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Critical Essay by Alice Templeton
SOURCE: "Contradictions: Tracking Adrienne Rich's Poetry," in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, Fall, 1993, pp. 333-40.
In the following essay, Templeton provides an overview of the major trends and themes of criticism in Rich's poetry.
Adrienne Rich's poetry has always raised important, difficult questions about the cultural uses of poetry and the ideology of poetic and critical tradition. For over forty years her work has provided the occasion for critics to comment on the art of poetry, its political significance, the character of poetic tradition, and the value of poetry as a critical and creative cultural activity. Ranging in tone from eulogistic to condemnatory, prescriptive to paternal, these critical statements comprise a narrative that divulges part of the use to which Rich's poetry has been put; and like an exemplary exercise in dialogical discourse, the narrative implied by Rich criticism contains contradictory claims whose meanings modulate as new contexts and statements arise.
In 1951 W. H. Auden praised Rich for the craftsmanship and modesty in the poems in her first volume, A Change of World, published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Though Auden greatly underestimated Rich's role in reshaping the modernist tradition, the two issues raised in his introduction continue to interest critics of Rich's work: the question of whether Rich manages the "detachment from the self and its emotions without which no art is possible," and Rich's place in poetic tradition, especially her development from a "modest" participant in modernism to a radical critic of the solipsism and sexism often implied in a modernist aesthetic. The artistic standing of Rich's poetry and its resistant relation to the dominant poetic tradition preoccupy critics throughout every stage of Rich's work, from the early formalist poetry in her first two volumes, through the woman-centered, feminist writings culminating in the seventies with The Dream of a Common Language (1978), to Rich's postmodern feminist critique of a range of subjects, including her personal heritage, the legacies of historical and national location, and ideologies of time and aging in the volumes since A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981).
Seven books of criticism published in English in the last twenty years express contradictory evaluations of Rich's work as they illustrate the challenges that her poetry presents to academic criticism. In 1975 Norton issued a critical edition [Adrienne Rich's Poetry], edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, which includes selected poems, excerpts from Rich's prose and interviews, critical articles, and reviews. Published on the heels of Rich's first overtly feminist volume of poetry, Diving Into the Wreck (1973), the Norton critical edition collects pieces that reveal the tension and contradiction characteristic of Rich criticism in the sixties and seventies. While Robert Boyers condemns Rich's work for having become "charged … with the nauseous propaganda of the advance-guard cultural radicals" and urges the poet to abandon the "will to be contemporary" for higher, aesthetic ground, Wendy Martin praises the poetry for organizing "an intricate and complex cluster of perceptions which comprise the reality of the modern woman." Certainly Rich's enfranchisement of the female reader partly accounts for the threat some critics perceive to aesthetic excellence: Boyers even charges that Rich appeals to readers who "are nothing but contemporary and who therefore can have little sense of the proper gravity of the poetic art." Two apparently contrary critical impulses emerge in the Gelpis' edition, sometimes manifested, as with Helen Vendler, in the same critic: the defense of poetry as a nonpolitical, universal, aesthetic enterprise and the appreciation of Rich's oppositional stance, particularly her articulation of the complications of contemporary feminist thinking. The criticism in the Gelpis' first collection portrays a poet who has been admitted into the academic canon but on probationary terms.
Nearly ten years after the Norton critical edition appeared, Jane Roberta Cooper edited an anthology of criticism entitled Reading Adrienne Rich (1984), which includes articles on the poetry (all written by women), reviews from 1951–1981, and studies of Rich's prose. As Cooper puts it, the critical essays "interpret Adrienne Rich's work on the terms she has chosen in the last decade," while the reviews are included "for their historical value." Among the reviews Cooper finds a "decisive split" between "feminist and patriarchal understandings of poetry, criticism, and gender"; those written before Diving Into the Wreck "betray the blind spots of masculine literary culture" by failing to acknowledge the poetry's specific focus on women's experience, while those written after 1973 are more likely to read Rich's work from a feminist perspective. The themes discussed in the essays remain constant concerns in Rich's poetry and in the criticism: the connection between poetry and political change, Rich's reading and writing of women's history in her poetry, language as both a liberating and constraining cultural legacy, the poet's engagement in a radical feminist discourse, Rich's feminist ethics, her place in American poetic tradition, and the poetry's intertextual resonances with the work of other poets. What is most apparent about these essays now is their determination to apply Rich's own feminist terminology and way of reading, as gleaned from her prose, lectures, and the poems themselves, without introducing extrinsic or nonfeminist critical paradigms. The essays are both valuable for their sympathetic hermeneutic, especially as we gain historical distance from that time, and limited to the level of expository analysis because of it.
