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‘Essential Essays — Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry’ review: The voice of the people

“And what about art? Mistrusted, adored, poetised, condemned, dismissed as entertainment, commodified, auctioned at Sotheby’s, purchased by investment-seeking celebrities, it dies into the ‘art object’ of a thousand museum basements. It’s also reborn hourly in prisons, women’s shelters, small-town garages, community-college workshops, halfway houses, wherever someone picks up a pencil, a wood-burning tool, a copy of The Tempest, a tag-sale camera, a whittling knife, a stick of charcoal, a pawnshop horn, a video of Citizen Kane, whatever lets you know again that this deeply instinctual yet self-conscious expressive language, this regenerative process, could help save your life.” — Adrienne Rich.

Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry brings together some of the most well-known essays of poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012). The selection has been edited by the distinguished literary critic, academic and poet Sandra Gilbert, who, along with Susan Gubar, co-authored the critical work The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), a major text of second-wave feminism.

Cultural voice

As a public intellectual, says Gilbert, Rich was “responsible, self-questioning, and morally passionate.” Ranging from the 1960s to 2006, these essays remind us that not only was Rich a major feminist and important cultural voice of her generation — but that she was above all a poet and artist who believed in a central role for art in society. There are no boundaries in her oeuvre between her poetry, essays and feminist work: together, they represent the integrity and truth of her long literary career.

“Her wounds came from the same source as her power,” wrote Adrienne Rich about Marie Curie. Born to a mother who set aside her own musical ambitions to raise her children — homeschooling them till fourth grade — and an academic father who exhorted his daughter to read and write like the canonical male white poets, Rich began her intellectual life as a gifted young poet. W.H. Auden wrote famously (and patronisingly) about her first book that the poems were “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.” This was in 1951, when male poets presumably thought this was a nice, non-threatening way to praise the work of young women.

Rich went on to get married and have three children before she was 30. In the 1950s, marriage and motherhood filled her days. When she first wrote about her experience as a woman, “The poem was jotted in fragments during children’s naps, brief hours in a library, or at 3 a.m., after rising with a wakeful child.” For a decade, she published nothing. “For about ten years I was reading in fierce snatches, scribbling in notebooks, writing poetry in fragments.”

Wave of feminism

Outside the home, it was a period of radical ferment: of sit-ins, marches and the peace movements. Rich writes about being conflicted, and about her evolution as a poet, transforming herself with every new work, in When We Dead Awaken (1971): “I felt that I had either to consider myself a failed woman and a failed poet, or try to find some synthesis by which to understand what was happening to me.”

Every wave of feminism leaves the cliffs of patriarchy a little diminished. But every successive generation of feminists must also engage with and critique those who came before. Rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), Rich notes that there are some women who aren’t in the room at all: “Women whom she left out of the picture altogether — women who are washing other people’s dishes and caring for other people’s children, not to mention women who went on the streets last night in order to feed their children.”

Becoming empowered

Rich’s generation of second-wave feminists has been critiqued at length by others. Nevertheless, it is worth reading her discussion of what feminism must stand for. In ‘What Does a Woman Need to Know?’ a commencement speech at Smith College in 1979, she reminds young women of their responsibility: “As more women are entering the professions (though still suffering sexual harassment in the workplace, though still, if they have children, carrying two full-time jobs, though still vastly outnumbered by men in upper-level and decision-making jobs), we need most profoundly to remember that early insight of the feminist movement as it evolved in the late 60s: that no woman is liberated until we all are liberated.”

Anticipating the inherent limitations of ‘Lean-In’ feminism, Rich notes that successful women have failed to build a more equal and compassionate world for the reason that they have made efforts to do so only on terms that men in powerful positions would find acceptable.

For Rich, just at feminism is part of an effort to build a more just and caring world, art is part of the struggle for social justice and equality.

In her 1997 essay ‘Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts’, written after she declined to accept the award offered by U.S. President Bill Clinton, Rich presents a vision of art as a voice of the people: “In the long run art needs to grow organically out of a social compost nourishing to everyone, a literate citizenry, a free, universal, public education complex with art as an integral element, a society honoring both human individuality and the search for a decent, sustainable common life. In such conditions, art would still be a voice of hunger, desire, discontent, passion, reminding us that the democratic project is never-ending.”

Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry; Adrienne Rich, WW Norton, ₹1,686.

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