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Excerpts from The Power of Adrienne Rich

From the Preface:

Adrienne Rich was a powerful woman. Throughout her long life and career, she marshaled the power of her formidable mind in the service of art and social justice. Her father, a brilliant scientist and scholar, made sure she understood the power of knowledge and the power of language. It was implied throughout his many years of insistent, bullying tutelage that if she could write better than everyone else of her generation, she would have his undying respect and a place in the annals of immortal literature. An assimilated Jew who declared himself a deist, he held out to her the possibility of life after death, if only she would devote her entire being to the art form he had chosen for her. Dr. Arnold Rich’s message was so irresistible, she could hardly distinguish between his directive and her desire to fulfill it.

She gladly gave her life to writing, especially the writing of poetry, for poetry was as close to a religion as anything she would ever know. From a young age, she saw herself as a chosen person whose life mattered a great deal. She had her self-doubts and vulnerabilities, but she knew she was smart and, if she followed orders (her father’s and her own), she was certain she could achieve her lofty goals. Her supreme self-confidence was an early source of strength that translated to power as she began moving methodically up the rungs of literary recognition while she was still an undergraduate at Radcliffe.

Although she was diagnosed in her early twenties with rheumatoid arthritis, which chased and whipped her for the rest of her days, Adrienne Rich also possessed the power of enormous energy—a gift of untold value to someone of her acumen and ambition. Her sister, Cynthia Rich, told me in the first of hundreds of email messages we traded over a period of five years, “Like my father, my sister was a genius who didn’t need much rest and wrote many letters every day while writing essays and books and lectures and reviews [and also] writing poetry while teaching and cooking (and raising children and dealing with physical pain)—and more.”

In addition to her intelligence, willpower, and energy, she had the imagination and curiosity she needed to develop and sustain her creative powers for a lifetime. Well into early middle age, the fruits of those creative powers were almost enough to satisfy her. But when her writing flagged in the face of the burdens and responsibilities of motherhood, she began to take a fresh look at her life as an artist. She wondered what it would be like to stop pretending that a “universal” voice meant anything other than masquerading as a man. She noticed that, yes, the literary canon was full of poems about women, but they were almost exclusively by men. She would work to change that by taking up the subject herself. This decision prefigured her life as a radical feminist by nearly a decade. […]

From Chapter 4, “The Girl Who Wrote Poems“:

When Adrienne Rich arrived at Radcliffe College in the fall of 1947, she wanted to make good use of her every waking minute, and the record shows she very nearly did so. With each successive year as a Radcliffe student, she earned more recognition as a writer. By the time she graduated, she had published a prizewinning book of poems that earned praise from The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly. She had come north from Baltimore wanting to be accepted into Harvard University’s inner circles of artistic and intellectual power, and she pursued inclusion in those circles with the same energy, skill, and resolve she applied to her writing. The ambitious girl and the nation’s oldest university were well-matched dance partners, each twirling the other with grace and aplomb. Not long after her graduation, the fledgling literary star credited Harvard, quite rightly, with making her who she was.

Throughout her four years of college, she regarded Harvard with wonder and carefully concealed desire. Her dorm mates saw a self-possessed and proper young woman who spoke with precise diction and wore heels to class, while the other girls wore loafers or saddle shoes. She fussed over her stocking seams, making sure they were straight, and complained about a dormitory shower curtain that didn’t close all the way. Her biting sense of humor only added to an overall impression of high seriousness and propriety. The other girls detected ambition in her, but even as late as her junior year, when she was writing many of the poems that would appear in her first book, few knew she was already a writer of deeply serious intent. They didn’t give any thought to the sound of typing that frequently emanated from behind her closed door, nor were they aware that every morning after breakfast she wrote for at least an hour.2 Engaged by the end of her junior year to a pleasant but staid Harvard graduate student, she seemed to casual observers like a typical, if rather more driven, Radcliffe girl. Her friends and acquaintances had little reason to suspect she would make her name as a poet. The possibility she also might become a pathbreaking lesbian feminist activist was ludicrously remote.

Reserved though she appeared to be, she was nevertheless on a conscious quest for fulfillment that began anew each morning. As a freshman, she settled into dorm life with ease. Her roommate, Priscilla Thayer, was a New Englander who had graduated from Garrison Forest School, a suburban Baltimore girls prep school not far from Roland Park. Adrienne slept in the upper bunk of the room they shared in Whitman Hall. In those years, introductory courses were segregated by sex, so she attended several classes alongside other young women in Longfellow Hall in Radcliffe Yard. But for her, the true “Yard” was Harvard Yard. […]

From Chapter 17, “I Know My Power”:

Of Woman Born was the stellar achievement that Rich and her publisher had expected it to be. Yet again she rose to an entirely new level of prominence and acclaim. In chapters such as “Anger and Tenderness,” “The Kingdom of the Fathers,” and “Violence: The Heart of Maternal Darkness,” she wrote about what she called “the power and powerlessness embodied in motherhood in patriarchal culture.” A brave and at times personal meditation on motherhood, Of Woman Born took its place in feminist history alongside the landmark works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, and her contemporaries Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, and Mary Daly, among others.

At the same time, Rich contributed a woman’s clear, uncompromising voice to the American tradition of protest literature. By including parts of her own life story in Of Woman Born, she aligned herself not only with her contemporaries Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin but also with Thoreau, whom she had read with rapt admiration for decades, and Frederick Douglass, whom she had read and taught in the SEEK program.

She would later write movingly of her determination to see the world through a powerful, womanly lens, but in Of Woman Born there is no mistaking the influence not only of the brilliant women in her literary genealogy but also the men whose radiant insights and profound hopefulness helped make her the writer and thinker she was. The men included Arnold Rich and Alfred Conrad, the presiding ghosts at her family table, who added their share of steel to the glint in her far-seeing eye.

Of Woman Born sold well and came out as a mass-market paperback a year after its initial publication. It generated the widespread debate Rich had hoped for, but she was very protective of the volume she had created during four years of personal tumult. She could not accept criticism of it with equanimity. 

Mixed in with the favorable reviews were harsh notices that took aim, sometimes directly and sometimes covertly, at Rich’s vision of feminism and the lesbian identity she refused to hide. Two particularly stinging reviews were by women, Helen Vendler and Francine du Plessix Gray, both of whom had the blessing of the male literary elite. Rich thought these two prominent intellectuals should have understood exactly what she was getting at, and she saw their objections to her arguments as evidence of tokenism. She figured they spoke out against her as a way to protect their place in the male power structure. […]

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