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Affirming the Outsider’s Eye: Adrienne Rich’s Legacy

Jessica Max Stein May 3

The 1960s found Adrienne Rich, like many women of her generation, plagued by disillusion.

Born in Baltimore in 1929, Rich quickly achieved success by mainstream literary and patriarchal standards. She was just 22, a senior at Radcliffe College, when W. H. Auden chose her first book, A Change of World, for the Yale Younger Poets prize. At 24 she married Alfred Haskell Conrad, a Harvard economist, and bore three sons by age 30.

Yet Rich, like many women of her generation, envisioned something different. “It was only when I could finally affirm the outsider’s eye as the source of a legitimate and coherent vision,” she wrote in “What Does a Woman Need to Know?” (1979), “that I began to be able to do the work I truly wanted to do, live the kind of life I truly wanted to live.” This may sound simple in hindsight, knowing what literary triumphs Rich wrought; at the time, it must have been terrifying.

Rich’s poem “Song” (1971) encapsulates this tentative independence. “You’re wondering if I’m lonely,” the poem opens. The narrator doesn’t deny loneliness, yet compares the condition to a series of images, nearly all in directed motion: a plane honing in on its destination, “a woman driving across country,” even a remarkably self-aware rowboat “that knows what it is/that knows it’s… wood, with a gift for burning.” Sure, I’m lonely, the narrator seems to say, but I know what I’m here to do and I’m doing it.

In 1970 Rich’s husband, from whom she had become estranged, committed suicide. In 1976 Rich moved in with the writer Michelle Cliff, who remained her partner until Rich’s death in March at the age of 82.

Survivor

By dint of her life and work, Rich disproved the lie of the self-destructive woman artist. About Anne Sexton, “a poet and a suicide,” Rich wrote: “We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women.” She quotes Tillie Olsen at the essay’s conclusion: “Every woman who writes is a survivor.”

It is interesting to remember that Rich is of the same generation as Sylvia Plath, a writer perhaps more famous for her suicide than for her art. The poets crossed paths at Harvard in 1958, when Rich and her husband attended a reading by Plath’s husband Ted Hughes; the two couples went out to dinner afterwards.

Plath, fiercely competitive, counted Rich among her primary rivals. In a 1950s letter to her mother, Plath writes:

“I think I have written lines which qualify me to be the poetess of America. Who rivals? Well, in history Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Amy Lowell, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay — all dead. Now… May Swenson, Isabella Gardner, and the most close, Adrienne Cecile Rich — who will soon be eclipsed by these eight poems.”

The myth of Plath embodies the archetype of the suicidal woman poet, the moody, brooding, black-clad artist. Why does this myth persist? Even Ted Hughes wrote — though perhaps for the wrong reasons — “The Fantasia about Sylvia Plath is more needed than the facts. Where that leaves respect for the truth of her life… I do not know.”

In 1963 Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven, and Adrienne Rich published Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, cited by many critics as her first book in her signature voice. She went on to write for another 50 years.

Compulsory Heterosexuality

Though known primarily as a poet, Adrienne Rich wrote six collections of lucid, necessary essays in addition to her dozen poetry volumes. Particularly important is Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” exposing the ways in which “heterosexuality has been both forcibly and subliminally imposed on women.” The concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” influenced, and has been incorporated into, so much of the ensuing feminist thought, that we forget just how fundamental it is.

For this and similar views, some have written off Rich as an essentialist, “second wave” feminist. This is a disservice to the breadth of her vision. Even in “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” Rich posits a broad, flexible “lesbian continuum” roomy enough to fit everything from “the impudent, intimate girl friendships of eight or nine” to marriage resisters to “the woman dying at ninety, touched and handled by women” in a way that seems to presage, or at least make room for, the more flexible and self-defined queer identities that came afterward.

Rich also wrote about “intersectionality” — the idea that systems of oppression are interrelated, rather than experienced independently — decades before it became a progressive buzzword. In “Resisting Amnesia” (1983), she writes, “We all need to begin with the individual consciousness: How did we come to be where we are and not elsewhere?”

This focus on identity politics — a concept that embraces the lived experience of oppressed people — underlines much of Rich’s work. Yet identity politics do not exist in isolation. In the same essay, Rich posits that we must “move from an individual experience to a collective one,” and understand our subjective experience in a larger context. For example, she writes in “Disobedience and Women’s Studies” (1981), “Feminism became a political and spiritual base from which I could move to examine rather than try to hide my own racism.” Rather than solipsism, identity politics can foster the empathetic understanding needed for action.

Amidst all this, let us not forget that Rich was, without hyperbole, a great poet, from the meticulous, tightly crafted formality of her early work to the increasingly spare free verse of her later pieces. Her use of breath and rhythm echoes the best of Elizabeth Bishop, or of Gerard Manley Hopkins (from whom she borrows and reinterprets phrases in “Turbulence”). Her poems are both beautiful and meaningful: like W. B. Yeats, whom she praises in “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” (1984), she adeptly combines “the poetry of the actual world with the poetry of sound.” Her metaphors are so perfectly illustrative that exegesis often seems redundant; and her language is always fresh, groping for a meaning outside of the world of the poem.

Art and Privilege

Also, Rich was an unabashedly political poet, deftly dismissing those who argue against “mixing politics with art.” As she wrote in “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” (YEAR), “[T]hese arguments… carry no weight for me now because I recognize them as the political declarations of privilege.”

Though she may have begun as a success in conventional terms, ultimately Rich was a success on her own terms.

In 1974, for example, when awarded the National Book Award for poetry, Rich declined to accept it for herself, but instead accepted it with two of that year’s finalists — Audre Lorde and Alice Walker — on behalf of all women.

And in 1997, nearly a half-century after winning her first poetry prize, Rich turned down a National Medal of Arts from the Clinton administration. “Art – in my own case the art of poetry – means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage,” she wrote to Jane Alexander, then chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, which oversees the award.

In the end, Rich didn’t write to garner external accolades or to produce meaningless ornamental language. She had questions to explore and truths to speak, articulating them with clarity, lucidity and beauty. In “Diving Into the Wreck” (1973), she writes,

“The words are purposes./The words are maps./I came to see the damage that was done/and the treasures that prevail.”

Thank you, Adrienne Rich, for being one of those treasures.