Adrienne Rich “What I know, I know through making poems” Passion, Politics and the Body in the Poetry of Adrienne Rich Liz Yorke, Nottingham Trent University, England This paper is largely extracted from my book Adrienne Rich, which is to be published by Sage in October this year..What I have tried to do for the paper is to track one thread explored by the book, which I feel runs through the whole span of Rich’s thought, a thread which links desire, passion, and the body – to politics, to activism, and to the writing of poetry. Writing poetry, above all, involves a willingness to let the unconscious speak – a willingness to listen within for the whispers that tell of what we know, even though what we know may be unacceptable to us and, sometimes, because we may not want to hear, the whispers may be virtually inaudible. But to write poetry is to listen and watch for significant images, to make audible the inner whisperings, to reach deeper inward for those subtle intuitions, sensings, images, which can be released from the unconscious mind through the creativity of writing. In this way, a writer may come to know her deeper self, below the surface of the words. Poetry can be a means to access suppressed recognitions, a way to explore difficult understandings which might otherwise be buffeted out of consciousness through the fear-laden processes of repression – through avoidance, denial, forgetting.
She identifies here the impulse to politics and protest as emerging from our unconscious desires, a kind of knowing arising within the body which impels us towards action to get our needs met. When the poem reminds us of our unmet needs it activates our drives, our libido – towards what we long for -whether that is individual, social, communal or global. Rich offers here a basic premise of her thought, that we need to listen within for this language of the body, this way of knowing,. Indeed, our lives depend on such ways of knowing: ‘our skin is alive with signals; our lives and our deaths are inseparable from the release or blockage of our thinking bodies’.(1) In the sixties Richworked hard to create a poetry and a language which would reach out to others, which would allow hera means to release her own passion into language, and so to forge an activist will for radical change: The will to change begins in the body not in the mind My politics is in my body, accruing and expanding with every act of resistance and each of my failures Locked in the closet at 4 years old I beat the wall with my body that act is in me still(2) Rich engages directly with the struggle to release herself from a colonising language, the ‘so-called common language’, – a patriarchal language that utters the old script over and over’, an abstracting, dualistic language that splits mind from body and tames and disembodies both poetry and passion -a language that violates the integrity and meanings of its speakers, delegitimates its underprivileged users and disintegrates identity and coherence – whether of individuals, groups, races or whole cultures – the scream of an illegitimate voice It has ceased to hear itself, therefore it asks itself How do I exist? The transformation of such silences into language and action becomes an underlying theme which becomes more and more compelling, and her poetry gives voice to a deep hungry longing for ‘moving’ words, rather than words which fail to recognise, understand or articulate the meanings of ‘illegitimate users Let me have this dust, these pale clouds dourly lingering, these words moving with ferocious accuracy like the blind child’s fingers or the new-born infant’s mouth violent with hunger (Meditations for a Savage Child) Only the embodied word speaks from these depths of primal desire and what she actively apprehends through her senses – a relative, context bound ever-changing truth – is freshly called into being each moment. From the ‘wildness’ of the unblocked, impassioned, embodied word a new perspective may be created, different emphases may be given value, new figures may spring into focus and so the ground shifts.
By the seventies, a commitment to articulating women’s experience will provide feminists with the material ground for political organisation. The refusal to limit political perspectives to those produced within a male-defined culture brings a new focus on women’s bodily specificity: Women’s’ lives and experiences are different to men’s, and so women’s’ specific, body-based experiential-perceptual fields will also be different. The task for feminism became one of ‘hearing’ women into speech; of returning to the writings of women in history to explore their biologically grounded experience so as to organise politically. In Of Woman Born, we find Rich pointing to the female body as a crucial resource for an expanding consciousness: of women’s oppression female biology…has far more radical implications than we have yet come to appreciate. Patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications.
