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Essential Essays, Adrienne Rich

June 26, 2018

Essential Essays

Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry.  Adrienne Rich. Norton, 2018


5 stars–FAVORITE

A collection of writings by one of the most significant feminists of the 1970s, a woman who lead us in creating the concepts and words “to find our voices” to speak out as women.

For women like me whose lives were changed by feminism, the movement’s most radical leaders were not those who were always on the front lines of forcing change.  They were a smaller group of women like Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Audre Lord who were finding the words and concepts to talk about how women had been silenced and were now developing the language to talk about their own experiences. For them, language matters. As they revealed, generic male language did not really include women.  Definitions for what it means to be human were developed by men and for men and stressed qualities that society had defined as belonging to men only.  In their poems, essays and books, Rich and the others sought to view life as known by women, and to create conversations honoring who women were.

Adrienne Rich was a poet and literary critic, gradually moving beyond those genres into prose.  In the first essays in this new collection, she writes about others, like Emily Dickinson, looking at them from a different perspective than earlier scholars had used.  By doing so she began to show us what a woman’s perspective could add to what we think we know.  Her book, Of Woman Born, focused on motherhood as rigid confining institution used by society to enforce its goal and motherhood as an experience rich and rewarding and deeply satisfying.  This book, excerpted in the collection, was significant for feminist, who until that time were being silent on mothering, for fear of “becoming our mothers” and choosing not to have children themselves.  The later essays republished here are less well-known and reveal how Rich built on her radical concepts after having initially introduced them.

Sandra Gilbert has edited this collection and written a fine introduction about Rich and her life.  Gilbert herself is an impressive feminist literary critic who has written valuable surveys of women’s writings in English and its place in  traditional literary history.

As we try to survive our present “war on women,” the republication of feminists like Rich must again become part of our conversations about what being a woman.  I am grateful to see books like Rich’s essays reappearing.  I applaud those who made its publication possible.   This book is not simply is historical value.  It is a book that is vital today as we deal with changing gender roles and the ongoing silencing of women.  I strongly urge that it be read and reread by women of all ages and by all men who also care about what the world looks like from the viewpoint of women.

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