolyte to a Rukeyser disciple but also motivated her own “will to change” from a writer of intelligent, casual reviews to an “activist thinker.” In her eloquent “Arts of the Possible,” she recounts that metamorphic time. “The women’s liberation movement embodied for a while the kind of creative space a liberatory political movement can make possible: ‘a visionary relation to reality.’ Why this happens has something to do with the sheer power of a collective imagining of change and a sense of collective hope.” Also, of course, it has something—maybe everything—to do with the ways in which liberatory political movements must inevitably find poets and prophets who can articulate their collective hopes. Such a spokesperson was Adrienne Rich, as both her poems and her prose writings reveal.
One of the first essays that Rich published was a 1963 review of D. H. Lawrence’s Collected Poems in Poetry magazine. Sophisticated and incisive, the piece clearly reveals the readerly intelligence with which she approached the writings of a poet-novelist whose verse was at that time significantly underappreciated, even while it also demonstrates that she herself was a keen practitioner of her aesthetic craft. Analyzing Lawrence’s poems in the context of his own lyric manifesto, “The Poetry of the Present,” she dramatizes, even then, her awareness that a poet’s prose writings are also, in a sense, part of her poetic canon. After that, she wrote a few other reviews for Poetry and, in the early seventies, briefly became a columnist for The American Poetry Review. By the time she reviewed Lawrence’s poems, however, she had already published two collections of her own, A Change of World (1951), which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and The Diamond Cutters (1955)
Of the first book, W. H. Auden, then editor for the Yale series, writes in a notoriously patronizing preface that the poems “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.” A few years later, in a review of The Diamond Cutters, Randall Jarrell thickens the plot, claiming that the author of the book seems “to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale.” But the Adrienne Cecile Rich (for so she signed her first two books) of whom these masterful poets were speaking seems to have been largely a figment of their imaginations. True, her parents had bestowed on her a somewhat flowery name, but along with that, they’d given her an education in aspiration and expertise. Her father was a distinguished pathologist; her mother a former concert pianist. The older of two sisters, Adrienne was the son the couple wanted and never had. Homeschooled until fourth grade, she was taught verse forms along with Bach and Mozart while ranging freely through her father’s extensive library. After that, she went on to an excellent private school for girls and then to Radcliffe, from which she returned after her freshman year “flaming with new insights, new information” as “the daughter who has gone out into the world, to the pinnacle of intellectual prestige … fulfilling my father’s hopes for me, but also exposed to dangerous influences.”
“Dangerous influences.” Beneath a veneer of decorum, the stubborn poet had begun to stir. But given her specialized upbringing, she had to rebel on several fronts. In secret, she confides in a letter to a longtime friend, she had as a teenager “spent hours writing imitations of cosmetic advertising and illustrating them copiously,” and “mercifully,” she recalls in print, she “discovered Modern Screen, Photoplay, Jack Benny, ‘Your Hit Parade,’ Frank Sinatra,” and other icons of popular culture. Worse still, though from her father’s perspective she was “satisfyingly precocious,” she had “early been given to tics and tantrums.” Even in the years when Auden and Jarrell were captivated by what they saw as her dutiful command of versification (“I was exceptionally well grounded in formal technique,” she herself admits, “and I loved the craft”), she was “groping for … something larger.” Her first act of overt rebellion against a father whom she once defined as “Papa Bronte” was to marry “a divorced graduate student” from an observant Eastern European Jewish family, a background that Arnold Rich, a secular (and atheistic) Jew disliked. Her parents refused to attend the wedding, which was held at Hillel House in Cambridge.
After that, as she recalled, she began to write what her father defined as “ ‘modern,’ ‘obscure,’ ‘pessimistic’ poetry,” and eventually, she had “the final temerity to get pregnant.” Another young woman poet who visited Cambridge at this time discerned what Auden, Jarrell, and Arnold Rich had failed to grasp. Sylvia Plath was fiercely rivalrous toward Rich but describes her, with some respect, as “all vibrant short black hair, great sparkling black eyes and a tulip-red umbrella; honest, pink, forthright and even opinionated.” But at the same time, curiously enough, in rebelling against her father’s plans for her intellectual career, Rich had entrapped herself in what Betty Friedan has called the “feminine mystique” of the fifties. She gave birth to three sons before she was thirty, and as Of Woman Born testifies, her experience of motherhood as a social and cultural institution was utterly life changing. “Motherhood radicalized me,” she declared, for both the experience and the institution had forced her to attend to the powerful gender distinctions that shape and sometimes shatter women’s worlds.
