Adrienne Rich paints the political, and paints it angrily– a warrior-poet spitting blood and accusations— a rebel-writer bucking and kicking at those who would subjugate or abuse her, who would confine her to role or tradition. She machetes through the overgrowth of family experiences and world history, looking for fellow victims, searching for those to blame, and most of all, questing for Self.
As the returning reader may remember, I divide into two categories what most of today’s publishers and critics lump into the one “poetry” category; my distinctions: 1) Poetry possesses things like: rhythm, stress patterns, crafted sonic constructions, vivid metaphors, et cetera… and 2) Proesy (a.k.a. modern “poetry”) possesses little of the traditional attributes of Poetry and is its own literary form; thus I do not judge it as, or against, Poetry.
Rich raises herself above most modern Proesy writers. To give one rather technical instance: her line-breaks are not usually arbitrary or idiosyncratic, but instead often come at a reasonable location for an intended in-breath or pause, or sometimes as a way of putting emphasis upon a phrase (this latter reason must be used sparingly by a Proesy writer— the night sky cannot be ALL stars; this is a concept the modern Proesy writer often does not grasp). Sometimes –as in the work Sources, Rich flat-out types straight paragraphs— no pretentious line-breaks at all.
I chose as my way into Rich’s work the Proesy contained in The Poetry And Prose Of Adrienne Rich (Gelpi edited, Norton edition). I purposefully have put off reading the Prose section, and I have not read anything about Rich’s biography. I did this because I think we too often allow the personality of the author to color the work. With Rich, I wanted to see what I thought of her Proesy standing alone—indeed, if it could stand alone, as literature.
Also, I do not want to talk about who “Adrienne Rich” was or was not, or what she felt or did not feel. I will confine myself merely to commenting on the Voice speaking through her work. For example, I may speak of the celebration of homosexual lust sung by the Voice, but I really do not know, or frankly care, what Rich’s own orientations were. If that distinction befuddles you, nevermind it; like my distinction between Poetry and Proesy, confining my comments to the Voice is more to help me with my approach than for your direct benefit.
The Voice of these Proesies is lusty, pissed-off, intelligent, obviously educated, and musically trained. The work celebrates and commiserates with the female, simultaneously boiling with accusation and resentment toward the male. The Voice rebels against religious inheritance and gender roles, pushing back against their influence on her identity and preferred self-narrative. The Voice is quick to rage on behalf of those perceived as her fellow downtroddens, and is impatient with anyone viewed as a collaborator enabling her own oppressors.
In the beginning, the Voice attempts to fulfill the expectations of husband, family, and society, writing these lines in An Unsaid Work, so incongruous with later work:
“She who has power to call her man/ from that estranged intensity/ where his mind forages alone, / yet keeps her peace and leaves him free, / and when his thoughts to her return/ stands where he left her, still his own, / knows this the hardest thing to learn.”
She longs, as she says in Shooting Script, “to feel existence as this time, this place, the pathos and force of the lumps of snow gritted and melting in the unloved corners of the courtyard.” And from On Edges: “I’d rather/ taste blood, yours or mine, flowing / from a sudden slash, than cut all day/ with blunt scissors on dotted lines/ like the teacher told.”
She feels the impulse to expand, to break through those “dotted lines” that a good girl is supposed to live within. And though she senses that it would be safer and less messy to stay within those lines, she also knows she will ultimately transgress them and suffer the consequences. As she says in Afterward, “We who know limits now give room/ to one who grows to fit her doom.”
Searching for Identity beneath the rubble of civilization, she finds at first only the cardboard characters assigned to women, such as the Whore or the Virgin, but she knows these roles will not contain her: “I am not the wheatfield nor the virgin forest,” she says.
“With whom do you believe your lot is cast? From where does your strength come?” she asks in Sources. “There is a whom, a where that is not chosen that is given and sometimes falsely given.” Continuing (perhaps remarking on her early attempts at marriage and the “normal” life) she says, “in the beginning we grasp whatever we can to survive.”
Looking in the mirror, she finds only more questions, seeing someone “split at the root white-skinned social Christian neither gentile nor Jew.”
In my next post, I will talk about how the Voice in Adrienne Rich’s work, unfulfilled, begins at first to resent, and then to rebel, against marriage, family, and ultimately society as a whole.
More from Hammering Shield on Adrienne Rich: