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The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich by Claire Keyes; Adrienne Rich

Review by: Albert Gelpi


The New England Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Dec., 1987), pp. 649-652
Published by: The New England Quarterly, Inc.
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BOOK REVIEWS
The Aesthetics
of
Power: The
Poetry of
Adrienne Rich.
By
Claire
Keyes. (Athens: University
of
Georgia
Press. 1986.
Pp.
215.
$22.50.)
Adrienne Rich is one of the few
contemporary poets
who
really
matters,
and in the course of her career she has become our most
accomplished
and influential feminist
poet.
Her work received
attention from the
outset, beginning
with Auden's now notorious
introduction to Rich's first volume in the Yale
Younger
Poets series,
but this attention has been
fragmentary
and
mostly
occasional.
Barbara Charlesworth
Gelpi
and I included some reviews and es-
says
in the Norton Critical Edition of Adrienne Rich's
Poetry,
and
more
recently Jane Cooper
has
put
out a selection of
pieces
called
Reading
Adrienne Rich. But,
to
my knowledge,
Claire
Keyes's
study
is the first
book-length
examination of Rich's
poetry,
an
unhappy
fact since
Keyes
adds little to
previous understanding
of
Rich's
steadily growing body
of work and distorts Rich's
present
position.
Keyes's
method is the obvious and
perhaps
inevitable one in
treating
a
poetic development
charted
by
dramatic
changes:
the
chapters
take
up
the individual volumes in
chronological
succes-
sion. The virtue of her commentary lies in its earnest coverage of
the ground. I don't agree with all of the readings: e.g., that "An
Unsaid Word" is about the failure of the female speaker to
"seduce" her man (p. 19), or that the poem's irony is "unconscious"
(p. 20), or that "Power" "denigrates" Marie Curie (p. 164). But up
to a point newcomers to Rich's work can learn a lot about particular
poems and the overall trajectory of Rich's career.
But up to what point? Besides disagreeing with some specifics, I
find a couple of more generic problems. To begin with, Keyes is
really interested almost exclusively in the content of the poems. It is
true Rich is radical in content rather than formally innovative; the
notion of an avant-garde, an experimental elite, is antithetical to
her notion of art as an engagement with psychological and moral
and-since the late sixties-political life. Nevertheless, the
changing terms of that engagement over the years have required
and generated different terms of articulation, and Rich's poems
have remained carefully crafted through the process wherein a
tight, New Critical formalism gave way to a greater openness and
exploratory receptivity. But Keyes's attention, despite scattered
649
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THE NEW ENGLAND
QUARTERLY
and
perfunctory
remarks about technical matters, runs to the
descriptive
rather than the
analytical,
to
paraphrasing
rather than
examining
the
imagery
and verbal
strategies through
which
"themes" are
explored
and realized as the
complex ambiguity
of
lived
experience.
There is
another, more serious kind of
problem
with the book.
Though my early-seventies essay
on Rich's "Poetics of
Change,"
written
just
as her
incipient
feminism was
becoming
more conscious
and overt, comes in for a
gratifying
number of
citations, Keyes
sees
herself as
extending
that
investigation
into a feminist
perspective.
Sometimes she seems to
accept my suggestion
that Rich's
deep
and
ambivalent
dialogue
with the masculine be read in terms of
Jung's
theory
of the
animus, but at other times she seems
uneasy
with that
explanation-without,
at least in
my view, offering
a
searching
or
convincing
alternative.
Keyes
invokes all the
expected
and
appro-
priate
feminist names-Simone de
Beauvoir, Woolf, Tillie Olson,
Gilbert and Gubar
(at
one
point
conflated into "Susan Gilbert"
[p.
64])-but
the feminist
perspective,
like the textual
commentary,
plays mostly
on the surface.
