'You Have to Change Your Life': How Adrienne Rich Wakes Us Up

Looking back at Adrienne Rich's politics and prose—and toward a radical feminist future.
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Left to right: Audre Lorde, Meridel Le Sueur, and Adrienne Rich in 1980.

Left to right: Audre Lorde, Meridel Le Sueur, and Adrienne Rich in 1980.

When I first read the poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, I was 21, a student at an all-women's summer program on a farm in Sonoma, California. There was a girl I determinedly referred to as my "friend crush." Skinny-dipping with her, talking with her about Rich's work—which records the writer's relationships with other women in vivid, sensual language—made it harder and harder to maintain the pretense.

I thought it would be simpler, more convenient, to never acknowledge the truth. But Adrienne Rich, then as now, made me wake up to the possibilities that arise when you dare to commit to the truth—to face the split between what you feel and what you're supposed to feel. In Rich's view, literature can be "a fierce, destabilizing force, a wave pulling you out further than you thought you wanted to be. You have to change your life." And how can writing change one's life? By precipitating a radical encounter with a truth one has been trying to run away from.

Last month, W.W. Norton released a selection of Rich's work in a volume called Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry. Revisiting Rich, I found this same uncompromising drive toward truth, but also a more complex and rigorous politics than I'd remembered; an excellent guide to living for anyone invested in the feminist struggle today, or the struggle for self-determination and equality more broadly. I learned most from Rich's reinvention of her life and thought, her engagement with a process of self-interrogation and self-fashioning that "in our lifetimes, [has] no end," she writes.

Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929 to a genteel, Southern mother who set aside her own talents and ambitions to raise her children, and a determinedly assimilated Jewish father who instructed her in the art of poetry as it had been practiced by dead white men. As a young woman, she felt intense dissonance between her desire for an artistic, intellectual life and the life she was expected to have. "From the age of 13 or 14, I had felt I was only acting the part of a feminine creature," she writes. "The lipstick and high heels of the era were difficult-to-manage disguises." Her ambitions were to write poetry and explore post-war Europe as a journalist. But she found herself spending hours "trying to apply lipstick more adroitly, straightening the wandering seams of stockings, talking about 'boys.'"

Precocious and technically gifted, she published her first book of poetry, A Change of World, at age 22. It won the Yale Younger Poets Prize along with patronizing praise from W.H. Auden: "The poems a reader will encounter in this book are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs." At first, Rich followed the traditional path of "woman's great adventure, duty, and fulfillment," and was married with three children by the age of 30.

As she writes of that period in her essay "When We Dead Awaken," "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." She began to write poetry that chronicled and politicized everyday aspects of women's lives; reviewers characterized that work as "bitter" and "too personal," as Rich recounts in her essay "Blood, Bread, and Poetry." She participated in anti-war, anti-racist, and feminist activism. And a few years after her husband's suicide in 1970, she began an open lesbian relationship with the poet Michelle Cliff, which would last until her death.

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Rich is best known as a second-wave feminist activist and writer, and the label fits neatly for the first essays in this volume. They crackle with the energy and optimism released by the women's liberation movement, with what Rich describes as an "unforgettable sense of coming alive, of newness and connectedness." They carry out aspects of the movement's program, rediscovering a legacy of resistance in women's literature and deconstructing the supposedly natural structures, like motherhood and heterosexuality, that organize women's lives in oppressive ways.

The feminism of Rich's generation is no longer in vogue. It’s been thoroughly critiqued by women of color, queer and trans women, and working-class and poor women—among them bell hooks, Alice Walker, Julia Serano, and Sandy Stone—for centering the experiences of straight, upper-middle-class, cisgender white women at their expense. Theorists like Donna Haraway have accused second-wave feminism of a certain degree of biological essentialism; even Rich at one point invokes the "radical implications" of the "lunar cycle." In 2018, this brand of feminism seems to carry the faint scent of a bonfire around which women dance bare-breasted and hairy-legged in praise to Gaia.

But Rich's essays paint a strikingly different picture of an often-caricatured movement, one more nuanced and intelligent than her critics usually acknowledge, and which gave Rich the space to conceive of liberation in ever-more-expansive ways. She came to see radical feminism as part of the fight for equality for all people: It "looks to a transformation of human relationships and structures in which power, instead of a thing to be hoarded by a few, would be released to and from within the many." Especially in the later essays, Rich widens her scope beyond critiques of gender-based oppression to encompass racial and economic inequality, taking up the call of those who spoke up "in meeting after meeting to say again what others did not want to hear: that the basic facts of inequality and power in North America cannot be addressed in gender terms only."

