From a Once-Young Feminist: Remembering Adrienne Rich
By Kate Daniels
On November 19, 1974, a rowdy young feminist in work boots and torn jeans with unshaven hair sprouting all over her body entered a store called Heartwood Books, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her head was full of poetry. That semester she was enrolled in a course on the history of American poetry at the University of Virginia, where she had just written a paper analyzing a poem called, “In Celebration of My Uterus,” by Anne Sexton. She had chosen the poem defiantly, partly as a corrective to the adulation of Sylvia Plath that she had noticed in some of her other literature courses. Plath was not a good model for her. Although she already knew enough about poetry to admire Plath’s extraordinary technical expertise and the way her poems did their complicated work as efficiently as an expensive Swiss watch, something about the static center of the poems (an urge for perfection, a longing for ultimate stillness, the young feminist would later call it) both frightened and saddened her. Plath’s iconic suicide at only 33 years old, with her young children sleeping nearby, had profoundly shocked her. Maternal abandonment was a theme that carried a great charge for her. She didn’t yet know why, but Plath’s voluntary exit from the scene—both literary and maternal—had caused the young feminist to remove Plath from the list of female heroines she had begun to keep in a notebook she kept hidden under her mattress.
When Sexton’s poems had entered the young feminist’s life earlier that fall, they had immediately excited her. Technically brilliant, pulsing with restless energy that failed to be completely confined in the fixed forms in which she often wrote, Sexton became a favorite. The young feminist had read all of her poems, hand copying many of them, and had spent hours pondering how a former fashion model with no higher education, who was suffering from mental illness as well, had managed to make the journey from 1950s stay-at-home, upper-middle-class wife and mother to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. That Sexton had accomplished this amazing reinvention gave the young feminist curious hope. For though her own background could not have been more different—she was from a working class Southern family who could claim no distinction whatsoever of social, economic, or educational achievement—Sexton’s story of overcoming fantastic odds inspired her. Sexton’s was a messy life, and the way she had muddled through its early years was a kind of reverse inspiration. Like Sexton, perhaps the young feminist, too, might muddle her way into what she was coming to call “consciousness.”
And then on October 4, 1974, Sexton, age 46, home alone in Weston, Massachusetts, wrapped herself in her mother’s full-length fur coat, poured herself a glass of vodka, and locked herself into the garage with the car motor running.
The young feminist couldn’t help feeling personally betrayed. Though she was not as shocked, this time, at the suicide of a woman poet, she felt hurt by Sexton’s death. It roiled around inside her, making her feel perpetually sick. She thought of Plath and her babies; then she thought of Sexton, and herself, and the poems she was trying to write. Now who would she look to for guidance?
This was the young feminist’s state of mind as she entered the bookstore on that rainy afternoon, desultorily browsing among the volumes of poetry.
One caught her eye: a thin volume bearing Halloween colors and a black-and-white photograph of stormy ocean waves. Maybe something about the powerful, gloomy image on the cover corresponded to the young feminist’s inner turmoil. The book had an intriguing gerund in its title: Diving into the Wreck. It was by a woman poet she had never heard of, but it was only $1.95, so she bought it. On the flyleaf, she wrote the date and an inscription: a present to myself on a day I was sad.
Thus it was that Adrienne Rich entered my life. I shudder to think how accidental my discovery of her was. Although she had won the National Book Award (sharing it with Allen Ginsberg), I knew nothing about that, nor that she had declined to accept the prize on her own behalf. I would have been thrilled to know that she and Audre Lorde had stood up together to read a statement written with Alice Walker, in which they accepted the award
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. ... We symbolically join together here in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women.
When I devoured all 25 of the poems in Diving into the Wreck in one sitting, I felt as if the top of my head were on fire, as Emily Dickinson might have said. Many readers have written about the powerful effect of this book on their lives and their writing. In my case, the effect was amplified by reading it within its historically resonant contemporary context: at the height of the women’s movement of the early 1970s, in the wake of Anne Sexton’s suicide, and during a semester in which I was studying the history of American poetry, and trying to find a place in it for someone like me: a young feminist just beginning to write poems.
