Arts of the Possible – Review

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 1 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of

Women's Union

Arts of the Possible

Adrienne Rich, Norton Paperback, 2002

‘Re-vision, the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of
entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more
than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.’

This statement, from Rich’s 1971 essay ‘When We Dead Awaken’, both sets
out the ‘project’ that was Rich’s political and literary work from the
1970s onwards, and provides a way into thinking about that project a
generation on. This collection of essays contains work from 1971 to 1997,
and the diversity of its subject matter and style reflect Rich’s changing
satus within feminist, acadmic and ‘established’ society. Rich writes
that, as a young women ‘the only history upon which, both as woman and a
poet, I could find any groiunding at all [was] the history of the
dispossessed’; editing anthologies of poetry excluded from the traditional
‘canon’, involving herself with literary projects and writing workshops.
The central theme of thee essays is the serahc for a ‘voice’ – both poetic
and political – for the artistically and socially disenfranchised. Having
done so for herself, what can Rich offer other female readers and would-be

Rich’s development as a writer, and the circumstances of her personal
life, have often closely paralelled the broader changes in priorities
affecting Wester feminism, as a whole. As an undergraduate, her
prize-winning poetry won the dubious praise of Auden, who commended her
poems for being ‘neatly and modestly dressed…they respect their
elders…’ Rich writes forcefully of the experience of being a diligent
student, and later a frustrated housewife, wanting to write but having no
time or space, feeling that there was no time and space for a woman to
write in. Paraphrasing James Baldwin in’Blod, Bread and Poetry’, Rich
claims that she felt at the time that ‘to write directly and overtly as a
woman, out of a woman’s body and experience, to take a woman’s existence
seriously as [a] theme and source for art…impl[ied] the breakdown of the
world as I had always known it.’ In the 60s and 70s, the world as Rich
had always known it did begin to change, and it is no coincidence that,
as her political and personal agenda became more polemical, her poetry
attracted criticism for being ‘coarse’ and ‘strident’.

Book cover
This intertwining of Rich’s own life with the developing priorities of
second-wave feminism provides both the strength and the weakness of the
book. Her depiction of the young woman afraid, or unable, to speak
provides a resonant image of female entrapment, and it is a measure of
Rich’s personal integrity that her own personal and political empowerment
has always been accompanied by a politically active desire to see others
achieve the same goals. However, the close parallels between the history
of American feminism and the history of Rich’s life can sometimes give
this. The Foreword suggests taht. at various points ‘my thinking was
unable to fulfill within feminism alone’ and one has the feeling that,
here at least, Rich is chastising much of modern thought for failing to
keep up with her. Although Rich has been an important figure in
challenging the white, heterosexual bias of much academic feminism, she
does, on occasion, write as if limitations and developments in feminism
parallel, and are indeed derived from, the personal development of
Adrienne Rich.

Rich has been criticised by academics such as Harold Bllom for her
desire to ‘democratise’ the canon. Bloom argues that the desire to let
everyone speak ignores the fact that, in poetic terms at least, some
‘speak’ much better than others. Rich’s couterargument is that, while so
many members of society do not have a voice, thay cannot have the chance
to be writers and artists. Rich’s wrk is founded on a belief in the
fundamental interdependence of art and politics. Gicing a voice to the
isenfranchised is crucial at the literal, social level; for those who at
present do not have a vote, cannot read and write. The chance to ‘speak’
politically is intrinsically linked to the possibility of expressing
oneself artistically and emotionally. Those who cannot become sick, both
physically and psychologically, as Rich implies in her depiction of poems
she rejected from her anthology of American poetry; ‘poems…verbally
incontinent…brittle poems…poems oozing with male or female self
hatred…porous with lying.’

‘Blood, Bread and Poetry’ rejects the idea that artists should not
‘meddle’, as Rich’s critics would have it, with politics. Discussing
Yeats’ poem ‘Easter 1916’, Rich refutes his view that politics withers the
artist, turns the beautiful women into a crone…

That woman’s days were spent

In ignorant good-will

Her nights in argument

Until her voice grew shrill.

What voice more sweet that hers

When, young and beutiful

She rode to harriers.

Yeats suggests that art and politics are mutually opposed, that
political life is detrimental to the (especially female) artist. Rich
asserts that ‘poetry [is] more than music and images; it [is] also
revelation…information, a kind of tesching.’ The right to poetic
language, a language of self-expression, is a fundametal part of
political, social and emotional empowerment. Rich closes this essay by
citing the example of Nina Simone – what voice more sweet than hers – in
stating that the artist must ‘draw on a tradition in which political
struggle and spiritual continuity are meshed.’



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