Rich's socialist-feminist vision is especially powerful compared to the limited offerings of today's mainstream feminism. The cult of the girlboss encourages us to lean in, ideally increasing women's representation within existing, and fundamentally exclusionary, power structures—a phenomenon Rich critiqued as "tokenism." Once a favorite daughter praised for her adherence to the standards of male-dominated poetry, Rich was well-acquainted with the temptations and dangers of tokenism. Delivering a 1979 graduation address at Smith College, she reminded the soon-to-be-working women that "brilliant and successful women have failed to create a more just and caring society, precisely because they have tried to do so on terms that the powerful men around them would accept and tolerate."

Tokenism offers power and freedom to a few women—so long as they renounce what Rich calls "the eye of the outsider," which allows them to see the exclusions on which existing power structures are built. Rich's vision of feminism is thoroughly democratic. She invites her readers to imagine collectively what it would take to build a better world, one in which women are truly free.

In her 1997 letter to the National Endowment for the Arts and President Bill Clinton, "Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts," she envisions a future society that honors "both human individuality and the search for a decent, sustainable common life," before asking the president, and her other readers, "For that to happen, what else would have to change?" The rest of the page is blank, offering a place for the reader to pause and imagine her own answers.

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Rich's visionary honesty has aged well. As early as 1979, her words start to sound eerily prescient. In the same commencement address at Smith College, she criticizes women-oriented media such as Self magazine for their role in commodifying feminism—a phenomenon then in its earliest stages. "It is important for each of you," she told the young women, "toward whom many of these messages are especially directed, to discriminate clearly between 'liberated life style' and feminist struggle, and to make a conscious choice."

The latest essay in this collection is from 2006, before the financial crisis, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders' presidential run, and the release of polls showing that a majority of Millennials are dissatisfied with capitalism. But Rich's autopsies of "our once apparently consensual national project: a democratic republic with a large and growing middle class, and equality of opportunity as its great hope," are apt and incisive, and seem to speak directly to the sense of immiseration and disempowerment so prevalent today.

What is the power of the written word in the face of material threats? The question occupied Rich seemingly all her life. She gives various complementary answers, and implicitly encourages us to continue her lines of inquiry. Rich believed that writing could question the capitalist mantra that "man has a 'natural' and overwhelming predisposition to activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive." She also knew that writing can expand our sense of the possible, poking through the "official silences" of the defenders of the status quo, as well as so much more. For Rich, poetry was full of radical potential: radical in that it can recall us to our roots, acting as "news of an awareness, a resistance, that totalizing systems want to quell: art reaching into us for what's still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched."

Rich's generation of feminists defined the political as personal; she and the poets she inspired, like Elizabeth Willis, Jane Miller, and Jean Valentine, showed us that our personal, political lives are poetic too. The idea that there is no clear border between the personal, the political, and the world of poetry is now ubiquitous to the point of cliché. But the connections Rich drew between these areas of public and private life are still fresh, surprising, and fruitful—particularly in her exploration of the "social compost" from which art grows.

Rich acknowledges that it is only through a wide range of "non-art labors" undertaken by others—"repetitive, toxic, body-breaking, minimum-wage or less or none"—that a privileged few may write books. Her writing is constantly, acutely aware of the oppressive gender roles that threaten her ability to write, but also of the women, mostly low-income women and women of color, who shoulder the heaviest burdens in a system that gives a poet and essayist the time and space to do her work. And though they're relatively privileged, Rich argues, artists are still workers, whose labor conditions are not separable from those in the economy as a whole. Today, as poets and writers are increasingly constrained in their art by temporary, contingent labor arrangements, it's evident just how right she was.

The English word "essay" comes from the French verb essayer: "to try." Rich's essays interrogate and dig deeper via language that she describes as "probing, burning, stripping, placing ... [ideas] in dialogue with others," These essays return to certain questions, relentlessly seeking richer answers. Because Rich never stopped asking, it's worthwhile to revisit her work, to investigate what new experiences or knowledge we can bring to bear on those questions. A poem "can uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of our lives, the fabricated wants and needs we have had urged on us, have accepted as our own," she writes. "After that re-arousal of desire, the task of acting on that truth, or making love, or meeting other needs, is ours."

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