Diving into the Wreck led me to Rich’s earlier work. I spent the rest of that semester reading it in the stacks of the university’s library, where I had recently insisted on being hired as the first female shelver. Hunched over my book truck, I read chronologically, making my way forward from 1951, when A Change of World had been published. I was struck by the felicitous timing of Rich’s birth. Born in 1929, Rich, it seemed to me, had been born into a historical moment that had been designed to bring forth exactly, precisely, the poet and the person she became. I began to acknowledge myself as existing in a historical moment, as well. That my life carried not only its personal meaning but something beyond myself that I might touch, and—with enough hard work, discipline, and courage—even change, was the first lesson I absorbed from this amazing poet.
I remember in particular my first reading of “The Phenomenology of Anger.” I liked its assertive coupling of the philosophical and the affective. The straightforwardness of the title attracted me, too, as I had grown up in an angry household, and was an angry, though timid, person. I was afraid of almost everything, but could not admit that to myself. The women’s movement gave me an identity to perform, a way to practice not being afraid, a way to walk around in the world as if I belonged. If the movement supported my hope that one day I would make it as a whole individual, reading poems like “The Phenomenology of Anger” actually began to change me.
Perhaps because it was raining slightly the day I bought my first copy of Diving into the Wreck, these lines have meant much to me:
Trying to light a log that’s lain in the damp
as long as this house has stood
even with dry sticks I can’t get started…
as long as this house has stood
even with dry sticks I can’t get started…
At the very end of the poem, Rich writes,
Every act of becoming conscious
(it says here in this book)
Is an unnatural act.
(it says here in this book)
Is an unnatural act.
This combination of potent, earthy metaphor and the direct statement of strong political belief would become a characteristic feature of Rich’s work over the years.
Memories float back to me: in the summer of 1985, I sat in the sun on a Long Island beach, reading Rich’s prose work Of Woman Born. I was carrying a child, and was both exhilarated and frightened by the potential power over that creature’s life that my billowing stomach embodied. The terror that book induced in me felt impossible to contain. I could feel the little thing moving inside me and could imagine only too easily how impinged upon I was likely to feel when it was outside my body, making its own demands. “My children,” Rich wrote, “cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience.”
And yet at other times I am melted with the sense of their helpless, charming, and quite irresistible beauty—their ability to go on loving and trusting—their staunchness and decency and unselfconsciousness. I love them. But it’s in the enormity and inevitability of this love that the sufferings lie.
These words terrified me, recalling, as they did, my early years with my mother. I pulled up my top to expose the creature to the sun’s muted brightness, which it could experience only through the membranous walls of my uterus, and felt the mysterious, ambivalent connection between us of which Rich wrote, and managed, somehow, to go on reading.
Later there was a misty walk on a chilly Wellfleet beach, discussing Rich’s essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” with a friend, while our husbands walked ahead, talking about sports, as completely separated from us an alien species.
In the spring of 2002, in a team-taught, post 9/11 course at Vanderbilt University, I used my session to teach Rich’s poem, “Prospective Immigrants Please Note,” with its mesmerizing metaphor of the open door and its invitation to radical change: “Either you will / go through this door / or you will not go through.” Even now, I can see the stunned faces of the undergraduates, struggling to understand what had happened to their world, as I read them the poem, and helped them make the connections.
Everything about Rich fascinated me, even her dressed-down, plain style, dark-haired appearance. The first time I saw her read was in the late 1970s at the Donnell Library in New York. Unpretentiously, she took the stage and began reading, but then barked at a man who entered late and noisily. Instantly, I was reminded that she had recently ended a period of self-imposed gender segregation when she would read for and teach only women. She had been highly criticized for that, ridiculed, even. But that period of what some called lesbian separatism had been necessary for Rich. I admired her willingness to reveal publicly her process of development, to show by example the power of being oneself, a ragged genius instead of a perfect icon.