“Anger and tenderness,” the phrase with which Rich titles the first chapter of that book, marked her career during the nearly two decades of her marriage, when she and her husband, Alfred Conrad, a Harvard professor of economics, were bringing up their boys, both in Cambridge and New York. And for much of this time, Rich was relatively silent as a poet: there’s a gap of nearly a decade between her publication of The Diamond Cutters and her next groundbreaking, protofeminist book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), though for the rest of her career, she published nearly a collection a year.
During the tumultuous sixties, Rich’s marriage to Conrad began to disintegrate, as the couple moved to New York and Rich herself turned increasingly to the thinking activism that reshaped her art and thought. In 1970, in the midst of personal and political turmoil, Conrad drove to Vermont near where the family had a country house and took his own life with a gunshot. Shocked, Rich went on to become, as she calls herself in one poem, “a survivor.” A few years after her husband’s death, she ruefully describes its aftermath:
Next year it would have been 20 years
and you are wastefully dead
who might have made the leap
we talked, too late, of making
which I live now
not as a leap
but a succession of brief, amazing movements
each one making possible the next.
By the seventies, in one of those amazing movements, she had committed herself to a “lesbian existence” that she defines as “womanly, powerful.”
In 1976, Rich began her lifelong partnership with the Jamaican-born novelist and poet Michelle Cliff, and her major essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” appeared in 1980. Then, in “Split at the Root” (1982) and the long poem “Sources” (1982), she began to reclaim her Jewish heritage. In 1983, she went to Nicaragua to try to understand the Sandinistas and, further, “to get a sense of what art might mean in a society committed to values other than profit and consumerism.” By the time she published her ambitious, Whitmanesque “Atlas of the Difficult World” (1991), she was “bent on fathoming what it means to love my country,” affirming that a “patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country / as she wrestles for her own being.” One amazing movement after another had brought her to the center of public discourse, where she wrote of blood, bread, and poetry in an effort to critique racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, consumerism, and class privilege with anger and tenderness. These wellsprings of art, along with the craft to shape them into powerful language, were arguably the treasures that prevailed after she had investigated the wreck of her marriage and the culture that had deformed it.
“I first started writing prose about poetry,” Rich explained to an interviewer in 1991, noting that after the reviews she did for Poetry, she had been asked to write a foreword to an edition of Anne Bradstreet’s work. Still, she said, “I didn’t think of myself as an essayist, and I didn’t pursue writing prose on my own, except in my journals.” Here she might have added that she was also a prolific letter writer, whose lively and witty correspondence continued throughout her life and from which a selection may soon, one hopes, appear in print. The practice of prose—in letters and journals—was thus an integral part of her relationship to language. From a professional perspective, however, she speculated “that it was finally involvement in politics that got me writing prose more, as a part of life, as a regular part of my writing. And very often it was because somebody asked me to speak or asked for an essay.” Nonetheless, she continued, though her prose “has always been initiated from an exterior point, it wasn’t an exterior point that was irrelevant to what was happening to me, in my life, or even in my poetry. I was writing poems out of a lot of the same things which I discussed in the essay ‘When We Dead Awaken,’ and I have a poem with the same title. Certainly a lot of my other essays have points of intersection with poems, probably none so much as ‘Split at the Root’ with ‘Sources’—which I was writing at about the same time.”
Interestingly, some of the strongest prose from this period is precisely the kind of “re-visionary” literary criticism that Rich’s manifesto inspired from other feminist thinkers in the seventies, notably her brilliant essays on Jane Eyre and Emily Dickinson, which many of us still remember reading with wonder when they first came out. Even literary essays—a review of Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems, an introduction to Muriel Rukeyser’s writings, and excerpts from What Is Found There—remind us that for Rich, as for so many feminists of her generation and later ones (including my own), the personal, the poetical, and the political were one. At the same time, her extraordinary critical expertise and wide-ranging aesthetic knowledge should also remind us that, as she understatedly puts it, she was “exceptionally well grounded in formal technique” and truly loved her craft.
Sandra M. Gilbert is the editor of Adrienne Rich’s Essential Essays. A resident of Berkeley, California, she has published eight collections of poetry and has a new volume, Judgment Day, forthcoming. Among her prose books are Wrongful Death, Death’s Door, Rereading Women, and The Culinary Imagination. With Susan Gubar, she has coauthored The Madwoman in the Attic, No Man’s Land (three volumes), and a number of other books. The two are currently at work on a study tentatively titled Still Mad: Seventies Feminism Today.
Excerpted from Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, by Adrienne Rich, edited and with an introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert. Copyright © 2018 by the Adrienne Rich Literary Trust. Introduction copyright © 2018 by Sandra M. Gilbert. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.