The feminist vision has recoiled from female biology for these reasons; it will, I believe, come to view our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny. In order to live a fully human life we require not only control of our bodies (though control is a prerequisite); we must touch the unity and resonance of our physicality, our bond with the natural order, the corporeal ground of our intelligence.(3) This stance was to call forth a chorus of critical condemnation. Elaine Showalter, in her important essay ‘Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness’, was to see Rich’s emphasis on ‘confession’ and the body as ‘cruelly prescriptive. She comments: ‘there is a sense in which the exhibition of bloody wounds becomes an initiation ritual quite separate and disconnected from critical insight.'(4) Back to the body: essentialism and the political task Many saw Rich’s strategy as biologistic and essentialist, and therefore unhelpful to the cause – but how far is writing which explores female specificity to be condemned? To Hester Eisenstein, ‘the view of woman as a eternal “essence” represented a retreat from the fundamentally liberating concept of woman as agent, actor, and subject, rather than object’.(5) And yet, as Diana Fuss has suggested, ‘essentialism can be deployed effectively in the service of both idealist and materialist, progressive and reactionary , mythologising and resistive discourses.'(6) The conceptualisation of our own bodies is not some kind of fixed absolute, but rather, is a construct that is being continually reformulated, and whose meanings may, for well or ill, be culturally engendered. The female body is of course always already mediated in and through language.
How we understand our bodies is continually being shaped within the psychical and social meanings circulating in culture, just as our view of ourselves is constructed in relation to specific temporal and geographic contexts. We all may internalise disparaging and harassing myths and messages to our continuing distress. However, ‘the body’ as such is far from being a conception, ‘beyond the reaches of historical change, immutable and consequently outside the field of political intervention.'(7) To take such a view is itself ultimately reductive and deterministic in that it refuses the very possibility of political intervention. In Braidotti’s words: ‘a feminist woman theoretician who is interested in thinking about sexual differences and the feminine today cannot afford not to be essentialist.’ Neither can women afford to disembody sexual difference in any project concerned with female subjectivity. As the ‘threshold of subjectivity’ and ‘the point of intersection, as the interface between the biological and the social’, the body is the site or location for the construction of the subject in relation to other subjects.(8) Rich was initially drawn to the body of woman to formulate her strategic response to misogyny with what Braidotti was later to call ‘the positive project of turning difference into a strength, of affirming its positivity’.(9) but was later to withdraw from this trajectory of her thought.
I think she could have trusted the intelligence of her earlier political instincts. – But lets explore this charge of essentialism more deeply: In Of Woman Born, Rich is clearly not suggesting that women are born to be mothers or that our biology is our destiny – far from it. Being a good mother is most emphatically not a natural, biologically determined given – Rich is at pains to stress that ‘We learn, often through painful self-discipline and self-cauterization those qualities which are supposed to be “innate” in us: patience, self-sacrifice, the willingness to repeat endlessly the small, routine chores of socialising a human being’.(10) In no sense is any biologically essentialist assumption made that women possess in their natures the qualities of nurturant caring. In Rich’s thought, as we have seen, it is a quality learned only with difficulty, often at the cost of a serious loss of self:, especially the self of the writer: As she points out: ‘.it can be dangerously simplistic to fix upon “nurturance” as a special strength of women, which need only be released into the larger society to create a new human order.(11) Biology has not endowed women with an essential femininity, there is no biologically given essence that determines that the mother will be a nurturant caregiver, or be virtuous and loving towards her children. To present Rich’s arguments, as Janet Sayers did in her book, Biological Politics, as grounded in ‘the celebration of female biology and of the essential femininity to which it supposedly gives rise’, is to seriously misread her work.(12) Rich’s arguments, rather, imply that the maternal body, as she sees it, is lived: it is bound up in its specificity with the realms of the social and the political and is a crucial site of struggle in which psychoanalytic, sexual, technological, economic, medical, legal, and other cultural institutions contest for power. Sayers addresses her own failure to give due recognition to the importance of psychoanalytic theory in her later book Sexual Contradictions (1986), yet continues to condemn Rich (as she does Irigaray) for the sin of essentialism and, in so doing, compounds the slippages of her position. Rich is again criticised for ‘affirming a particular cultural representation and image of femininity..of woman as a plenitude of sexuality’ – which seems to me to miss the point on a grand scale.(13) Sayers reductively dismisse …