Into the Wreck

Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry BY Adrienne Rich. edited by Sandra M. Gilbert. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 352 pages. $27.

The cover of Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry

In December 1971, Adrienne Rich, then forty-two, spoke to a roomful of women about what the women’s liberation movement might do for literary study. Like Rich, the women gathered that day were writers, teachers, and scholars. Like her, they had gone to good colleges, studied with famous male scholars, and read canonical male writers; this is how they had learned what literature was and should be. But as women across the country filed charges of sexual discrimination and marched for equality in the streets, they were starting to revise their ideas about literary significance. Like Rich, they were newly conscious of their oppression under patriarchy, which is to say that they were exhilarated, disoriented, and very, very angry.

“The awakening of consciousness is not like the crossing of a frontier—one step and you are in another country,” Rich observed. If women were going to establish a new country, if they were going to explore unchartered “psychic geography,” then they needed to interpret the literary canon anew. Rich told of how she’d recently returned to old texts—a play by Henrik Ibsen, an essay by Virginia Woolf—and read them differently than she had before. She had been struck by the “dogged tentativeness” of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, by the detached and Olympian style of Jane Austen, by the repressed anger in her own early poems. She encouraged her listeners to do the same imaginative work: not to break with the literary past but to find new knowledge within it. “We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it,” she explained, “not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.”

The talk was published the following October in College English, under the title “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” The title is from Ibsen; the last word of the subtitle is Rich’s own. Re-vision is “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction.” According to Rich, it is, for women, “an act of survival.” Revisiting and correcting the historical record didn’t mean denouncing those who’d lived before her own time. It meant wrestling with those women who’d disappointed her—Marie Curie, Elizabeth Bishop, her own mother—rather than renouncing them entirely. Rich viewed the past with a mix of skepticism and compassion: for her literary predecessors, for blinkered activists, for her prior selves.

In the years following this speech, Rich organized for civil rights, embraced feminism, embraced lesbianism, won the National Book Award for the poetry collection Diving into the Wreck, won a MacArthur “genius” grant, and, in an act of political protest, refused the National Medal of Arts. Throughout her long career, she struggled against corporate greed, economic and social injustice, and American military imperialism. By the time of her death in 2012, she was recognized as “a poet of towering reputation and towering rage.”

But though Rich is best known for poetry, she did much of her most important thinking and writing in prose. Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, a new collection of Rich’s lectures, occasional essays, and reviews, edited by the feminist literary scholar Sandra M. Gilbert, includes many of her most audacious and significant attempts to reimagine the world through women’s eyes. “She was not just one of many contemporary poets ‘illuminating’ her verse through confessional glosses,” Gilbert writes in her introduction, “but a major memoirist, essayist, theorist, and scholar.”

Reading the anthology, one is struck by the breadth of Rich’s research, the force of her arguments, the elegance and honesty of her personal writing. Though she didn’t fetishize academic expertise—she once wrote that what women need “is not experts on our lives, but the opportunity and the validation to name and describe the truths of our lives”—she took pains to synthesize work by historians, psychologists, and legal scholars. And though she was not interested in confession and abjured “therapeutic” genres that failed to engage with the social world, she understood that personal experience shapes one’s politics and one’s prejudices. Mining her past for details that held the power to explain how oppression worked, she wrote about growing up in Baltimore as the daughter of an assimilated Jewish father, a man with high standards and highbrow cultural tastes, who inspired her decorous early poetry. She described having three boys by thirty, her “fatigue of suppressed anger and loss of contact with my own being,” and admitted her fear that, after publishing two poetry collections, she would never write again. (Rich would go on to publish twenty-three additional books of poetry, along with seven books of prose.) As Gilbert puts it, her dissent has an “origin in disclosure.”

Rich applied her convictions about re- imagining the past to her own writing. She revisited old topics, changed her mind, revised or re-visioned her earlier work. Her 1979 collection, On Lies, Secrets and Silence, included headnotes to many of the essays explaining which parts of the argument she stood by, and what she wished she could change. Near the end of her career, she reflected critically on the women’s liberation movement and tried to understand how and why it had been co-opted by capitalism. She did this not to assign blame, but rather to better understand how present organizers could avoid the mistakes of the past. In this, Rich was obeying one of her own edicts, the title of an essay in her first prose collection: to expand, constantly, the meaning of her love for women.

Loving women meant many things to Rich. It meant, among much else, learning about women who had fought for liberation in the past and who had failed, because patriarchy, like sisterhood, is powerful. In a 1979 commencement speech to the graduating seniors of Smith College, Rich admonished her audience to think not just of the future, but of the past. “Try to be worthy of your foresisters, learn from your history, look for inspiration to your ancestresses.” Look back in anger, yes. But look back, too, with love.

Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents will be published by Knopf next year.