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Adrienne Rich When We Dead Awaken Essay

Adrienne Rich, the poet, essayist, and feminist, died last week. When I learned of her death, I was, of course, sadden, and then her words about revision—“[r]e-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction…”[1] came to mind. It wasn’t too odd that her words came to me, because these words from her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” are never too far from my mind. It was through Rich’s essay that I really understood the meaning of revision as a continuous process.

Although Rich’s work has influenced my work as a feminist writer on many levels and in many ways, it is this concept of re-seeing or re-visioning that I carry into the writing classroom. I work to move my students away from thinking that drafting and revision are about getting to the perfect text as quickly as possible. I ask them to think of the texts they create as never done; to see their work as ever-changing pieces of writing. I encourage my students to acknowledge, to articulate, to examine the eyes they see, read, and understand with. I do this by writing “revision” on the board as “Re-Vision.” I do this by designing exercises that ask them to re-see what they have written.  I do this by paraphrasing Rich—Remember, revision is not about fixing or correcting. It’s about the act of re-seeing.   

If you haven’t read “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” (of if you haven’t read it in a while) I encourage you to do so. You will find the piece in many anthologies, but also here at this link: http://www.nbu.bg/webs/amb/american/5/rich/writing.htm.

 As Rich invites us to return to “old texts” with fresh eyes, I invite you to share your “old texts,” here, with all of us. If there is a text that has influenced your work as a writer and a teacher of writing, please share it with us.   

 


[1] From Adrienne Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” from On Lies, Secret, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

Reflection: When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision

I'm trying to keep track of what I read and what I think about it and I had to return my library books, so now I'm presenting you with a bit of my self-directed study in Twentieth-Century American Poetics (I'm using the book edited by Gioia and others). My hope is to be able to formulate, despite the fact that it might change in the next week, by the end of reading and writing about the essays in this book (and others maybe), my own poetic theory or something.


on Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken”: Writing as Re-Vision, 1971


According to Adrienne Rich, Henrik Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken is about the male creative have made of woman and woman’s awakening to that use. Like his contemporary, Bernard Shaw, Rich invites us to consider what will happen to society/culture “when we dead awaken.” (Note: I am currently reading the play, and while certain Rich’s synopsis is valid and likely an example of re-Vision, I would wager most critics or fans of the piece would say it was a bit more “universal”—but read on to find out what Rich thinks of that.)

Rich uses this idea of waking in the sense of opening one’s eyes and she transitions quickly to a call for Re-vision which is the “act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction.” Re-vision, is not just a poetic theory, but a political call for action, and it calls toward women, the “special” ones –those in academia and of certain economic classes—and artists, to validate their struggles and privileges by helping less “special” women through a Re-vision of the culture through critique of its old texts, writing of new texts (and text here means “art”) and perhaps not just history but historiography. “We need to know the writing of the past,” Rich declares meaning, I believe, both that we need to know past writing and that we need to know how the past has been written down or transmitted to us. “We need to know the writing of the past…not to pass on tradition but to break its hold over us.” Underlying Rich’s entire point is the faith that life will imitate art or that, “What we see, we see/ and seeing is changing.” Rich seems so much more optimistic than I expected; I hear her saying under all these other words, yes, poetry matters.

Rich’s essay moves from the broad, the public, the this-affects-us-all to the narrow, the private, the-this-affects-me. As she navigates us from the one point to the other, she talks about the misnaming of woman and her needs by male-dominated culture. Writing is re-naming and re-visioning. Critiquing tradition and literature allows us to see how “we have been led to imagine ourselves” and the way we live so that “we can begin to see and name and live afresh.”

In this in-between moment, when Rich is trying to connect me/us/our with her, I begin to feel disoriented. Rich was born to a doctor/professor at Johns Hopkins and graduated from Radcliffe after winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Four years after that book was published, she published a second. By the time she wrote what I have in my lap as part of an anthology of poetics, she had published at least three more books. She says she has been allowed to think of herself as special because she did not threaten the male privilege of naming her “special,” but at least the Man had named her and saw her as a poet which she desired to be named. In a society driven, it seems to me, not by art but by the exchange of commodities, by having a commodity, a book (or being given a book, which is sort of what a first book prize does) she can no longer threaten the male system by which things are named (nominated and dominated). For poets, a book currently acts as a name-tag or museum placard. Without one, who knows what to call us, what I am? I am neither saying, yet, that to be liberated for the pursuit of Truth or something like it, something like poetry, calls for a united denunciation and refusal of prizes, books, publication in little magazines nor that the prizes, books, and publications make one less of an artist, at least that wasn’t my intention. I’m still thinking about these things because I am young in multiple ways and can’t fight off the desire for recognition, to think myself special and have others think it, and silly as it might be to the more educated, the wiser, the harder, the ones that have been there-thought that, I’d like someone to say, hey listen, she’s a poet, so yes, what she says matters.

Rich’s dilemma to “consider [herself] a failed woman or a failed poet” allows my return to her obviously well-intentioned example of herself as a woman working under male-created assumptions and judgments. One assumption: “poetry should be ‘universal.’” What Rich realized is that “universal” meant “nonfemale.” Rich uses her private life to illustrate how the assumptions of what a woman should be/do and what poetry is/does are male-constructed myths that we can (I believe she means should and are and will but I’m not there yet, not entirely) break from through writing, through our own creations. The creative process and the traditional female role proved difficult for Rich to synthesize (and this continues to be the case for female artists that have also chosen—how much it was actual, informed choice is debatable—to marry and have children). This part reminds me of Kristeva’s “Women’s Time,” because it has to do with our language being connected with time or how our time is put to use:
“I was writing very little…partly from the discontinuity of female life with its attention to small chores, errands, work that others constantly undo, small children’s constant needs…my anger and frustration were hard to acknowledge in or out of poems because in fact I cared a great deal about my husband and my children…For a poem to coalesce,…there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed—freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched way.”

Rich includes her own early poems to show how she was subconsciously working with themes of thwarted feminine imagination, male/female dichotomies, etc. which she now works with consciously. The formally and visually constrained poetry of her student days seems to have been unraveled, snipped, torn, stretched until it became something that seemed more to her like a poem than an exercise. There is craft present in “Thinking of Caroline Herschel…,” the most recent of the poems she provides in the essay, but it is a craft of deconstruction and fragmentation. It is the demolition before the new house is built, an obvious try at breaking away from male language and allusion in order to construct her own. I’m not well steeped in Rich’s poetry, but that’s a part of this process. I will read her with purpose. I wonder has the renovation continued and what stage is it in now.

Rich speaks about her life and her own poetry, I think, in order to validate the personal in poetry, the I. She is in essence saying that speaking from one’s experiences isn’t necessarily self-indulgent but can be, in fact, political. Women writing about women and about themselves is perhaps more political than men writing about the same things that make up the news. “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 (which, Rich suggested, is the model for all oppression). The enemy is always outside the self, the struggle somewhere else,” she says. Re-Vision might be another way of saying that in the male myth, the male-centric narrative, it’s the wars, the Big Things that matter, but the little things, the women (and “women” stands in for much more than that which is female) who are washing their clothes or hanging someone else’s clothes out to dry, are part of the story. We just have to see that it’s so and tell it and re-tell it, because that part of the story matters.

I thought this was a well-written piece, still relevant over thirty years later, and Rich put into concise, quotable sentences things that had been less organized, but already present, in my mind.

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