Coming of Age Through Adrienne Rich

In 1975, when I began my graduate work at a large Midwestern university, Adrienne Rich’s groundbreaking essay collections hadn’t been published yet. That year, my twenty-fourth, had been a watershed. Not only had I started a Master’s Program in Indiana, but I had been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, and decided to become a vegetarian. After spending six years in Manhattan, I also came out as a lesbian during my first few months in West Lafayette. My whole world was changing. And then I discovered the brilliant writing of Adrienne Rich.

Actually, when I came out as a lesbian, I came out as a lesbian feminist, subscribing wholeheartedly to Rich’s formulation of a “lesbian continuum,” in which lesbianism represents the ultimate expression of one’s woman identification and feminist political ideology. I was particularly stirred by Rich’s affirmation, in a 1976 speech before an academic body, that “It is the lesbian in us who is creative, for the dutiful daughter of the fathers is only a hack.” I promised myself that I would not become a hack.

I had spent my college years in New York as an ardent feminist. Having been raised in upstate New York by my mother and grandmother, both single parents, I had seen the oppression and resistance of women firsthand, so when I arrived at Barnard College in the fall of 1969, I threw myself in to the feminist ferment that greeted me. The riots at Columbia had occurred the year before I entered Barnard, and, unbeknownst to me, the Stonewall Uprising had occurred that summer. A nascent gay liberation movement was forming at Columbia—a sparsely populated gay lounge occupied the first floor of one of Columbia’s dorms—and Barnard had a lesbian organization, though I was too afraid to attend any of its meetings. I flirted with lesbianism during the time I spent in New York, especially after I graduated, but didn’t really know how to break in to a world that both frightened and attracted me. I moved to Indiana, seeking geographical change, intellectual growth and, I now believe, an unspecified personal and political fulfillment

In a course on American Woman Poets that I took during the first semester of graduate school, Adrienne Rich did not appear on the syllabus. I wrote instead on Elizabeth Bishop, although I had no idea then that she was a lesbian. Such were the subterfuges and obfuscations of literary scholarship in the 1970s. Several semesters later, in a Twentieth Century Literature course, Rich still wasn’t on the syllabus, but the professor allowed students to write an essay on a poem of their choice. I jumped at the chance to work on Rich’s “Phenomenology of Anger.” I wish I still had that paper, my only academic effort devoted exclusively to the writer who was then changing the course of my life. Written in the New Critical style that retained its full legitimacy at the time, I’m sure it focused on poetic devices, commended the immediacy of the poem’s urban imagery, and ignored much else that was messy and visceral and real about it.

After finishing my Master’s Degree, I moved to Boston and began to live my life as an open lesbian. The six years in which I lived in Boston—from 1979 until 1985—provided my greatest exposure to Adrienne Rich, as poet, thinker, and lesbian icon. It is difficult to adequately convey the impact she had on the Boston lesbian feminist world during those years. Rich’s essay collection On Lies, Secrets and Silence was published in 1979, and included essays like “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying, ” a work calling for a “new ethics,” and “a new morality” for women. Rich cautions her readers that, “Truthfulness, honor is not something that springs ablaze of itself; it has to be created between people.” I remember buying this essay as a pamphlet at New Words, the feminist bookstore in Inman Square, Cambridge, and devouring it as I began to formulate my own ideas about ethics and conduct in lesbian relationships.

On Lies, Secrets and Silence contains other timeless life lessons. In an essay on Anne Sexton, for example, Rich warns women against artistic self-trivialization and imitation, misplaced compassion, horizontal hostility, and a trine of addictions: to male approval, to the idea of sacrificial love and, finally, to depression. In “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” Rich reframes the image of her nineteenth century predecessor explaining that Dickinson “was neither eccentric nor quaint; she was determined to survive, to use her powers, to practice necessary economies.” To that end, Rich clarifies that Dickinson “carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time” implicitly advising her readers to do the same. Similarly, in the concluding essay, Rich identifies the ranking of oppressions, the act of elevating one cause as worthy of attention to the exclusion or diminishment of others, as the destructive practice that it is.

Adrienne Rich was everywhere in Boston during those years, quite literally. She and her partner, Michelle Cliff, had moved to Montague, MA, so she would read at venues like Sanders Theater at Harvard, speak on panels and participate in anti-racist workshops at the Cambridge YWCA. She was more than words on a page or ideas in a pamphlet, more than verse, but blood and flesh.

I had joined the collective of a feminist journal, The Second Wave, where Rich herself had published years before. During one of our weekly meetings in the basement of the Harvard Square Unitarian Universalist Church, it emerged that another member actually knew “Adrienne and Michelle.” We were impressed, even a little in awe. As the writings of Karl Marx might be quoted in Marxist circles, Rich’s work had become such a common reference point that often when a political or personal question arose, someone would chime in that “Adrienne Rich would say….”

I remember a collective member quipping about “Saint Adrienne.” She was right to make fun of our worshipful attitudes—but it didn’t diminish them.

In October 1981, a fellow collective member and I took the train from Boston to serve as delegates to a Women in Print Conference in Washington, D.C. Adrienne Rich was one of the participants. I had never been in the presence of such a dynamic group of grassroots activists, all dedicated to a cause I fervently believed in: women-centered literary production and publication. During one of the conference’s plenary meetings, it was decided that all speakers would begin by identifying themselves by name and position in the class structure. Several women offered class confusion. They had been born into circumstances no longer applicable to their adult economic situation. But when Rich rose to comment, she began, “My name is Adrienne Rich and I know I’m middle class.”

It was this unflinching recognition of her own privileges that I appreciated most in Rich, combined with her willingness to root out prejudice in its most covert repositories. Almost equally important for me was her willingness to name and challenge the heterosexism of popular work by women writers, like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I had felt the sting of Lessing’s character’s description of an emotion that can turn women “bitter, or Lesbian or solitary” when I read the novel in my New York years as I practiced heterosexuality and struggled with my attraction to women. Years later when I saw Rich’s critique in her groundbreaking essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence” my early discomfort was validated. Rich helped me to recognize Lessing’s insidious lesbophobic caricature for the distortion it is. As a lesbian I had felt this heterosexism, but Rich validated my perception, helped me to hone and share my own critical insights.

In her essays and speeches, Rich introduced me to what has become my bedrock political belief: that feminism rests on the struggle to free all people, including those marginalized by race, national and economic circumstances, age, sexuality, level of ability, and immigration status. I have brought this belief into classes and political struggles over the last forty years. This definition is so much a part of my outlook that I am surprised when others view feminism as anything less than the far-reaching and multivalent challenge and commitment that I believe it to be. I have little patience with those cultural critics who equate feminism with an intolerant parochialism. I know better. And I learned it and continue to learn it from Adrienne Rich.

In “Arts of the Possible” Rich reflects, “Any writer has necessary questions as to whether her words deserve to stand, whether his are worth reading. But it’s also been a question, for me, of feeling that almost everything that has fertilized and sustained my work is in danger. I have known that this is, in fact, the very material I have to work with: it is not ‘in spite of the times’ that I will write, but I will try to write out of my time.” Adrienne Rich persisted at this task she had set herself until the end of her life. The burden is on us to preserve and sustain her vision.

About Anne Charles

Anne Charles lives and writes in Montpelier, Vermont.