The
disparity
between the
quality
and
depth
of Rich's and
Keyes's feminism becomes most apparent in the last two chapters,
on The Dream of a Common Language and A Wild Patience Has
Taken Me This Far. It is not just that, when it comes right down to
the point, Keyes recoils from Rich's radical critique of patriarchy; it
is rather that Keyes's simplistic reading of Rich's radicalism
cheapens and falsifies the psychological and historical incisiveness
of that critique. In Keyes's rendering, Rich's feminism, while on the
one hand the source of her strength, has made her into an "ideo-
logue" (p. 135) who "may well sacrifice the truths of her heart and
of poetry for what she perceives as higher purposes" (p. 202). For
Keyes, the "female chauvinism" (p. 179) of this "man-hater" (p.
134) brands "all men as the enemy," "guilty of crimes against
women and against life on this planet" (pp. 138, 139).
Yes, passages in Rich, especially certain poems of the mid-to-late
seventies, have, quite intentionally, shaken and shocked readers,
women as well as men, and, not surprisingly, anger and outrage
expressed with such concentrated and convincing vehemence alien-
ated many. "The Phenomenology of Anger" is an extreme and
disturbing statement (for the poet, too, no less), but Rich's attempt
to become the lightning rod for feelings long suppressed in herself
650
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BOOK REVIEWS
and in other women has to be read as a
lyric poem
in a
body
of
work that extends and
qualifies
and
complements
it. There is no
question
that
during
those initial combative
years
of feminist defini-
tion Rich decided to write
primarily
to and about women and that
male
figures
entered the
poems
almost
exclusively
as the
patriarch
and
enemy.
But
Keyes
does not seem to make the crucial distinc-
tion between
patriarchy
as a socioeconomic
system
and individual
men within and under the
patriarchy.
Instead she sees Rich
moving
in a
narrowing ideological progression
from a feminist to a lesbian
whose "most intimate
personal relationships
become a reflection of
her
political
and social idealism"
(p. 161)
and (in A Wild
Patience)
to a "lesbian
separatist" (p. 181).
Rich has been careful not to blur or elide these terms and has
taken the
opportunity
in the foreword to her new volume of
essays
to leave no doubt: "I identified
myself
as a radical
feminist, and
soon after-not as a
political
act but out of
powerful
and unmistak-
able
feelings-as
a lesbian.... At no time have I ever defined
myself as, or considered
myself,
a lesbian
separatist" (Blood,
Bread, and Poetry, p. viii). Keyes did not have this statement avail-
able when she wrote the book, but she did have other sources: a
piece in the journal Signs and, more important, the poetry-not just
poems from the fifties and sixties but the long sequence Sources,
which comes after A Wild Patience. In that remarkable poem, a
milestone in Rich's development, she resumes dialogue with her
father and her husband, the two men, both now dead, who had a
profound effect on her life. In fact, the new collection, Your Native
Land, Your Life (1986), shows a large inclusiveness of consideration
and response without any diminishment of identification with
women or rejection of patriarchy.
In "From an Old House in America," Adrienne Rich addressed
to her husband the lines "If they call me man-hater, you
/
would
have known it for a lie," and there are other passages and poems to
corroborate the point. Those lines, and the connection and conten-
tion with the masculine in her poetry as a whole, have for me, as a
male reader of her work for a quarter-century, a special focus and
force. Indeed it is precisely the ongoing drama and cleansing
candor of her engagement with the issue of gender and her explora-
tion of its psychological and political consequences that give Rich's
poetry its visionary clarity and power.