Also in 1984, Myriam Diaz-Diocaretz, Chilean poet and translator of Rich's work, published three essays as a book under the title The Transforming Power of Language. To explain Rich's development of a feminist poetic discourse that emphasizes the communicative function of poetry over its expressive value, Diaz-Diocaretz analyzes Rich's unique author-position, the centrality of the reader in the poetry, and the constant inclusion within Rich's poems of "alien texts" that clarify and complicate the poet's stance. For example, the allusions to canonic English poetry in "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" reveal the speaker's sense of cultural betrayal even as they express her knowledge of high culture; and the lines from Susan B. Anthony's diaries and the echo of Matthew Arnold in "Culture and Anarchy" establish a complex historical context for contemporary women's activism that is at once nurturing and conflictual. For Diaz-Diocaretz, as for Adrian Oktenberg in Cooper's book, Rich's radical feminist discourse is epitomized in Twenty-One Love Poems, the cycle of lesbian lyric poems that reinvents as it subverts the tradition of heterosexual love sonnets. Though the book lacks careful editing, Diaz-Diocaretz's use of continental critical concepts, specifically Michel Foucault's "author-function" and Julia Kristeva's "intertextuality," makes her feminist analysis more suggestive for the present reader than much of the criticism that depends solely on close readings and critical paradigms intrinsic to Rich's writing.
In Translating Poetic Discourse (1985), Diaz-Diocaretz expands her analysis of Rich's radical poetic discourse by discussing the particular ideological and linguistic difficulties of translating Rich's poems into Spanish. In the case of Rich's poetry, translating worlds is as crucial as translating words: the translator must not only communicate with the reader steeped in the norms of the Spanish world but also find equivalents in that world for the cultural icons and texts that Rich constantly incorporates as a means of defining her iconoclastic, "homosocial" stance in relation to dominant culture. The book continually offers examples of the ways in which Rich's use of language, not just her themes, challenge heterosexual cultural assumptions. It provides not only a systematic semiotic reading of Rich's work, but also insight into the ideological, creative work of translation and its importance in shaping literary history. Diaz-Diocaretz is one of the few critics of Rich's work who, without qualifications, embraces Rich's radicalism, locating it in her use of language rather than in themes alone.
In The Aesthetics of Power (1986), Claire Keyes frames her chronological reading of Rich's poetry through A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981) with American feminist concepts, including Elaine Showalter's "wild zone," Judith Kegan Gardiner's definition of female identity as a process, and Tillie Olsen's insistence on the usefulness of art. Keyes traces Rich's development of a specifically "female" aesthetics as the poet attempts to resolve the "dilemma of power" that her identity as both poet and woman raises: the "artist's ability to shape her forms does not necessarily translate to her ability to shape her environment or gain control over her life." According to Keyes, Rich eventually conceptualizes a "beneficent female power—both personal and political—predicated upon her own experience as woman and poet." Yet Keyes concludes that in A Wild Patience Rich's beliefs take precedence over poetry, so that "truth" is not discovered in the process of making the poem, but is preordained. Like many critics of Rich's work, even sympathetic ones, Keyes finally abandons the crucial question raised by her own analysis and by Rich's poetry—i.e., the connection between poetic and literal power—and retreats in her conclusion to the comfort of rather standard aesthetic criteria. Keyes worries that Rich too often strays outside the boundaries of the poetic enterprise to write documentary disguised as poetry. The present reader might value the book more if Keyes had examined in theoretical terms the assumptions behind her aesthetic judgments and the antagonism she finds between the aesthetic and pragmatic powers of poetry.
The most recently published full-length study of Rich's work, Craig Werner's Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics (1988), offers readings of Rich's poems in the context of her entire poetic project while it examines other critics' approaches, many of which ignore the process-oriented poetics Rich espouses. Even as he defends Rich's own process as the primary context for evaluating individual poems. Werner offers very close, formalist readings and analyses of prosody of single poems. In this way he not only argues for the organic integrity of Rich's canon, but also answers those critics, including Helen Vendler and Cary Nelson, who find aesthetic flaws in much of Rich's politically engaged work. Werner describes the contradictions within Rich criticism as a "clash" between academic critics who, rather than actually engaging in Rich's process, dismiss her feminism as mere orthodoxy and Rich's feminist aesthetics, which works against the "cultural solipsism" and isolated subjectivity that literary study has traditionally privileged. Unlike most criticism that analyzes Rich's poetic career as a self-conscious process of personal and communal transformation. Werner's study is organized primarily by themes, and only secondarily by chronology.
Werner closes his book with a chapter that places Rich in the context of American poetry, a task that compels critics of all leanings. Several critical books that attempt to define poetic tradition devote a section or chapter to Rich's work. Suzanne Juhasz's Naked and Fiery Forms (1978), Deborah Pope's A Separate Vision (1984), Wendy Martin's An American Triptych (1984), Alicia Ostriker's Stealing the Language (1986), and Paula Bennett's My Life a Loaded Gun (1986) all place Rich's work in a continuum of American women's writing. David Kalstone's Five Temperaments (1977), Cary Nelson's Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry (1981), Charles Altieri's Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984), and Walter Kalaidjian's Languages of Liberation: The Social Text in Contemporary American Poetry (1989) evaluate Rich's unique contribution to American poetry by comparing her vision and poetics to those of male contemporaries. Rich's formal training and self-conscious participation in poetic tradition demand that her work be understood in the context of mainstream American poetry; yet her position since the early seventies as a radical political poet who challenges the very terms of academic literary debate makes her a resistant, uncooperative figure in conventional discussions of poetic tradition. As Anne Herzog has commented, it is impossible to assimilate Rich's political poetry fully into "a tradition which exonerates instead the formally-interested, politically 'disinterested,' 'complete' and controlled personal lyric." Certainly, though, in the present climate of politicized criticism, it is now impossible for critics either to take the claims of such a tradition at face value or to ignore the political implications of the personal lyric, no matter what disclaimers come with it.