I loved, as well, the way she drew me into a more generous self than I was inclined to be. In 1984, while I was a fellow at Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute, I wrote to Rich about some research I was doing on Muriel Rukeyser. In the letter, I made some disparaging remarks about Louise Bogan’s treatment of Rukeyser. Rich wrote back: “You know, Kate,” (how I treasured that personal address!) “it is not necessary to tear down one woman in order to build up another.” Her gentle instruction was a wonderful accompaniment to the angry activism of so much of her work. Both gentleness and anger, she taught me, are necessary parts of the full flush of being human. In 1992, she did me the great honor of endorsing the edition of Muriel Rukeyser’s selected poems, Out of Silence, that I edited.
The news of Rich’s death spread quickly over the internet, and my circle of poet-friends, in the words of Judith Baumel, “wailed beside each other” in cyberspace. “Thank you for accompanying me today,” Robin Becker wrote to us. Alicia Ostriker reminded us that Rich’s work will continue to “shed the blessings of deep insight on all who encounter her.” But it was Carolyn Dever who summed it up best: “Somehow, it just never occurred to me that she would one day die.”
Well, yes. I realized it had never occurred to me, either, that one day it would be necessary to live in a world that did not include Adrienne Rich. But here we are. Adrienne Rich has passed over into some other form. Yet we all know where to look for her: in the pages of her poems and prose, and deeply within ourselves, and into one another’s faces and lives. May she rest forever in the peace of poetry, pacifism, and those people all over the world who loved her and her writing, and were changed forever by their encounter with it.
Primary bibliography of Original Works by Adrienne Rich:
- Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Norton, 1975
- Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying. Pittsburgh: Motherroot Publications, 1977
- On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978. Norton, 1979
- Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Denver: Antelope Publications, 1980
- Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–. Norton, 1986
- What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. Norton 1993
- Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. Norton, 2001
- Poetry and Commitment: An Essay. Afterword by Mark Doty. Norton, 2007
- A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997–2008. Norton, 2009
- A Change of World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951. Foreword by W.H. Auden.
- The Diamond Cutters, and Other Poems. Harper & Row, 1955
- Snapshots of a daughter-in-law: poems, 1954-1962. Harper & Row, 1963
- Necessities of life: poems, 1962-1965. Norton, 1966
- Selected Poems. London: The Hogarth Press, 1967
- Leaflets. New York: Norton, 1969
- The Will to Change: Poems 1968-1970. Norton, 1971
- Leaflets. London: Chatto and Windus, & The Hogarth Press, 1972
- Diving into the Wreck. Norton, 1973
- Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974. Norton, 1975
- Twenty-one Love Poems. Emeryville, California: Effie's Press, 1976
- The Dream of a Common Language. New York: Norton, 1978
- A Wild Patience Has Taken Me this Far: Poems 1978-1981. Norton & Company, 1982
- Sources. Woodside, California: Heyeck Press, 1983 limited edition
- The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984. Norton, 1984
- Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems. Norton, 1986
- Time’s Power: Poems, 1985-1988. Norton. 1989.
- An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991. Norton, 1991
- Collected Early Poems, 1950-1970. Norton, 1993
- Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991-1995. Norton, 1995.
- Selected poems, 1950-1995. County Clare, Ireland: Salmon Publishing LTD, 1996. Foreword by Eavan Boland, afterword by Jean Valentine.
- Midnight Salvage: Poems, 1995-1998. Norton, 1999
- Fox: Poems 1998-2000. Norton, 2001
- The School among the Ruins: Poems, 2000-2004. Norton, 2004
- Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2006. Norton, 2006
- Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010. Norton, 2010
Adrienne Rich’s Poetry: texts of the poems, the poet and her work, reviews and criticisms, Norton Critical edition, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, editors. Norton: 1975
Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical editions, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, editors. Norton: 1993
Best American Poetry 1996, Adrienne Rich, editor, with David Lehman. New York: Scribner, 1996
Kate Daniels's most recent book of poetry is A Walk in Victoria's Secret (2010). She has just been appointed director of Creative Writing at Vanderbilt University.