The Common Language of Adrienne Rich

Against the Current, No. 160, September/October 2012

Julie R. Enszer

“I refuse these givens the splitting/between love and action”

EMININENT POET, ESSAYIST, lesbian and feminist Adrienne Cecile Rich died on March 27, 2012. Rich was born on May 16, 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1951, when Rich was a student at Radcliffe College, W. H. Auden selected her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. In the introduction, Auden said that Rich “displays a modesty not so common at that age,” and described her poems as “neatly and modestly dressed.” He continued, Rich’s poems “speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.”

While modesty, soft-spokenness and respect may have been a model for women in the 1950s, by the early 1960s Rich was more concerned with not telling fibs. Speaking the truth or, more accurately, struggling to find truths and speak them gently, fiercely and poetically, describes much of Rich’s work.

Rich married Alfred Conrad in 1953, and by the age of 30 was the mother of three small boys. Rich described her experience as a mother in the book-length meditation Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976).

Quoting her journal from 1960, Rich wrote, “Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs, above all their need for simplicity and patience, fill me with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I was not fitted. And I am weak sometimes from held-in rage.”

The constraints of marriage and motherhood that Rich experienced in the 1950s and early 1960s provided fertile material for her poetry and activism.

Rich’s third poetry collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), captures the restive confinement she experienced during these years and demonstrates her emerging feminist consciousness. In “The Roofwalker,” a poem dedicated to Denise Levertov, Rich wrote:

Was it worth while to lay—
with infinite exertion—
a roof I can’t live under?
—All those blueprints,
closings of gaps,
measurings, calculations?
A life I didn’t choose
chose me: even
my tools are the wrong ones
for what I have to do.

In the title poem of Snapshots, Rich conjures “a belle in Shreveport,/with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud” and a mind “moldering like wedding-cake/heavy with useless experience.” These poems, published the same year as Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, portend the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) and Rich’s role as a voice within the movement.

Explorations of Feminism

Rich and Conrad separated in 1970. Rich’s sixth and seventh collections of poetry, The Will to Change (1971) and Diving into the Wreck (1973), continued her explorations of feminism with increasing intensity and rhetorical power.

Diving into the Wreck begins with the poem “Trying to Talk with a Man.” Using the trope of testing bombs in the desert, Rich explores the legacy of the nuclear age and the emotional and political terrain between men and women. “The Phenomenology of Anger,” also in Diving into the Wreck, ends with these lines:

Every act of becoming conscious
(it says here in this book)
is an unnatural act.

Feminist consciousness emerges in Rich’s poetry; by reading her poems, many women individually and in groups experienced their own feminist epiphanies.

Rich came out publicly as a lesbian in her collection The Dream of a Common Language (1978). In the sonnet sequence, “Twenty-One Love Poems,” the speaker describes herself and her beloved as “two lovers of one gender” and as “women outside the law.” In one poem, “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered,” Rich voices lesbian sexuality and desire:

Your traveled, generous thighs
between which my whole face has come and come —
the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue has found there —
the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth —
your touch on me, firm, protective, searching
me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers
reaching where I have been waiting years for you
in my rose-wet cave — whatever happens, this is.

Rich published over 20 volumes of poetry including Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), The Fact of a Doorframe (1984), An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), Fox (2001), Telephone Ringing into the Labryinth (2007), and her most recent collection, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve (2010).

Identity and Lesbian Continuum

In addition to writing poetry, Rich was a prolific essayist. For Rich, prose provided an account of herself as a poet and as a human, and addressed critical issues in the WLM and the world. Rich’s essay “Split at the Root,” which first appeared in Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (1982), explores her Jewish identity, particularly her experiences as a child with a Protestant mother and a Jewish father.

Her 1978 essay “Disloyal to Civilization: Feminism, Racism, Gynephobia” explores the history of relationships between white women and African-American women. In it, Rich articulates many forms of racism: active domination, enforced segregation, institutional violence, justification, and passive collusion.