The emphasis in Rich's feminist writing on the communicative value of poetry also places her work within the American poetic tradition but sets it against the American formalist critical tradition. Helen Vendler notes that like mainstream, "plain-style" American poets who resist elitist aestheticizing in favor of engaging an "ordinary" audience, Rich "asks to be judged on effectiveness, rather than on conventional ideas of 'beauty.'" Cary Nelson explains, with some regret, that Rich's poetics, which values poems more as a means to effect change rather than as aesthetic ends in themselves, disrupts the authority of externally imposed aesthetic standards: "The criterion for value becomes the degree to which the poem participates in the developing poetic. A particular poem may be of interest … even when it is not very good." As Oktenberg has said, unlike most contemporary poets who produce "an accumulation of poems," Rich has created a self-contextualizing, self-referential "body of work" that alternately satisfies and disappoints formalist critical strategies. Perhaps no American poet is as convinced as Rich is of the liberating potential of literary experience yet at the same time as systematically skeptical of the ideological machinery on which literary study rides.
That fact makes the Gelpis' latest version of the Norton critical edition [Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose (1993)] a welcome but somewhat disquieting newcomer to the party of Rich criticism. It is long overdue, since the original edition (1975) has been outdated as a textbook for some time. The new edition represents Rich's writing more fully by reprinting selected poetry through An Atlas of the Difficult World (1992) and selected prose published since the earlier edition. It retains three of the critical essays from the earlier version (by W. H. Auden, Albert Gelpi, and Helen Vendler), includes some feminist essays from Cooper's book (by Judith McDaniel, Adrian Oktenberg, Olga Broumas, and Margaret Atwood), and also adds more recent critical pieces by Charles Altieri, Terrence des Pres, and Willard Spiegelman that valuably analyze Rich's distinct poetic strategies, especially in the context of American poetry and of "political" poetry. A timeline of critical poses unfolds: the early formalist criticisms and reviews with their reserved praise of Rich's promise, the feminist essays that appreciate the poetry for its focus on social and personal transformation, and the newer brand of essentially formalist essays that grant rather than resist the political coloring of Rich's lyric pose as they discuss primarily aesthetic issues. The political awareness in the recent essays especially reveals the difference that work like Rich's has made in critical standards, yet alongside the tones of formalist caution and feminist commitment, they also suggest a new, subtle level of tension between the poet and the critical establishment. Now, instead of displacing the antagonistic or overly accommodating critical attitude, perhaps the challenge for Rich's writing as it seeks to invite the reader into cultural participation will be overriding the current nonchalance about poetry's political value, an attitude that can easily trivialize the costs and rewards of Rich's poetic project even as it acknowledges them.
The Gelpis' book stands as a reminder that even as the poet lives and writes, the historical grit that irritated her into writing poetry is already being ground to a smooth textual surface (by history? by critical overdetermination? by changes in cultural values?), whose rough geology will have to be composed by the reader's historical imagination. Rich's poetry demands the jagged, painful terrain of engaged memory, not just the soothing continuity of order. Like most retrospective collections of selected works and critical essays, the new Norton edition by its nature implies a continuum in the poetry and the criticism that obscures the risks involved in each of Rich's own writings and the turbulence her work caused among critics—difficulties that the collision of different kinds of texts, not just academic essays and reviews, might convey. If it were not for the poetry itself, the new Norton critical edition would make it easy to forget that Rich was ever, and ever is, on probation, if no longer obviously with the critical establishment, then with her own creative and political conscience.
Because Rich's poetry constantly puts the practice and use of literary art under suspicion, almost no critic of Rich's work can avoid discussing the paradoxes and politics within the criticism itself; however, along with weaving its own self-reflexive narrative, criticism also needs to account for the cultural currency of Rich's work outside the academy. Feminist-informed cultural critics are likely to focus more on the participatory role of the reader in Rich's writing, noted by Diaz-Diocaretz, Patrocinio Schweickart, and others, to determine the pragmatic effects of Rich's poetry as it works to transform the reader from a passive cultural receptor into an active cultural participant.
Future criticism promises to be more eclectic in its uses of theory both to reflect the insights of postmodern feminism and to address Rich's extension, in her latest three volumes, of feminist analysis to ideological systems other than sexual difference. Rich's most recent volume An Atlas of the Difficult World, which concerns individual and communal uses of monuments and icons of all kinds, clearly calls for more acute discussions of the relations between aesthetic value and existential effect, and demands further critical examination of our ways of reading and using cultural icons, including poems and poetic tradition. As Rich continues to search for "a reader by whom I could not be mistaken," the critic of Rich's work will aspire to be that reader. Both will find qualified fulfillment because, fortunately, like the constantly changing narrative composed by Rich's critics, the poetry will not keep still for either the writer or the reader.
This section contains 2,922 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)