Adrienne Rich Power And Powerlessness Essay

Poet Adrienne Rich received several notable awards over the course of her career, including a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the Frost Medal. Stuart Ransom/AP hide caption

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Stuart Ransom/AP

Poet Adrienne Rich received several notable awards over the course of her career, including a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the Frost Medal.

Stuart Ransom/AP

A young female poet was speaking to a male poet at a party. "Women shouldn't write poems," he told her. "They are poems."

The young poet was a friend of Adrienne Rich, who used that story as an example of what female poets were up against in the 1950s and '60s, when she was first becoming established. Rich, who went on to become one of the first widely published contemporary feminist poets, died Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82.

Rich's work held a special place for many female readers who were looking for poems that related to their lives — and to many female poets looking for signs of encouragement. In the 1950s, when she was in her 20s, Rich had several collections of poems published. In that same decade, she gave birth to three sons and felt constantly torn between her literary ambitions and her family responsibilities. She repeatedly addressed her concerns in her poems and prose.

In her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Rich wrote "we need to understand the power and powerlessness embodied in motherhood in patriarchal culture." After coming out as a lesbian feminist, Rich began to define alternatives to patriarchal values and culture.

In 1989, Rich joined Terry Gross for a conversation about her life and work.

Interview Highlights

On poetry and biography

"I'm very much interested in the place of biography in poetry and in fiction, but I'm also interested in the place of fiction in poetry, and I think that there's a tendency, at present, to read poems as autobiographical statements, documents, narratives — and to miss therefore a great deal that's going on in them. If you ascribe each event to some actual event, if you ascribe each image, each relationship to some literal occasion, it seems to me that you run the risk of missing not only the poetry, but the fuller, richer, deeper aspects of the poems, which come not necessarily from the poet's biography, but from what the poet has seen, heard, drawn into herself or himself from other lives."

On mothers and daughters

"I think that it is perhaps that tendency that we have to try to correct the mythologies that we feel have harmed us, the mythologies that deny the strengths and the powers that women have passed onto women, that mothers have passed onto daughters. And these are very real, and we know that they are very real. But at the same time, there are other stories, and I feel as though there needs to be a corrective to the corrective, if you will. We tried in the early years of the feminist movement to look under and behind the myths, the legends that always depicted the stepmother as cruel, the bad mother, the myths in popular psychology of the evil mother, the evil mother-daughter bond. We tried to correct those, and in so doing, I think we unearthed a great deal that was real and important and useful. To idealize, to sentimentalize, to mythologize that — those powers, those strengths, those teachers — takes us into yet another place where I think we are disempowered."

On poetry

"Essentially poetry, if it is poetry, does not lend itself to simple readings, to oversimplifications — though people may try to read it that way. It seems to me that the essential nature of a poem is that there is ambivalence and ambiguity quivering underneath."

On coming out in the 1970s

"I'm one of the lesbians who came out through the women's movement. And I don't mean I wouldn't have come out without a women's movement, but it's very hard to imagine the world without the women's liberation movement at this point. However, in my own history, that was the point. It was a time of tremendous intensity among women — women of all kinds. Women who had known they were lesbians all their lives, women who were then coming out, women who were then and have remained heterosexual. There was a kind of intensity around the politics that was very profound and passionate. It was very moving and very exciting to see women taking their strength and taking hold of each other's strength and bringing out the power in each other. ... The passion was political, and the politics was passionate. Yes, it was very sexual, and it was also a milieu and a time that was very political."

On relationships

"A long-lived relationship is about so many things. It is such a dense and complex process — always a process — and it's not to be summed up. It's not to be turned into some kind of vignette. If we are serious, we also have to recognize that even the longest and richest and densest relationship must end, and we see it around us. We see it in that inevitability of time's power, if you will."

Image by Neal Boenzi via Getty Images

Adrienne Rich was an award-winning writer of political and feminist poetry and essays. An anti-Vietnam War protestor and a Black Panther fundraiser, Rich was deeply involved in progressivism in the 1960s and 1970s. Her work reflects her political and social values, as well as her identity as a Jewish lesbian woman.

One of Rich’s best-known earlier works is her 1951 poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.”The imagery of the literal and figurative weight of Jennifer’s wedding ring, along with her creation of fierce tigers who do not fear men, prefaced the feminist thought that Rich would come to be known for. Her 1963 poem “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law”was her first explicitly feminist poem. It communicates the frustration and anger Rich feels when reflecting on the meaning of being female in a patriarchal society.

Rich also conveyed a desire to break through the restrictive gendered expectations of the past. The title poem of her 1973 book “Diving Into the Wreck” describes a dive into the symbolic wreck of myths about gender. Through the androgyny of her central character, Rich emphasizes the need to search for truths of life that transcend the gender binary.

Issues of sexual and reproductive freedom also influenced Rich’s writing. In her 1976 book “Of Woman Born,”Rich wrote that “we need to understand the power and powerlessness embodied in motherhood in patriarchal culture.” A decade later, in her 1986 introduction to the book, Rich underlined the importance of the women’s health care movement, while acknowledging the disproportionate benefits it had for white, privileged women like herself.

Perhaps most significantly, sexual orientation played a crucial role in Rich’s life and her art. She came outas a lesbian in the 1970s, marking a new era for her work. She wrote of lesbian sexuality and desire in her poetry and of the need for the discussion of sexuality in feminist writing.

Her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” addressed the lack of lesbianism in feminist scholarship and framed heterosexuality as a repressive, socially enforced institution. She argued that maintaining the oppression of lesbian women would negatively affect all feminist efforts. Such theories mark Rich as not only a talented artist but a key intellectual figure in facilitating the inclusion of non-heterosexuals in feminism.

Throughout her career, Rich was awarded several honors for her work and used these public acknowledgments as opportunities to make political statements. She chose to accept the 1974 National Book Award for her collection “Diving Into the Wreck” as a joint award with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde as a symbol of unity among women in a patriarchal and racist society.

Similarly, Rich refused the 1997 National Medal for the Arts as a statement against racial and economic inequalities in America. In her letter to the NEA chair, Rich stated: “There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry — means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”  

Rich has been criticized for her association with Janice Raymond, the author of The Transsexual Empire — a book widely considered to propagate Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. Although Rich did not produce anti-trans work herself, Raymond cited and thanked her for reviewing the controversial book before its publishing, leading many fans of Rich to wonder about her stance on trans issues.

Adrienne Rich passed away in 2012, but her work will remain relevant for years to come. Her popularity and critical acclaim granted her an influential position that she utilized well to highlight the need for feminist and lesbian activism.

Author: Anya Bayerle

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