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.

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  • Sam L-L

    Last time we talked about Ms. Rich one of our commentors, Marlene, brought up:

    I don’t disagree with the good things you say about her, but I don’t think that your brief sentences about gender essentialism and pornography begin to scratch the surface.

    She also helped Janice Raymond to write The Transsexual Empire, one of the most viciously transphobic and transmisogynistic screeds ever put to paper. With Rich’s help, Raymond spearheaded a view of trans women that led to witch hunts within the lesbian feminist community, gave academic cover to the closing of gender reassignment programs at major universities and posited trans women as perpetrating the rape of women’s bodies simply by daring to exist.”

    At that time, Samhita edited her (previously fully laudatory) post to acknowledge Ms. Rich’s malfeasance in this regard.

    Can you explain why you did not feel the need to again engage with this problem in this post? Do you think it is unnecessary or counter-productive to do so when revisiting Ms. Rich’s legacy a year later? The absence is conspicuous.

    • Sam L-L

      Sorry, for clarity, paragraphs 2-3 are a quote of Marlene’s words and not my own.

  • Marlene

    Really? Again?

    You’re celebrating the anniversary of when the feminist blogosphere poured forth eulogies of Adrienne Rich that ignored her virulent activist transphobia? Cis feminists did a pretty lousy job of listening to trans people on the issue then and you clearly didn’t learn anything then that you felt compelled to apply to what you wrote a year later.

    It seemed, for a minute, that Feministing was no longer the disaster on trans issues that it once was. I’m beginning to doubt that much has changed at all when Jos isn’t in the room.

  • Lix Day

    “Forever conscious about… her own privilege,” really? Was she forever conscious of her privilege when she was calling for the extermination of trans women? Were you forever conscious of yours when you decided to write this entire article without mentioning her beliefs?

    I’m not saying that you can’t admire other things about people like Rich because they were bigots (and they were) but to pretend that bigotry didn’t exist so that you can worship at their feet without damaging their reputation is simply wrong.

    This is the soft transphobia of the feminist community. When trans women are attacked from outside the community (some) cis-feminists are willing to shake their heads and tut, but when it comes to holding other feminists (past and present) accountable for the things they said and believed.

    Adrienne Rich has said vile transmisogynistic things, Gloria Steinem has said vile transmisogynistic things, Germaine Greer has said vile transmisogynistic things, Judith Butler has said vile transmisogynistic things, and none of them have every repented or apologized. And you can’t used the excuse that their bigotry was just “of their time”. Rich died just last year and the others are still alive; they’ve had plenty of time to see the light and give up their bigoted was. They didn’t and they haven’t. And self-proclaimed trans-inclusive feminists are just as bad as them if they ignore their hateful words and only support their trans sisters when it’s convenient.

  • Syreeta

    You’re right. I honestly was completely unaware of this history.

    It wasn’t an exercise in privilege in failing to acknowledge the history of transphobia, it was complete and utter ignorance on my part and I do apologize. I honestly had no idea. And it breaks my heart that there’s a history of transphobia with Rich (and Steinem). I had come to Rich’s work primarily through her poetry and essays, deeply aware of the clash between women of color and white women in second wave feminism, but embarrassingly unaware of Rich’s controversial beliefs (or alignment with Raymond’s philosophies) regarding transgender women. It is an omission that I deeply regret and grateful that you’ve brought it to my attention to address and learn from.

    But Rich’s past support of Raymond’s views on transgender identity are not my views. I do not endorse that thinking. I never have.

    • Marlene

      Actually, your utter ignorance is exactly about privilege. You have had the privilege to not have to know. I know because her work has been used against me. She has been claimed as an authority to convince my sisters that I am to be hated and shunned and vilified. I can’t not know. You can. That’s privilege.

      It’s interesting to see myself quoted here. I was full of patience and optimism on the subject only a year ago. Yesterday I was just angry.

      I’m still angry. You may not have known these things when you wrote about Rich, but you are writing at a blog that has a history of doing this stuff badly, which adds significantly to the impact of your ignorance.

      I’m honestly shocked that you are a contributor here now and were not reading Feministing only a year ago, especially a piece about one of your heroes. Apparently, someone there thinks you’re pretty sharp.

  • steven

    The same backlash happened when Feministing posted on the passing of Mary Daly. So many of the passionate heroes of any movement can be dogmatic and hateful to those on the wrong side.