Remembering Adrienne Rich: “Poetry was a feminist practice”

Rich 1987

Ed. note: We regret publishing this piece without acknowledging or critiquing Rich’s history of transphobia and in particular her support for Janice G. Raymond, author of the discriminatory and hateful “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male.” To be clear: By failing to acknowledge the late author’s views on womanhood, feminists risk writing trans people out of the movement. Please see this piece for a comment from our Executive Editor on this issue.

This past Wednesday marked the anniversary of the death of poet and feminist Adrienne Rich. As we close out Women’s History Month and begin National Poetry Month this Monday, it seems fitting to remember wise words from one of the most prominent voices in modern feminism.

Rich won the National Book Award in 1974 for her collection, Diving Into The Wreck, an honor which she insisted on sharing with fellow nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. Forever conscious about the tension between women of color and white women in the feminist movement– and her own privilege–Rich regularly collaborated with Lorde, as friends (then estranged for a spell) and colleagues, in building a discourse to bridge that divide. Poetry and feminism a have long shared history. It is fair to say that the woman poet created a “common language” to our identity and struggles.

Rich was also a provocative essayist. My personal favorite, What Is Found There, published originally in 1993 (updated in 2003) is a series of essays, close readings of poems, observations about our social and political realities, and wonderings of our futures. In an odd moment of prescience, I picked up my copy and began rereading it days before her passing. The essays were resonant for me as I began to try to process how last March being a woman became the political wedge issue of the 2012 elections. Which is to say, I’m not really ready to go in on North Dakota yet. Those words aren’t fit to print (for now). 

My re-reading of Rich’s work brought me to this quote I wish to share with you:

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions–predigested books and ideas…marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…and this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”…The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.

I, too, absent-mindedly wondered about the inextricably relationship between poetry and feminism/feminist theory. After awhile I realized how obvious the link is. The consciousness-raising struggle for a woman to see herself as a complete human being is so part of the poet’s creative process. The poet renders the abstract into tangible realities. The “problem with no name” couldn’t remain in the abstract forever, someone had to mete out the details. After Friedan, it was the poetry that defined the problem and imagined its solutions. It showed us that personal was political and something clicked. Women shared their personal stories with other women, gave them a voice and saw that they were not alone, that they were many.

Writer Lisa Moore (linked above) points us to author T.V. Reed’s observation: “Poetry was consciousness-raising. Poetry was theory. Poetry was feminist practice.”

It still is.

Photo via NYT.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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