|Copyright K. Kendall, Wiki|
Wednesday, 29 March 2017
Anniversary of Adrienne Rich's Death in Santa Cruz
Adrienne Rich, poet, activist, thinker, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, died 27 March 2012 aged 82.
“There is no writer of comparable influence and achievement in so many areas of the contemporary women’s movement,”says the Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. The British newspaper, i, quotes Rich’s own description of herself as “…a white woman, a Jew, a lesbian and a United States citizen.”
Rich married economist Alfred Conrad but eventually she began to reject conventional family life and heterosexual relationships. The couple separated in 1970 and Conrad committed suicide a few months later.
Her collection Diving into the Wreck in 1973, was committed to “…breaking down the artificial barriers between the private and the public” and it won her the National Book Award, an honour she shared with fellow nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde. In 1976 she settled down into her lifelong partnership with the novelist Michelle Cliff.
Adrienne Rich's Achievements:
· Yale Younger Poets competition (age 22) ~ 1951.
· A Change of World (published as part of the award) ~ 1951.
· Diving into the Wreck, ~ 1973
· National Book Award (for the above) ~ 1976.
· National Medal of Arts ~ 1997. Rich refused this award, stating, “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. It means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”
In his preface to A Change of World, W.H. Auden, a judge on the panel, said that Rich’s poems were “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.”
Criticism - A Representative Fable
Jan Montefiore, in her book Feminism and Poetry, says: "The tendency to privilege the notion of female experience... can make for a too easy and uncritical assumption of identity between all women." The flaw in this process and its effect on Rich's poetic language is that most of Rich's best poems do not experience directly. The poem "Diving into the Wreck" does not describe a real experience but an imaginary one. It is a lyrical "I" speaking, which results in the production of the representative fable.
The fable fails to take into account individual experience, for example, black experience and working-class experience. Judgement should be made in terms of gender, colour and class, which are central to the experience of individual women, for, in truth, the "typical" woman poet does not exist.
Addressing the Issues - Unfair Criticism of Adrienne Rich?
I am not sure any of this criticism is entirely justified, especially when considering the range of Rich's poetry. It is worth mentioning that Rich demonstrates considerable concern in her political poem, "Culture and Anarchy" for individual women, both black and white, middle-class and poor working-class. Clearly and naturally, in Diving into the Wreck she began from her own experience, but as her knowledge and awareness developed, so her sensibilities were increasingly involved, and her poetry embraced these vital concerns.
It is, of course, a valid concern for feminists that individual experience should be acknowledged and that a white, middle-class feminism would be unjust. To be fair, Montefiore qualifies her criticism by stating:
"The gap between experience and language is, after all, a philosophical problem that applies to all speakers whether they know it or not."
Adrienne Rich Challenged the Political and the Personal
What is without doubt is that Rich’s work pushed the boundaries of militant lesbianism. As Tom Payne in “Adrienne Rich, a woman outside the law,” quotes from a 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience”:
“… women should allow “the search for love and tenderness … to lead toward women”.
“If that has come to define her,” says Tom Payne, “she hasn’t shrunk from the definition: 'The split in our language between ‘political’ and ‘personal’ has, I think, been a trap,' she said as late as last year, in a clear refusal to mellow.”
Her son, Pablo Conrad, stated that his mother had died from complications from long-term rheumatoid arthritis.
· Williamson, Marcus, “Life in Brief, Adrienne Rich Poet,” “i” newspaper, 30 March 2012.
· Rich, Adrienne, The Fact of a Doorframe, W.W. Norton, N.Y. London, 1975.
· Montefiore, Jan, Feminism and Poetry, Pandora Press, London, 1987.