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For if Yeats spoke for Ireland—once telling an unruly Abbey Theatre audience that “the author of speaks to you”—Rich spoke just as passionately for women, and more specifically for lesbians, for black women, for working-class women, for Jews, and, in a larger sense, for the dispossessed, for those whom the poet Anne Winters has called “the displaced of capital.” In time, as she grew into the intense feminism that was to shape both her life and her work, Rich was increasingly drawn—as so many of us were in the sixties and seventies—to female forebears, who took the place of the “masters” she had studied in college.Like Virginia Woolf, who famously declared that “we think back through our mothers, if we are women,” she assembled a visionary company of ancestresses whose arts and ideas she meticulously analyzed.
Neither a confessional writer nor a memoirist—she was always private about the failure of her marriage and about the lives of her children—she nevertheless profiled Baltimore (in the forties) and Cambridge (in the fifties) in such precise detail that we feel present at a kind of documentary.
Even , begun as a research project, offers comparable portraits of what was and how it changed.
In fact, it was the serious and dedicated thought of seventies feminism that not only transformed Rich from a Yeatsian acolyte to a Rukeyser disciple but also motivated her own “will to change” from a writer of intelligent, casual reviews to an “activist thinker.” In her eloquent “Arts of the Possible,” she recounts that metamorphic time.
“The women’s liberation movement embodied for a while the kind of creative space a liberatory political movement can make possible: ‘a visionary relation to reality.’ Why this happens has something to do with the sheer power of a collective imagining of change and a sense of collective hope.” Also, of course, it has something—maybe everything—to do with the ways in which liberatory political movements must inevitably find poets and prophets who can articulate their collective hopes.
excited me in his work, along with the sound of his language.” To be sure, there are countless differences between these two writers, in particular large gaps between the Irish artist’s problematic sexual politics and Rich’s radical reimaginings of gender, as well as between Yeats’s eccentric (and aristocratic) mysticism and Rich’s social realism.
(She was never, she notes, interested in “his elaborate mythological systems.”) Yet what links the two, at different ends of the twentieth century and of the political spectrum, is a fierce urge toward personal and poetic refashioning, along with an increasingly powerful sense of communal responsibility.
After that, she wrote a few other reviews for (1955) Of the first book, W. Auden, then editor for the Yale series, writes in a notoriously patronizing preface that the poems “are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.” A few years later, in a review of Randall Jarrell thickens the plot, claiming that the author of the book seems “to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale.” But the Adrienne Cecile Rich (for so she signed her first two books) of whom these masterful poets were speaking seems to have been largely a figment of their imaginations.
True, her parents had bestowed on her a somewhat flowery name, but along with that, they’d given her an education in aspiration and expertise.
But perhaps it hasn’t yet been clearly enough understood how crucially her writings in prose complemented, supplemented, enriched, and, yes, inspired her writing in verse.
I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly along the flank of something more permanent than fish or weed the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck the thing itself and not the myth Here, she says, is the imperative of investigation: needful research into “the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.” Arguably, as she confided that she discovered sometime in the sixties, such research into reality—“the thing itself and not the myth”—was a major aim of her work as a poet.