Keyes's sense of current poetry seems as unexamined as her
651
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THE NEW ENGLAND
QUARTERLY
THE NEW ENGLAND
QUARTERLY
feminism. In the last
chapter
she
opines
that the best
poems
in A
Wild Patience are those in the
"post-modernist
mode" which
eschew
"sincerity
and
authenticity"
to
play
with
"hypotheses
instead of
testimony" (p. 182). Surely
Charles Altieri is
right
in
Self
and
Sensibility
in
Contemporary
American
Poetry
when he
juxta-
poses
Adrienne Rich with
John Ashbery
as
representatives
of
oppo-
site notions of
language:
as self-referential code and as mode of
participation
in a
reality
extrinsic to
language. Every gesture
of
Rich's
poetry rejects
the
skeptical
and involuted
solipsism
of
post-
modernism and insists on the connection between
language
and
action,
the
power
of the word to
testify
to and so to
change
the
world we live in and share. We read it because we, women and
men, are
empowered by
it to stand witness and
give testimony,
empowered
to see and so choose and so transform.
Albert
Gelpi
is William Robertson Coe
Professor of
American Lit-
erature at
Stanford University.
His books include EMILY DICKIN-
SON: THE MIND OF THE
POET; THE TENTH MUSE: THE PSYCHE OF THE
AMERICAN
POET;
A COHERENT SPLENDOR: THE AMERICAN POETIC
RENAISSANCE, 1910-1930; as well as editions of Wallace Stevens
and Adrienne Rich.
Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton. By Diana Hume
George. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1987.
Pp. xvii, 210. $24.95.)
Anne Sexton had a sharp ear for an epigraph. Readers who
opened To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) encountered the
following, taken from a letter of Schopenhauer to Goethe (Novem-
ber 1819):
It is the courage to make a clean breast of it in the face of every question
that makes the philosopher. He must be like Sophocles' Oedipus, who,
seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatiga-
ble enquiry, even when he divines that appalling horror awaits him in the
answer. But most of us carry in our heart the Jocasta who begs Oedipus for
God's sake not to inquire further.
Two years later her second book, All My Pretty Ones, quoted a
Kafka letter: "A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea
within us." Between them, these epigraphs go far toward defining
Sexton's poetics, at once tragic, defiant, truth-seeking, and com-
feminism. In the last
chapter
she
opines
that the best
poems
in A
Wild Patience are those in the
"post-modernist
mode" which
eschew
"sincerity
and
authenticity"
to
play
with
"hypotheses
instead of
testimony" (p. 182). Surely
Charles Altieri is
right
in
Self
and
Sensibility
in
Contemporary
American
Poetry
when he
juxta-
poses
Adrienne Rich with
John Ashbery
as
representatives
of
oppo-
site notions of
language:
as self-referential code and as mode of
participation
in a
reality
extrinsic to
language. Every gesture
of
Rich's
poetry rejects
the
skeptical
and involuted
solipsism
of
post-
modernism and insists on the connection between
language
and
action,
the
power
of the word to
testify
to and so to
change
the
world we live in and share. We read it because we, women and
men, are
empowered by
it to stand witness and
give testimony,
empowered
to see and so choose and so transform.
Albert
Gelpi
is William Robertson Coe
Professor of
American Lit-
erature at
Stanford University.
His books include EMILY DICKIN-
SON: THE MIND OF THE
POET; THE TENTH MUSE: THE PSYCHE OF THE
AMERICAN
POET;
A COHERENT SPLENDOR: THE AMERICAN POETIC
RENAISSANCE, 1910-1930; as well as editions of Wallace Stevens
and Adrienne Rich.
Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton. By Diana Hume
George. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1987.
Pp. xvii, 210. $24.95.)
Anne Sexton had a sharp ear for an epigraph. Readers who
opened To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) encountered the
following, taken from a letter of Schopenhauer to Goethe (Novem-
ber 1819):
It is the courage to make a clean breast of it in the face of every question
that makes the philosopher. He must be like Sophocles' Oedipus, who,
seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatiga-
ble enquiry, even when he divines that appalling horror awaits him in the
answer. But most of us carry in our heart the Jocasta who begs Oedipus for
God's sake not to inquire further.
Two years later her second book, All My Pretty Ones, quoted a
Kafka letter: "A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea
within us." Between them, these epigraphs go far toward defining
Sexton's poetics, at once tragic, defiant, truth-seeking, and com-
652 652
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