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When We Dead Awaken

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 2 months ago

When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-vision (1971)

Adrienne Rich

Re-vision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society. A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us; and how we can begin to see--and therefore live--afresh.  A change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if we are not going to see the old political order reassert itself in every new revolution. We need to know the writing of the past, and to know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us…

    In those years formalism was part of the strategy—like asbestos gloves, it allowed me to handle materials I couldn’t pick up barehanded…

    In closing I want to tell you about a dream I had last summer. I dreamed I was asked to read my poetry at a mass women’s meeting, but when I began to read, what came out were the lyrics of a blues song.  I share this dream with you because it seemed to me to say something about the problems and the future of the woman writer, and probably of women in general.  The awakening of consciousness in not like the crossing of a frontier—one step and you are in another country.  Much of woman’s poetry has been of the nature of the blues song: a cry of pain, of victimization, or a lyric of seduction.  And today, much poetry by women—and prose for that matter—is charged with anger.  I think we need to go through that anger, and we will betray our own reality if we try, as Virginia Woolf was trying, for an objectivity, a detachment, that would make us sound more like Jane Austen or Shakespeare.  We know more than Jane Austen or Shakespeare knew: more than Jane Austen because our lives are more complex, more than Shakespeare because we know more about the lives of women—Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf included.

    Both the victimization and the anger experiences 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 tapped 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 woman (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 of the oppressed while remaining, as male, part of the a system of sexual oppression.  The enemy is always outside the self, the struggle somewhere else.  The mood of isolation, self-pity, and self-imitation that pervades ‘nonpolitical’ poetry suggests that a profound change in masculine consciousness will have to precede any new male poetic—or other—inspiration. The creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out; what remains is its self-generating energy for destruction.  As women, we have our work cut out for us.

When We Dead Awaken.doc 

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