In “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980), Rich prods heterosexual feminists to understand heterosexuality as an institution and defines a “lesbian continuum” as a range of “woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman.”

The lesbian continuum for Rich includes “the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, [and] the giving and receiving of practical and political support.” These essays and many others situated Rich as an important intellectual and theorist in the WLM.

Rich’s presence as a public intellectual came not only through her published volumes and speaking engagements but also through editorial work. Rich and Michelle Cliff, her longtime partner and a novelist, edited Sinister Wisdom, a lesbian journal of arts and culture, from 1981 until 1983. Under their editorship, Sinister Wisdom published a number of lesbian-feminist writers and also a special double issue of writing by North American Indian women, titled A Gathering of Spirit and edited by Beth Brant.

Rich actively communicated with lesbian-feminist journals as a contributor and advisor. She nurtured and mentored many lesbian-feminist writers and made important connections between and among women in literary circles in the WLM.

With language as her primary medium, Rich studied power and used power to advance her political beliefs and commitments. The 1974 National Book Awards (NBA) are an example. Rich and three other women were finalists for the 1974 NBA in Poetry. With two of the other women finalists, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, Rich organized a statement to deliver if any of the three won.

That year, the NBA named two winners in Poetry: Allen Ginsburg and Adrienne Rich. Rich accepted the award, with Lorde at her side, “in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain.”

Speaking for herself, Lorde, and Walker, Rich “dedicated this occasion to the struggle for self-determination for all women, of every color, identification, or derived class … [and to] the silent women whose voices have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work.” This statement, and the organizing behind it, demonstrated feminist solidarity and articulated the importance of an intersectional political analysis that considered sex, race and class.

Standing for Justice

In 1997, Rich had another opportunity to speak truth to power in a literary context. She declined the National Medal of Arts. Rich wrote to Jane Alexander, the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, that she could not accept the award “because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this [the Clinton] administration.”

 She continued, “In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in this country.”

For Rich, “radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

In the 1970s Rich expressed doubts about Marxism, particularly how men on the Left used feminism and racism to discredit the WLM. During the 1990s, Rich, an autodidact, studied Marxism seriously. Her 2001 essay collection, Arts of the Possible, argues passionately for the importance of socialism in contemporary debate.

Rich wrote, “Marx’s depiction of early nineteenth-century capitalism and its dehumanizing effect on the social landscape rang truer than ever at the century’s end.”

Stating “[t]he questions Marx raised are still alive and pulsing,” she encouraged people “to become less afraid to ask the still-unanswered questions posed by Marxism, socialism, and communism. Not to interrogate old, corrupt hierarchical systems, but to ask anew, for our own time: What constitutes ownership? What is work? How can people be assured of a just share in the products of their precious human exertions? … How much inequality will we go on tolerating in the world’s richest and most powerful nation?”

In her most recent prose collection, A Human Eye, Rich continued her engagement with radical political traditions with meditations on Che Guevara, Rosa Luxemburg and Muriel Rukeyser.

Rich’s work was not without controversy. Her open discussions about feminism and lesbianism caused some literary critics to diminish her work. Some feminist critics situate Rich as an essentialist — invested in the inherent good of women to the exclusion of understanding the role of social construction in sex and gender — particularly Of Woman Born. This is a reductionist understanding of Of Woman Born and of Rich’s oeuvre in general.

In one retrospective on her death, Jennifer Finney Boylan addressed Rich’s support of Janice Raymond and her book, The Transsexual Empire. Raymond’s work continues to be deeply hurtful to transgender people.

Obituaries of Rich focused on her ovular role in the U.S. WLM; Rich was an iconic figure to U.S. feminists. Rich’s work, however, grapples with an array of pressing political issues including increasing militarism of the United States around the world, growing economic inequality, mass media and the increasing commercialization of our lives.

Rich was keenly engaged intellectually and politically in struggles for justice; her work as a writer reflects these political commitments. Over a long life with a prodigious literary output, Adrienne Rich demonstrated repeatedly the importance of, and her commitment to, the will to change.

September/October 2012, ATC 160