Today I learned that one of my favorite poets, Adrienne Rich, has died. If you have not read her work you should do so now. I mean it, go read her poetry right now! “Diving into the Wreck” and “Aunt’s Jennifer’s Tigers” are two of my favorites, and every time I read them I feel, to quote Emily Dickinson, “as if the top of my head were taken off.” With her passing, I wanted to mention two of the ways, out of many, in which she has influenced me.
First of all, Rich helped me discover what a great poet Emily Dickinson is. Wait, you may ask, shouldn’t reading Emily Dickinson’s poems themselves be the way you discover what great poet she is? Well you see there are a few problems with how Dickinson’s work is presented. First, many of her poems were revised to be more “correct,” and secondly what often is anthologized or put into school textbooks are her “nice” poems or as Rich describe them, “Dickinson’s ‘little-girl’ poems, her kittenish tones… or the poems about bees or robins.” Due to this presentation of Dickinson’s work, I dismissed her. She seemed too nice and girly for my taste.
Then I read Rich’s essay, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson.” There Rich points out the different ways that Dickinson’s work has been manipulated. I discovered that Dickinson could be angry, violent, and even sexy. Rich also expresses her frustration at the ways that Dickinson’s genius had been dismissed—the search for a story of heartbreak to explain why on earth a woman would write. Rich revealed to me the myriad ways the work of this woman, and many other women, had been dismissed, and in doing so I discovered the authors and poets I was overlooking but who I desperately needed.
Secondly, Rich helped me figure out what being a woman meant for me. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, growing up I often felt I was alien in that I didn’t like or enjoy the things that girls were supposed to enjoy. Because of this sense of wrongness I was often defensive—dismissing the interests of other girls as “silly” or “unimportant.” If I wasn’t like the other girls, there was a certain comfort in looking down on them. However, one of the many problems that come from a girl internalizing that sort of misogyny is that she mistrusts and even hates herself. Both of which I did. I feared being something as detestable as a “girl,” and wanted to prove that I was some how different.
This phenomenon is common, and Rich describes in “When We Dead Awaken” when she says:
We seem to be special women here, we have liked to think of ourselves as special, and we have known that men would tolerate, even romanticize us as special, as long as our words and actions didn’t threaten their privilege of tolerating or rejecting us according to their ideas of what a special woman ought to be. An important insight of the radical women’s movement, for me, has been how divisive and how ultimately destructive is this myth of the special woman, who is also the token woman.
I return to this quote again and again. For one, the reason that I felt different was because I was using an oppressive definition for what woman should be. Also, in dismissing those women, who I thought I was different from, and thinking of myself as some how special, I was only reinforcing those harmful stereotypes.
Because of Adrienne Rich, I was able to accept that I was a woman even if I was nothing like the women I saw on TV and in movies. Because of Adrienne Rich, I learned to respect women whose goals where the exact opposite mine. And these revelations are just from her essays, I’m not even able to articulate the power that her poetry has over me.