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Adrienne Rich on women, writing:

December 5, 2009

[Some excerpts from “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” – an essay nearly four decades old, yet sadly as relevant as it was when she wrote it.]

* * *

“The specter of … male judgment, along with the misnaming and thwarting of her needs by a culture controlled by males, has created problems for the woman writer: problems of contact with herself, problems of language and style, problems of energy and survival.

In rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time in some years, I was astonished at the sense of effort, of pains taken, of dogged tentativeness, in the tone of that essay. And I recognized that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and in other women. It is the tone of a woman almost in touch with her anger, who is determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached, and even charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity. Virginia Woolf is addressing an audience of women, but she is acutely conscious – as she always was – of being overheard by Morgan and Lytton and Maynard Keynes and for that matter by her father, Leslie Stephen. She drew the language out into an exacerbated thread in her determination to have her own sensibility yet protect it from those masculine presences. Only at rare moments in that essay do you hear the passion in her voice; she was trying to sound as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare, because that is the way the men of the culture thought a writer should sound.

No male writer has written primarily or even largely for women, or with the sense of women’s criticism as a consideration when he chooses his materials, his theme, his language. But to a lesser or greater extent, every woman writer has written for men even when, like Virginia Woolf, she was supposed to be addressing women.

If we have come to the point when this balance might begin to change, when women can stop being haunted, not only by “convention and propriety” but by internalized fears of being and saying themselves, then it is an extraordinary moment for the woman writer-and reader.”

* * *

“I had been taught that poetry should be ‘universal,’ which meant, of course, nonfemale. Until then I had tried very much not to identify myself as a female poet. Over two years I wrote a ten-part poem called ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law’ (1958-1960), in a longer looser mode than I’d ever trusted myself with before. It was an extraordinary relief to write that poem. It strikes me now as too literary, too dependent on allu-sion; I hadn’t found the courage yet to do without authorities, or even to use the pronoun ‘I’-the woman in the poem is always ‘she.’ ”

* * *

“Both the victimization and the anger experienced by women are real, and have real sources, everywhere in the environment, built into society, language, the structures of thought. They will go on being trapped and explored by poets, among others. We can neither deny them, nor will we rest there. A new generation of women poets is already working out of the psychic energy released when women begin to move out towards what the feminist philosopher Mary Daly has described as the “new space” on the boundaries of patriarchy. Women are speaking to and of women in these poems, out of a newly released courage to name, to love each other, to share risk and grief and celebration.

To the eye of a feminist, the work of Western male poets now writing reveals a deep, fatalistic pessimism as to the possibilities of change, whether societal or personal, along with a familiar and threadbare use of women (and nature) as redemptive on the one hand, threatening on the other; and a new tide of phallocentric sadism and overt woman-hating which matches the sexual brutality of recent films. “Political” poetry by men remains stranded amid the struggles for power among male groups; in condemning U.S. imperialism or the Chilean junta the poet can claim to speak for the oppressed while remaining, as male, part of a system of sexual oppression. The enemy is always outside the self, the struggle somewhere else.”

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