I spent most of my early feminist life arguing against Adrienne Rich, especially the way her early characterization of form as asbestos gloves became paradigmatic for women poets during 70s and 80s. The threat I militated against was that watered down Rich often became crass identity politics in which the formal aspects of poetry were seen as barriers to the self. The way I saw it: why not write bad prose instead, if formal structures prevent us from accessing a “true self”? At the same time, her essay on Compulsory Heterosexuality is so damn smart. I was — and am — so grateful for the way she put her argument there, the way she built alliances between women who had been defined as opposites. I never wanted to be her, or even write like her, but her existence as a smart, passionate woman poet and essayist who spoke out and who needed to be dealt with as much as John Milton or Wordsworth is so important to me.
While teaching, I found myself turning to her again and again, finding more to admire each time. Even in composition classes, I would hand out a paragraph of her prose and ask students to imitate and then evaluate her rhetorical moves. Consider the opening paragraph of “What Would We Create” from What is Found There:
October 1990. Time to say that in this tenuous, still unbirthed democracy, my country, low-grade depressiveness is pandemic and is reversing into violence at an accelerating rate. Families massacred by fathers who then turn the gun on themselves; the deliberate wounding and killing of a schoolyardful of Asian-American children in a small California town; mass or serial murders of university students in Berkeley and Florida. Violence against women of every color and class, young dark-skinned men, perceived lesbians and gay men. More and more violence committed by children–against themselves, each other, adults: suicides, gang warfare, patricide and matricide. And the violences, violations obscured because they happen in places and to people that are out of sight, out of mind. Much violence that doesn’t make the evening news, committed against people in prison, or prostitutes, or American Indians, or undocumented immigrants, or in nursing homes and state hospitals, or just part of Saturday night after a few drinks. When we try to think about this, if we’re not too tired to think, we’re driven to name old sores within the body politic: racism, homophobia, addiction, male and female socialization. You are tired of these lists; I am too. Some say there should be gun control; others call for law and order. We blame television, as if television were anything but another symptom. Who owns the means of communication, the cables, the satellites? who pays for the commercials? dictates the content of “entertainment”? (15)
I am struck now, reading this paragraph again, that it could start April 2012. It is a realization that makes me sad but once again grateful for Rich, and grateful too for her legacy. I am reminded that her work remains vital for the younger set. True, in writing their imitations, some of my students merely amassed detail, but others picked up on the emotional passion and exhaustion, the direct address to the reader that undercuts the argument only to strengthen it, the scandalous use of suggestion rather than out and out statement. They were astonished: “We can do that?” It was so much more effective than just telling them to be specific or dig deeper, and so much more thorough than just pointing it out in class. Rich understood style in a deep structural sense. It wasn’t just salad dressing on a bitter leaf. And I came to admire how she was willing to change her position on other poets like Elizabeth Bishop, say, or on the use of form in poetry. I came to see her as a powerful ally. Just to be able to say her name, and to know that it cannot be reasonably challenged, when someone calls for a woman who is a great poet and critic — what a gift she has given the world.